Love, Sex and Artificial Intelligence

This post was originally written as a guest blogger for the erotic fiction blog [NSFW], Oh Get a Grip!

I love my computer. I’ll admit it. Does that mean I have a deep, meaningful relationship with it? Not so much. I like to think that I’ve gotten beyond a mere techno fetish into deeper considerations of how programmable, general-purposes computers are able to help us create beauty, discover meaning, and effect change.

Sure, it started more with a fascination for form and style rather than any sort of substance. My relationship with my computer, and computing in general, has taken time to evolve.

I guess it isn’t so different from the emotional relationships that characterize my rich social life as a human being. For those intriguing similarities, though, the notion of an intimate relationship with any kind of artificial construct still strikes me as preposterous.

Why is that?

Moore’s law, which describes the acceleration of raw computing power as a function of transistor density on a chip, has some researchers in machine intelligence drooling over finally achieving comparable raw computing power to that housed in our humble brain pans. Recent specialization in this field of research has shown promise on the necessary software to transform brute gigaflops into something approaching general intelligence. Despite the constant promise of artificial intelligence being just beyond the horizon for the past few decades, it actually does seem like we may hit a tipping point within our lifetime.

I still cannot see having an emotionally fulfilling relationship with a synthetic being. There are more optimistic researchers betting that intentionally and craftily inspiring emotional connections will form a valuable part of the repertoire of human-machine interaction in future systems, computational and robotic.

Donald Norman’s latest book, Emotional Design, Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, goes beyond his earlier efforts in understanding the rational basis for design. He explores how emotion can override reason and lead us to making irrational but inwardly satisfying decisions. His work and others in the same vein suggest value in exploiting that phenomenon to ease the frustrations many users encounter in existing hardware and software designs. It is not that emotionally designed products are better but they consciously tug at our inner chords to get us to put up with their other less endearing quirks.That’s a bit cynical but you can see the optimistic scenario easily enough. Couple thoughtful, rational design with compassionate emotional design and the potential boggles the mind. Not only would you get greater effectiveness or productivity, but you’d feel good as you used the tools that made those improvements possible.

MIT has been exploring these threads of social technology for quite a bit longer, most notably with the Kismet project. Little more than a robotic caricature of a face, Kismet and its researchers seek to discover some of the core components of our emotional interactions. To hear the researchers talk about Kismet, the results are surprising and compelling.

When presented with a noisy information channel, the human mind is adept at filling in the blanks. We have apparently evolved considerable neural machinery to pull off this feat. In emotional interactions, we may have similar but less well understood abilities. We want to project and fill in the emotional gaps even in the most rudimentary systems.

More recently, tweenbot explored similar social interactions with an equally minimalistic construct. Norman, Kismet and tweenbot suggest that a simulacrum doesn’t have to be pitch perfect for us to form an emotional connection.

Of course, if the appeal is made to even baser instincts, there appears to be even more latitude. Well before the media rich web, enthusiasts of the form flooded Usenet groups with strings of seemingly random characters that with the right arcane invocations could be transformed into prurient images to suit all tastes. At the risk of understating things, technology and the sex industry have a long and storied relationship. Many folks have already suggested that key technology innovations, such as the DVD format and high quality video codecs for online distribution, are the direct result of our monkey sex drives.

Sex and technology is a whole other topic to explore. No doubt there is plenty of research comparable to the emotional technology writings and projects I have cited. We, as a species, don’t seem to have a problem with emotionally connecting with our technology nor do we collectively blink an eyelash at its increasing role in the development of our sexual natures.

I remain skeptical and my objection really crystallized when Helen Madden expressed a simple idea on a panel on which we both participated at a recent science fiction convention.

What if your sex toy could say no?

It would be easy to devolve from that simple question into some pretty heavy and potentially disturbing psycho-analysis. Or to be flip and dismissive. At that moment, in the context of a discussion of love, sex and artificial intelligence, it really captured a latent but necessary leg to the tripod of a satisfying relationship. I’ve discussed emotional connection and intimacy but I think these aren’t able to get past technologically-mediated self-gratification without some degree of agency, of free will.

It seems so obvious in retrospect. It also represents a largely unspoken holy grail of artificial intelligence. When discussing our relationships with other social animals, we completely take it for granted. It isn’t even worth mentioning.

In the context of a relationship with a constructed being, it is critical because we haven’t been able to instill true agency into any of our creations as of yet. We are not even sure how to measure it, to know when we truly have achieved it. However, it is only when our creations are capable of evolving beyond their programming, to follow independently derived desires, to say no to us, that they achieve equal footing with the other social agents available to us. Only when there is the risk of rejection is there a sense of satisfaction in successfully developing a healthy emotional, even intimate, relationship, regardless
of whether the agent’s programming executes in flesh or in silicon.

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Love, Sex and Artificial Intelligence by Thomas “cmdln” Gideon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at

One Reply to “Love, Sex and Artificial Intelligence”

  1. cmdln,

    Came here after hearing about it in your podcast. Your last four paragraphs are quite an important topic to be discussed. No doubt, some of the first AIs may be used as virtual prostitutes, but if they have intelligence is it rape or are they just machines no different than a vibrator?

    I’ve never thought about AI in such a way, even when watching Jude Law’s character in AI. The best work – written, audio, or video – causes people to think about things they haven’t thought about before. Thanks for that.

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