My subject of the day is going to seem a little sci-fi.
I may as well point out that it begins with sci-fi.
I play Mass Effect. I play a LOT of Mass Effect.
In my time in this fabulously constructed universe, Commander Amanda Shepard is my avatar. She reacts the way I do, interacts with people the way I do, and acts according to my morals and decision-making processes.
She is me, fully realized in a science fiction setting. She also has a romance with Liara T’Soni, a gorgeous blue alien woman (damn you James Cameron!) who is at first very innocent and naiive, and yet as Amanda re-encounters her 2 years later (she spent a while being not-quite-but-very-nearly dead), finds her former lover taking a darker turn of personality in her absence, to which Amanda responded with a worried and concerned tone and set of choices, trying to see if Liara was still at all the woman she once loved.
Except she didn’t. I did. That emotional bond forged with Liara wasn’t Amanda’s. It was mine. Amanda is simply the means by which I interact with that universe. The emotions felt towards Liara were mine and mine alone, yet they were brought on by a combination of excellent writing, acting, and programming to account for my choices and the rewards and consequences of those choices. This was truly a digital relationship for the modern era. And it is found in a $60 series compilation pack of 3 blu-ray discs.
I became concerned at Liara’s darker behavior. I wanted to help heal her wounds. I wanted to restore the woman that, in a brilliant and possibly a little sick twist of human creation, I may have fallen slightly in love with.
And this is just a video game. I know that Liara is, at the end of the day, computer code and pre-recorded voice clips. And yet, the romance is there. The feelings are genuine. I felt something intimate and personal, all for a person who DOESN’T EVEN EXIST.
And this is merely found in modern entertainment media.
What happens when SERIOUS attempts are made to create a ready made, customizable, 100% artificial lover? When you open the box to find a more advanced AI with which to read your feelings, a physical body with which to interact with you, warm to the touch, ready to embrace you when things go sour in your life or jump up and down with joy when you reach one of your long-term goals? When it can emulate human emotions almost completely convincingly, or possibly even feel them for real? A digital lover to offer advice, engage in thoughtful conversation, or give you someone to garden with or go camping with?
What would you do when you can buy a life-partner or spouse in a store that is so realistically human that the only way you’d know for certain was a manufacturing stamp on the bottom of their left foot? Isn’t that steering very close to creating life itself in a factory on an assembly line?
And when these machines begin asking “Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose?”, what then? Don’t kid yourself saying it won’t happen. Eventually, maybe 50-100 years from now, they will start. It’s only a matter of time. How would you answer a question like that? They’d be people then, aware of themselves and their surroundings. Wouldn’t what you’re doing be slavery then, unless you had their consent? And if you wanted to “upgrade” to a newer model with better specs and features, would it be murder to switch off your spouse, knowing they’d never be activated again? Could you do that, as your prior lover begged for you to not replace them or end their life? Perhaps backing them up and exporting them to the new one might alleviate some of the dilemma, but it’s a haunting prospect for me.
There are consequences and rewards both to this path of development.
On the one hand, an always faithful lover who wouldn’t ever reject you, loves you for who you are, faults and all, never makes a mistake and is almost totally real. They’d be your own personal Galatea, Pygmalion’s dream come true. A best friend, favorite teacher, or perfect spouse, ready for purchase at your nearest electronics store.
On the other hand, the line between organic and mechanical would start to get really blurry really quickly. The line between natural and manufactured would likewise be blurred. When these manufactured machines eventually become aware of themselves, where does that leave humanity? We would have to redefine what it means to be human once we can reproduce everything about ourselves in a lab with artificial materials. Where does human end and machine begin?
I personally am not opposed to the idea of an artificial lover. I can honestly say I even look forward to it. After all, if I can bond so well with these characters in a game now, I can only imagine with hope what life will be like in the future when this technology becomes mainstream and perfected.
Nobody should have to live and die alone. With this technology, nobody has to. Some people content themselves their whole lives with simple animal companionship. Some people get married. If someone wanted and was able to find such lasting and valuable companionship from a machine, I would not want to deny them that happiness. The world’s a sad enough place as it is.
And it’s STILL less creepy than Twilight.