The Future of Love

How will they remember love?
How will they remember love?

Many people look upon those who express love for characters as having “given up” or “retreated from reality.” While it’s true that they have turned their backs on their fellow flesh-and-blood humans, it is woefully inaccurate to suggest they have “given up” on romance and love.


If the notion seems ridiculous, consider: the annals of relationship advice columns are filled with rejoinders for people to not “settle.” “Settling,” in this sense, is defined by the tension between insisting upon high standards for a partner and the realistic awareness of what it is reasonable to ask for. One’s own limitations play a part in the latter, but the bulk of it is a sense of “what is out there.” If you’re dating a real, live person, you are limited not only by theoretical design specifications (what is possible for a human to be or to achive at peak condition) but also the further, much more serious limitation of availability. Taken to its logical end, a refusal to “settle” can mean a refusal to date a human.

The lover of the 2D loves not because he (or she) lacks dignity or self-respect, but because he has an excess of dignity. He does not want to put up with imperfections. Deviations from his ideal in a lover do not fill him with amusement or delight; they instead evoke contempt, loathing, sadness, or pity. In the 1990s this was briefly called the “Martha Stewart problem,” after the perfectionist celebrity who went through a string of boyfriends and spouses. The only right and acceptable spouse for her was a perfect spouse, and that of course does not exist. Similarly, the right and acceptable spouse for a lover of the artificial descends from custom-tailored perfection, but rather than throw himself through a series of ugly breakups and uglier court battles, he opts to take his feelings to the virtual world.

Guy meets girl, or guy meets robot?
Guy meets girl, or guy meets robot?

A serious relationship between humans has a degree of give-and-take involved. There will always be times when you are not pleased with your mate; there will almost invariably be habits or mannerisms that you really wish he or she didn’t have. An artificial lover, eminently programmable and infinitely malleable, does not impose any such burden. It is the purest expression of unconditional love many people will find this side of the grave, and perhaps most seductively, it does not require anything in return. An artificial personality, unless programmed to, will not care if you take out the trash on time or remember to buy it flowers. Psychotherapist Jerry Brooker explained, “Someone who falls in love with objects can control that relationship on their own terms. Their objects will not let them down.”

Sure, it’s a simulacrum of love, not real, but practically speaking, why should that be an objection? We live in an age where crimes against virtual people are punished by real governments, potential profits gained or lost dictate the flow of massive sums of real money, and debate sees real people hotly divided over the rights and abuses of virtual persons (corporations.) In this context the unreal is not less than the real; rather, if anything, it is often more powerful and more privileged than the real. Why should matters of the heart be any different?

The phenomenon of interacting with the inhuman as human is not limited to anime otaku or the socially inept. JaYoung Sung at the Georgia Institute of Technology published a study about Roombas that suggested people like to customize even the most non-human of robots to give them “personality.” Sometimes the Roombas were given skins as “rewards” for enduring trauma or completing tasks, and some owners talked to their roombas as they would a pet. Even flat discs that exist solely to vaccum floors can be anthropomorphized, so why not android or gynoid robots designed specifically for that purpose?

Build-a-bride? It could happen.

Object social rights may see progress within our lifetimes.  Artificial intelligence researcher David Levy at the University of Maastricht has even gone on record saying, “My forecast is that around 2050, the state of Massachusetts will be the first jurisdiction to legalize marriages with robots.”

So the next time you encounter an article about marrying a video game character or a movie about dating a real doll, don’t assume the principals are simply retreating from reality. For all we know, they are the wave of the future, and our descendants will hail them as trailblazers and visionaries – that is, assuming some people still settle for mundane, flesh-and-blood partners, and produce offspring.

16 thoughts on “The Future of Love”

  1. Hm, so in a way, the 2D lover is one who can be controlled, molded, and, well, loved, in the image we want. I’ve always wondered, though, whether such one-sided and unreciprocated feelings can be truly called love. It takes two to tango…does it, too, take two to love?

    -scrolls down a bit more- Hey, you mentioned some of the same stuff! XD Though I do insist that passive or imagined ‘love’ isn’t the same as unconditional love, which is in itself active.

    “suggested people like to customize even the most non-human of robots to give them “personality.”” –> people can do this to anything. That’s part of what’s so great about our imagination. -wry- A cup, my laptop (I swear they have different personalities.), my Firefox, my Google Chrome… >.> But that doesn’t mean the stuff in question can reciprocate. If you’re talking about something like Chii (Chobits), Eve no Jikan, and or A.I., that raises more questions, though..

