The evidence of our technological seduction is everywhere, from the family in a restaurant silently communing with their phones, to the child whose bedtime story is delivered by an iPad... I had always thought of seduction in terms of romance and sex, until I discovered the Latin seducere: to lead away or persuade someone to abandon their duty. So, what happens if our attention is diverted away from a person? Our future is a merging of human and machine, so what’s the impact on our relationships as parents, friends, lovers?
2011: K. calls at 7am to report on last night’s date. She’s been online with this guy for weeks and loving it, now it’s time for the big meet. He looks even better real life, she texts from the restaurant. They order wine. He places his phone on the table. Are you expecting a call? she asks. No, he smiles, but the phone stays right though dinner and she can’t stop looking at it. It felt like there was someone else at the table, she tells me. Like I didn’t have his full attention. And I could just feel desire ebbing away.
The power of that small act sat with me for a long time: a machine intruding on a seduction moment, a device that sits like a mute third party - and detonates a relationship. Desire utterly extinguished. The evening ended and K. never saw him again. But her experience inspired me to start writing a story that I could trace back to childhood.
Writing is a way of thinking aloud - listening, eavesdropping, tapping into the drumbeat of change. Writers are like anthropologists, we spend our time observing the world and human behaviours. To create a character is to build a human, I tell my students - to investigate the human condition. A novel is the answer to a question that grips you by the throat and will not let you go. The question that had troubled me for decades, through three novels was posed by the Irish molecular biologist J.D. Bernal in 1924: “What is to be the future of feeling?” The Love Makers delivered my response, a philosophical thriller about the future of human love. The story of a chance encounter between Scarlett, a tech developer, and Gurl, a young woman who reveals dark secrets about her machine relationship; a story about female friendship, class, motherhood, and work and how AI and robotics are transforming the future of love, sex and desire.
It all began in the Pembroke children’s library in Dublin. I have a vivid memory of sitting on the floor when I was 6 or 7, crying my eyes out over The Happy Prince, Oscar Wilde’s fable about the statue with a heart of lead who “was once alive and had a human heart”. A child’s fascination with the natural / artificial, the “bodies new and strange” that Ovid wrote about 2,000 years ago, and that are key elements in our technological enchantment. This thread of natural/artificial resurfaced when I was an undergrad in Sweden and recruited onto a research project at IBM with Computing and Psychology. I met my first robot, a primitive machine by today’s standards, but there was the thrill of machines calmly taking care of business, futures rushing towards us.
The evidence of our technological seduction is everywhere, from the family in a restaurant silently communing with their phones, to the child whose bedtime story is delivered by an iPad. Smart devices are embedded in our lives, shaping our behaviours and curating our relationships. Our anthropomorphic tendencies place us firmly in the grooming stages of a deepening enchantment - seduced, enthralled and dependent. The concepts of seduction and attachment are key our thinking about AI and robotics - together they prime us for human machine relationships, tapping into our desires for empowerment and triggering shifts in behaviour.
I had always thought of seduction in terms of romance and sex, until I discovered the Latin seducere: to lead away or persuade someone to abandon their duty. So, what happens if our attention is diverted away from a person? What is the cost and consequence of this transfer of attention? Who might be missing out? Our future is a merging of human and machine, so what’s the impact on our relationships as parents, friends, lovers? What is, for example, the difference between a child receiving a bedtime story from a machine instead of a human? Why would you not chose to have machine sex that delivers reliable gratification? These are all questions about what we humans really want. Most importantly, what does our technological seduction reveal about ourselves?
In June 2022 The Love Makers was honoured to receive an invitation from the Royal Institution for Science to explore the future of human love in the age of AI with a live theatre audience, chaired by Philip Ball. During the years of writing and research I had begun to realise that a novel alone would not be sufficient, the book needed an arts-science dialogue. Consider this: when you watch movies about AI or robots - for example, HER or Ex Machina - you might wonder what is technically accurate, what is real, what’s desirable - and what are the engineering challenges? The Love Makers combines storytelling that dramatizes what’s at stake, together with the voices of the scientists, engineers and scholars who lead the way in research. The book became a public engagement mission that aims to entertain, demystify, inform and provoke debate. My short film for The Love Makers was premiered at the Royal Institution, co-produced and directed by Cal Murphy Barton, and shot in a freezing studio in Streatham at the tail end of lockdown. What a magical experience it is to watch your character become flesh and blood! Actor Sofia Shallai plays Gurl in my novel - a young woman who finds solace in a machine relationship that provides the companionship and kindness she has never received from people. Years of abuse have taught Gurl that human love is flawed and unreliable, machine love is predictable and unconditional. So, love then, in all its manifestations, expressions and distortions, but it is our attachments that reveal our true desires: our capacity and willingness to form unexpected and satisfying relationships with machines. And that suggests our love futures may cluster around curation, customization, compartmentalization - and perhaps most of all – control.
So, will we drift apart from each other? Out walking in the park, I see a baby in a buggy, flapping their arms and trying desperately to communicate with the parent who is laughing and talking into the smartphone that’s attached to the buggy. The baby is competing with the machine for parental attention and will soon realise that the device is the prize: the machine may become more interesting than the parent. The Love Makers is both an elegy for the depletion of the human-to-human experience and a call to arms. Readers are invited to explore the ethical and behavioural challenges and opportunities of intelligent machines in contributor essays written in clear and accessible language. Truitt reminds us that our fears and fantasies about technology date back to ancient times; Bryson & Bogani examine Robot Nannies; Cave & Dihal probe the dehumanizing effect of companion bots; Carpenter reveals how US military personnel grieve for their tanklike robots; Devlin investigates truth and fantasy around sex robots; Trotta advocates for the importance of Humanities in a AI-dominated world; Childs considers co-creation and emergent capabilities of augmented systems; Chandran tackles prejudice in the construction of racial identity in AI and robotics; Flanagan makes the case for feminist perspectives on AI.
The future of humanity is a story about what we do with the clever things we invent, and the decisions we make about innovation and deployment. The noise around AI reminds me of my years in banking during a period of extraordinary creativity and innovation, when financial engineering became the new religion, and transformed the industry and the appetite for risk. When fortunes were made out of products that many people (including financiers) did not understand. Bankers did not consider the unintended consequences - nor did regulators, government or the people who were managing your money – which was a major contributor to the 2008 financial crisis. Media frenzy around generative technologies ricochets between utopic and dystopic outcomes, but as futurist Richard Watson insists, we need to become “agents of change” - citizen activists who engage in loud debate and ask questions about how we want to live. This requires urgent public engagement in the challenges, opportunities and concerns around intelligent machines and the intentions around design and development of their makers. For when it comes to technology one thing is certain: we will not get rewarded for our incuriosity.
Revision of an article first published online in The Irish Times, 4/1/ 2023. This article is part of the essay collection "Living with Machines: Communications and Gender in AI and Robotics" published by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Hong Kong in Aug-Sep 2023, as post-conference publishing project of the 6th International Conference on Artificial Intelligence Humanities (ICAIH) 2023 hosted by Humanities Research Institute at Chung-Ang University.
This article first appeared here: hk.boell.org