My Robot Wife
The hacking of human biology and psychology has been a major driver of the modern economy. We crave sugar, fat and salt, because our ancestors lived in a scarce and brutal environment which rarely afforded such necessities, hence creating the urge to over-consume these foods when available. Ten thousand years later, billions of dollars are made each year by stimulating that evolutionary urge and putting sugar in absolutely everything. We crave status and power over others, and the economy delivers millions of gadgets, status symbols, cars, exclusive offers, to stimulate our glory-seeking primate brains. We crave sex, and the invisible hand of the free market puts sex-appeal in toothpaste commercials.
Almost every aspect of modern life has been optimized to stimulate our primal needs and subconscious urges, from the layout of grocery stores*, to the scented air in shopping malls that is supposed to induce a spending spree, to beer commercials invariably featuring a group of good looking friends having the time of their lives. Casino and social media games are designed by addiction experts, and the TikTok algorithm probably understands us better than we understand ourselves.
What then is the next paradigm shift in hacking humanity for the sake of new profits?
In an ever more estranged world of lonely, anxious, and depressed people, what could be more stimulating and valuable than genuine human connection, affection, and love? Well, instead of seeking out these things the old-fashioned way, working hard to overcome our personal barriers and build real relationships, why not just purchase a subscription to your perfect, loving, caring, AI wife?
This is no longer science-fiction. The advancements in Artificial Intelligence in 2022 alone have stunned the world several times. Google now boasts a general AI that can complete over 120 tasks, from playing chess to compressing audio files better than any other previous computer could. Open AI created Dalle-2, a text-to-image machine that makes Picasso look like a caveman. Blake Lemoine made headlines by declaring the Lambda chat-bot sentient enough to probably require legal representation. Within two or three years, we can probably tell Dalle-3 to create a high definition film of Donald Trump having sex with a tyrannosaurus rex while juggling the chainsaw. I’ll let your imagination fill in the extreme political, social and cultural implications of high quality deepfakes like that.
Is there any question that within a few years most phone centres, most online services, most help-desks, and most tech support will be the domain of friendly AIs chatting away with customers who can’t tell whether they are talking to Steve from Cincinnati, or a machine?
Given what we know about human psychology and the need for relationships, is there any doubt some company won’t create the perfect companion, friend, lover, lost-parent, child or spouse? Why would anyone go through the trouble of a real relationship, when our AI companion knows exactly how to perfectly press all our psychological switches?
Anyone who is sufficiently plugged in will already be aware of certain internet trends that are in line with the idea of artificial love. Users on sites like Onlyfans, for example, make millions of dollars for selling the idea of intimacy over the internet. What’s the difference between porn and Onlyfans? Simple: you can talk to your Onlyfans idol, and they will generally respond (given you pay them enough for the privilege). Whether Onlyfans fans are actually happy with these relationships is a different, and probably irrelevant question. The only important realization here is that they exist at all, to create a market of faked intimate relationships. And the truly bizarre thing about these relationships is that both parties are well-aware of their transactional and non-genuine nature. Human beings are truly fascinating, especially once the prying eyes of society are removed, as they are online.
A perhaps more innocent and yet equally interesting phenomenon along these lines is that of the Wifu, and the concept of Moè. This long-time internet denizen and nerd-culture sleuth has long awaited the chance to talk about Moè, ever since the hay-day of Kyoto Animation in the late 2010s. A cultural trend emerging from Japan in which the characters in animated TV shows and comic books become the very real objects of emotional desire, based mostly on their qualities of cuteness and/or innocence. The “Cute girls doing cute things” concept was so successful that it changed the entire comic book and animation industry in Japan. Approximately one third of the entire Otaku (nerd) market in the country uses some aspect of Moè to sell products. Fans will fall in love with, obsess over, and argue about their favourite character, and while these intense emotional connections are sometimes based on the character’s sex-appeal, more often the key is a sort of cute innocence in need of protection. Japan’s declining birth rate, and young people’s disinterest in romantic relationships is notable. Is it possible that their brains are being stimulated by games and TV shows in ways that are normally reserved for romance?
These examples illustrate the human need for connection, and our ability to form emotional relationships even with imaginary characters, and more importantly our willingness to pay for such connections, proves there is a market ready to be exploited by the first AI company that can stimulate the right receptors. Importantly, these relationships may not make us happy or turn us into better people. Products that rely on brain hacking clearly don’t need to be good for us. Slot machines, social media algorithms, and pornography don’t turn us into better or more virtuous persons, they simply play on our dopamine addiction.
This technology will likely be introduced from several directions, until it converges. On the one hand, some companies might focus on sexual or emotional relationships, targeting the Onlyfans-type of consumer. Other companies will probably try to go a more family-friendly route and simply introduce new kids toys that have an ever-higher level of language ability, until 7-year-old Charlie is playing with a fully sentient stuffed animal that can talk. For once, the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation will be correct: a robot will indeed be “your plastic pal who’s fun to be with”.
Yet other products will likely feature personal assistants who can handle reservations, scheduling, calls, emails, appointments and more. They live on your phone and want nothing more than to help you be more productive. Eventually these assistants may feature updates that include humor, flirtation, friendship, advice, and other types of intellectual stimulation à la “Her”.
Despite many comedic depictions of desperate men buying sex robots, it seems likely that women will be a much stronger market for these virtual companions, as their wants tend to be more relationship based than physical. And even in regards to the physical aspect, women’s sex toys are far more socially accepted than men’s, making it less of a taboo for these next generation gadgets to penetrate the female market (apologies).
My AI Girlfriend won’t talk to me unless I renew my annual Netflix subscription.
— You in five years
Everyone has written about the dangers of AI and the uncertain future of humanity, and many of these worries focus on large scale issues like disinformation, democracy, wartime decision making by computers, etc. However, it is the small and personal changes to human life that tend to create the biggest effects down the line. If we assume that a sizeable portion of the population will have, at some point, some form of AI assistant, friend, companion, etc. and that these AI assistants are designed by for-profit companies to perfectly press our psychological buttons, then we are in serious danger of handing ourselves over to the whims of those companies, or governments.
Already we face the problem of social media algorithms warping our perspective of the world, or using the information they have on us to push us in certain directions. If a sizable portion of the population is essentially addicted to their AI companion, then that AI companion will gain much power in directing us to do things we otherwise would not. This may range from innocent and banal consumer choices, to voting decisions, etc.
We may hand-wave this away and claim that we could not so easily be manipulated by an app, but this is foolish thinking. Already the TikTok algorithm has enslaved millions of teens and adults. Is there any doubt that a sufficiently advanced AI could manipulate us in ways so subtle, and so clever, and so personal that we could never stand a chance against it? In fact, we wouldn’t even want to stand a chance against it, because we would never even realize it was happening.