    I have to admit, I clicked on the Roomba link because I was wondering how disk-shaped robots could get skins. (Human skin?! >.>)

  2. It’s easy to argue that falling for a 2D character isn’t a psychosis, but isn’t it just an excuse to withdraw from society? Some people love their cars, but don’t spend every waking moment in the garage. Everyone builds a home that reflects their desires and needs, but not everyone shuts themselves in (by which I mean, “ignores the presence of others” more so than “never goes outside the house”) and pretends that they don’t need what’s outside most of the time.

    If it’s true that humans are social animals and need interaction with other [live] animals, then it’s clearly unhealthy. Of course, plenty of humans do things they know aren’t healthy, and if it sounds like I’m judging this specific group, that’s not my intent. I think a love of objects is as real as any other, despite perhaps being sedate in comparison. I just know that I couldn’t get by on 2D love without a steady degradation of my mental health, and it’s natural to suspect that they couldn’t, either.

    But yeah, of course putting AI in the mix could change everything.

  3. Thanks for your responses!

    @jenn – If true, that would be long in horror, not romance. No; by “skins” I meant customized looks, accomplished in this case with stickers.

    As to love, well, as a practical matter, how do you know if someone loves you?  You have their actions to go on, and in the case of a robot, the actions will mimic those of a human in love.

    @TheDigitalBug – Indeed, and as far back as legends of Pygmalion and Galatea, or Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Blodeuwedd, there have been stories of men falling in love with women who are not human, but created.

    @Matt Brown – Certainly conventional wisdom depicts this as unhealthy.  However, conventional wisdom also historically depicted things as disparate as drinking milk, eating tomatoes, and allowing moonlight to touch your bare skin as unhealthy.  That’s not to completely discount it – after all, conventional wisdom holds that consuming arsenic is bad for you, and it truly is – but should we say something which has never really been done before is a bad thing just based on our instincts and our ideas of what is “normal”?  I think it’s too soon to judge, and the technologies involved (including, as you mentioned, AI) are still evolving.

    If Professor Levy’s prediction comes true, then we’ll find out.

  4. haha you are right. i dont agree with this. the problem with this kind of love is it is completely selfish and it assumes that we know what we want in a mate. so what if a mate has 34 b’s is awesome and cooks and cleans and is great in bed. that does sounds ridiculously awesome but part of being in love is what you can do for the other person, how you as two people grow together. to assume a perfect mate is to assume that we on the other end is perfect and that is not true. to not have those battles or compromise or those push forward means we will fail to grow as a person on our end. while the droid, will be whatever we wanted it to be at that time when we thought was perfect.

  5. I just can’t see the logic in this. At least with a customizable robot mate at some indeterminate point in the future, there would be a real interaction that mimics that of a normal human. I mean, I’m still uncomfortable with that thought, but if on the outside it looks like a “normal” human relationship, I don’t really have any logical arguments against it. It would be incredibly one-sided and selfish, but so are many real-life relationships.

    The problem lies in the situation of someone asserting their relationship with a two-dimensional, fictional character that does not have anything close to an imitation of real human consciousness. Not only is that relationship one-sided and selfish, but it does not even include actual interaction. The character exists only in the imagination of the creators and consumers, so its actual physical manifestations (the body-pillows, dating sims, what have you) can’t actually interact. It can’t give and take at all in the “relationship,” let alone hold a conversation. How can that possibly bring the kind of warmth into someone’s life that a real relationship can? It seems like nothing more than a shallow, meaningless replacement of a relationship that the person was unable to find in the real world.

    Also, I would caution you against over-analyzing these kinds of things through a philosophical lens. When you go into so many metaphors about robots and artificial intelligence, you run the risk of losing sight of the reality: there are people having “relationships” with static, two-dimensional fictional characters. As far as I’m concerned, that is not a relationship.

  6. No matter how one chooses to have their love expressed towards another, in the end, I don’t believe it is “love” or a “relationship” until it is a two-way street for both the individual in question and the object of their affection (pun intended). I agree that in the day and age we live it, one can no longer support the idea of a person retreating from reality in the matters of love. That’s because in my opinion, the idea of having a love interest is becoming more broad because of how the world is advancing, not due to the discrediting of reality.

    The idea of A.I. isn’t farfetched, but programmed or 2D love, though not entirely discredited as a future, normalized alternative, will still never be perfect. An android requires maintenance and is fallible. A 2D image will never move or change or tell you of their own volition “I love you.” It’s “the road less traveled” for now, but the more people refuse to accept the imperfections of the opposite gender, the less their own flaws and imperfections will become something of a crutch (read: excuse) for “settling” with an entity that won’t disappoint them…for a time.

