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Digital desire. Will humans ever fall in love with robots?

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Tomorrow is Valentine's Day. Depending on your point of view, this is the point in the year when you make a special effort to show your affection and appreciation for the significant person in your life; or a cynical exercise in consumerism, carried out by grasping retail corporations. If you believe the latter, I wish you luck in explaining the case to your other half.

However, in the not too distant future, the whole 'celebrate or not celebrate' dilemma could be redundant. That's because a scientist called David Levy is sure romantic relationships with robots will be the norm by 2050.

Levy, a British artificial intelligence researcher, has based his PhD on this idea. Titled 'Intimate Relationships with Artificial Partners', his thesis states that the rate of growth in  robotics and computing means the phenomenon of humans falling for robots is inevitable. Unlikely as it may sound, he suggests future robots will be almost indistinguishable from people, so love is bound to bloom. 
Despite the headline story being rather sensational, he does make a good point when he explains how human affections have already extended beyond our fellow homo sapiens. It isn't unusual for owners to profess love for their pets, and this has even spread to virtual companions like Tamagotchi (those boxes you had to keep alive with digital food). Whether this is actually romantic love, and whether that would be legal, is a matter of some debate.

David Levy also examines the reasons human beings have a tendency to fall in love and feel sexual attraction. Put simply, these reactions are based on the need for companionship, protection, reassurance and affirmation. All of which, he reasons, could easily apply to an android, if it were sufficiently sophisticated. Of course, we're actually talking about emotions here - and it's not at all certain that a robot could ever acquire the ability to feel them. Although maybe that wouldn't be necessary. As long as the machines were capable of imitating emotional responses, it could well be enough to engender love in a human. 

On livescience.com, Mr. Levy says: "The very notion of robots having emotions will be greeted by many people with scepticism, disbelief or derision. Are not love, sex and reproduction at the very core of being human, even to the extent that they are immune to computerisation? Yes, they are at the very core. No, they are not immune to computerisation."

While fantastical, I can't see any reason why most of this may not come to pass. The technology we enjoy today would have sounded impossibly advanced a few decades ago. Nevertheless, I think Levy will struggle with one significant factor: reproduction.

We are all slaves to our genes and we are driven by our genetic make-up to create copies of our DNA in the shape of babies. After all, you and I wouldn't be here if that wasn't the case. So romantic liaisons with robots would be undermined by the inability to have children. That wouldn't necessarily prevent 'love' developing, but it would bar this new arrangement from replacing human to human partnerships. Although he suggests otherwise, I can't envisage reproduction being computerised in any meaningful way. Unless we're talking about robot infants.

Because of the idiosyncrasies of the human condition, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Our affairs of the heart are always touched by doubt, anxiety and insecurity. Robotics will never unpick our tangled hearts. So for every man or woman who finds happiness with their artificial mate, there will be ten wondering whether their partner is having a fling with the microwave.

Happy Valentine, everybody.

Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant

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