|Between the Covers
David Levy Wants You to Shag a Robot
By James H. Johnson
Jan 31, 2008
Love and Sex with Robots, by David Levy, may be the weirdest book I have ever read.
And it’s weird on, like, levels. Multilayered, textured, and tied-up-with-a-bow weird. But weird isn’t necessarily bad.
It’s aptly titled, but just to be as clear as an unmuddied lake, here’s the dish Levy is serving: One day human beings will happily enter into meaningful emotional and satisfying sexual relationships with androids that walk upright, respond to tactile sensation, measure their person’s state of mind and respond appropriately, and so on.
Last year, I reviewed another book about robots . It left me a little disappointed about how much further science must advance before humans have to fight a robot army that’s trying to take over the planet. Will Smith will probably have a walker and dentures by then.So I was still curious about Levy’s angle on the robot situation. In Love and Sex with Robots, I found his argument thoroughly researched and carefully crafted, if at times quasi-delusional. On the other hand, it’s a pretty entertaining read. But, you know, weird.
Weirdness, Level 1
The first half of the book covers the nature of human-to-human and human-to-computer relationships. Levy cites a library’s worth of psychological studies to show, first, a human need for human-robot companionship, and, second, how advances in software development will react to that need.
If you don’t read carefully, though, you’ll miss his argument’s essential but: Many, many people will fall for a robot.
He’s not implying that this will occur on a mass scale. Just in case you thought he was off his rocker. He then fills his book with somewhat misleading sentences, such as, “Many people actually prefer interacting with computers to interacting with other people.” Personally, I think of a computer as a tool, and you can’t really interact with, say, table saw. You just act with it, not interact. Regardless, as the reader moves through the book, he makes claims about this not-mass-scale, but still-large-sum of folks who will prefer snuggling with robots.
Weirdness, Level 2
Levy goes further and details the “cultural advances” made in the last century regarding the acceptance of formerly taboo relationships, i.e. cross-cultural, biracial, and gay and lesbian marriage. He goes on to say that robots’ programming will assimilate into varying cultures with varying needs. Example:
“Just think of the courting rituals and the chaperone phenomena in some Latin countries...and the tradition of arranged marriages in some countries – a tradition that ought to present no problem for robots…” He says a robot’s programming can be shaped to fit with whatever social norms exist in any given community.
Now step back and think about why cultures with ingrained, strict courting rituals might not easily accept robo-human matrimony. Think about the stringent rules about sex and love written by the Catholic church. Robots just don’t fit in that plan.
Weirdness, Level 3
Now consider what that argument says about the guy who wrote it. The point he tries to make about “Latin” courting rituals, and specifically the reasoning behind it, critically undermines the logic behind the book’s many claims. Levy seems at times obsessed with proving his point universally, when it would be much easier to swallow logically on a smaller, more carefully considered scale.
Weirdness, Level 4
Levy offers many, many reasons that a human might find a robot relationship superior to a human one, often with a whimsical excitement that implies the author himself would prefer robot love. Robots will appeal to widows (and -ers), folks who can’t get dates, people with psychological or sexual problems, computer geeks, and so on.
Further, he cites the element of choice as part of the allure of a robot. The AI programming, he says, will accommodate whatever the human needs at any time. Is your date being a little quiet? Just tell her to be more outgoing and voila! It’s done!
We can choose the eye color, hair color, height, emotional and social disposition, sexual characteristics including, but not limited to, appetite, position(s) of choice, desire for multiple partners, pheromones, size and girth of parts found in the robot’s swimsuit area, as well as – and I’m not making this up – “whether circumcised (if appropriate).”
I believe the “if appropriate” tacked on the end was a little more whimsy than seriousness. I believe this because otherwise those four words would deserve their own, higher-tier Weirdness. If genuine, we could be approaching 9 or 10 without breaking a sweat.
Weirdness, Level 5
As Levy explains the theoretical multitude of physical and personality choices available to a guy in need of a little robot love, he also drains all the color and mystery out of choosing a partner. The kind of man who desires a woman to fit every single characteristic at every moment is less a husband or lover and more of an owner.
Which incidentally is associated with the origin of the word robot itself. From the Czech “robota,” meaning “forced labor” or (literally) “worker.”
Enter: Creepiness, Level 1.
On the other hand, I think Levy’s probably right. Certainly, there are types of people who will probably benefit from robot love. I expect, by 2050, to see crotchety little old men dining at the local cafeteria with their Playboy-esque girlbot. Computer nerds and the socially inept will have a go, I’m sure. Hell, I bet some empowered women, who're tired of knowing their man's lying because his lips are moving, will find solace in their new significant other's companionship and its quiet whirring.
But for most of us, in the words of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.
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