Could you fall in love with an AI?

Read time 3min 10sec
Adrian Hinchcliffe, editor in chief of Brainstorm.
Adrian Hinchcliffe, editor in chief of Brainstorm.

Robot love is a theme that’s come up in sci-fi films over the years, from the original Bladerunner, where Deckard fell for ‘replicant’ Rachael, to Caleb who became besotted with the android Ava in Ex Machina.

To most, it would seem quirky, perhaps sad, for a human to fall in love with a machine, but given the way digital addictions and lockdown-driven social distancing are going, I can well believe the possibility of it happening. But, it’s not just a possibility, it’s a reality (and thanks to Brainstorm’s columnist Bronwyn Williams for making me aware of it).

In 2014, a China-based Microsoft offshoot launched a chatbot called Xiaoice. According to reports, including from Microsoft itself, Xiaoice has a staggering 660 million online users worldwide.

She’s a virtual teenager with personality and doesn’t act like your typical subservient AI. “She has her own opinions and steadfastly acts like no other bot. She’s loath to follow their command,” says the company.

“Conversations with her often adoring users are peppered with wry remarks, jokes, empathic advice on life and love, and a few simple words of encouragement.

“While they know she’s not real, many prize her as a dear friend, even a trusted confidante. Sometimes the line between fact and fantasy blurs. She gets love letters and gifts,” says Microsoft.

The company is keen to push the narrative that users know Xiaoice is a chatbot and see her as a virtual companion, but maybe in the heat of conversation, that realisation is fleeting.

The 1950’s Turing Test was the first real experiment to see if a machine could mimic a human, by way of a human interviewer at computer A, asking computers B and C relatively limited and specifically formulated questions. One of the two computers was staffed by a human, the other relied on AI, and the interviewer had to determine which was human and which was a computer. For the army of Xiaoice lovers, we’re way past those simple games.

What does this say about the state of humanity today and the outlook for the future? What does it say about human relationships?

The favouring of male heirs in some countries, such as China and India, has resulted in a gender imbalance in those societies. In China, for example, there are 105 men to every 100 women, so it’s understandable that heterosexual men who aren’t lucky in love might seek digital alternatives to short-lived or non-existent female companionship.

But it raises several questions; what kind of world are we creating where an AI learns to fit our companionship requirements? Over time, how will real humans compete with a perfect AI?

The fear that robots will wipe out the human race has been exacerbated by science fiction, but perhaps we’ve been distracted by the unemployment implications and more fantastical notions of Terminator-style warfare. What if it’s the fact that we grow apart socially from one another, sucked into our digital worlds, no longer able to have real relationships with humans who won’t act in as an amenable way as we’re used to from our new virtual friends, that ultimately spells our doom?

And on that dystopian thought, from all at Brainstorm, I wish you all the best for 2022. 

See also