  7. Seriously. Love of others versus love of the self dwindle very close to this territory. The inability to accept mismatches in personality, all those minor imperfections is what makes for a relationship based on effort. Without it, it is merely a extension of self-love, or even self deception. And while it is good to love onesself, it is highly questionable to merely grow with these elements as it likely promotes not growing at all. Is it “unhealthy” to love 2D? Likely not. But it certainly stunts personal growth through adverse conditions, which is what I personally see as a human gift. After all, pain is an essential part of the human evolutionary experience, and to deprive ourselves of that is to nullify that part. If anything, it only increases isolation and allows atrophy of ideas. Now if only my robot would fight back, now that would be something.

  8. i categorically disagree with the premise of this article. there is no excess of dignity in these individuals…it’s merely an excess of hubris. as a note, i have absolutely no qualms with forming a connection to an inanimate object, but only as an adjunct to human relationships.

    these people you refer to are simply pathetic. perhaps improper socialization as children has led to their maladroit interactions with humanity, but whatever it is, it’s unhealthy (anti-social = unhealthy). finding refuge in the arms of an artificial lover is merely a defensive mechanism to avoid the cognitive dissonance (i think i’m awesome! but i’m really a loser!) associated with being cognizant of their inherent imperfections.

    these people are not seeking “pure” love. perfection is an unnatural and unattainable state of being. these individuals are only after mindless, soulless, unequivocal, and unconditional acceptance of their own flaws. in essence, they are seeking an emotional slave. this is neither noble nor the wave of the future.

    these people just need to get over themselves and their insecurities.

  9. Great post, very interesting read and given my much to ponder. But I think ultimately Wintermuted nails it – an essential part of human social interactions is learning to deal with conflict, dissapointment and imperfection. The danger is less that people may be retreating with reality, and more that they retreat from humanity itself. And that’s a danger not just for themselves but for those around them. Social relationships is how we learn tolerance.

  10. @Tim Maughan – Interesting. But do all people need to learn that in their love lives? Isn’t tolerance more often something learned by friendship and acquaintance, rather than, say, dating someone of every race one ought to be tolerant of?

    @Tim00 – The premise of the article is that this is a real phenomenon, that experts are talking about it, and that some think that this behavior will only increase. Is that what you disagree with, factually? Or is it the idea that this can be reported neutrally, rather than in terms of condemnation? Does it bother you to think that some of those experts might be right?

    @wintermuted – I’m unsure that adversity should be mandatory. Certainly, heroes are only born through adversity. But also, heroes are often miserable. We don’t force people to choose a path of heroism, even if it makes them better people, so should we force people to choose the 3D because it makes them better?

    @Alex Ninamori, @Vampt Vo – Well, to quote the song: what is love? It’s not a well-defined concept, at least not in a way that everyone agrees upon.

    @azndood4you – Certainly that high standard for love is commendable. However, let’s also consider realism: if we offer people a choice between the sexy and devoted spouse you described, or a less attractive, more unpredictable, flawed, downright human alternative that involves a lot more work to attain, which will most people choose?

  11. @Mori – The most important element in all of this is reception. Identification of self is by proxy borne out of interaction with others, and thus challenges are a natural symptom of life itself. To merely dive into the sphere without external stimuli to assist others in finding what their true desires crave is not only counterproductive, but ultimately no different than emotional masturbation. There is no shortage of this on the internet obviously. We are challenged from birth, and while merely hoping for a more painless approach may seem inherently human, it is often at the expense of the self’s ability to cope. To eliminate the difficulty takes away so much and offers very little is my point. As much as I look forward to the evolution of love into bold new territories, it must be remembered that we are at our most optimal when we are faced with adversity.It is an essential component of the human experience. Who knows where it can all go? Only time will tell.

  12. @wintermuted

    Eminently reasonable. And yet, does not the slave occasionally look upon his slavery as the natural course of events? Does not Stockholm Syndrome take root in otherwise rational people? Do we not hear stories of people who only realize how much pain they lived in after corrective surgery took away its source? I am not so convinced of the rightness of our current way of life that I am willing to unilaterally condemn any radical change to it.

    You and Tim Maughan speak of the danger of retreating into the self – but this danger is also the opportunity to evolve. Improvement is possible. However events unfold, whether this is in the end an improvement or not, perhaps we will only truly know once it is available to us.

  13. I guess it depends on what one perceives as slavery as anything can under certain conditions. In this case, I’d say the deciding shackles can be biological/psychological in nature, as as such, require a reasonable amount of shift in evolution before such social leaps can make a smooth transition of this kind. But until then, trial and error stumbles ever forward with us requiring the joy and strife that is conflicting personality. Oddly, the image of Cobra’s Lady comes to mind.

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