Why are we so taken with the idea of machines that can think like we can? Perhaps, one futurist suggests, this fascination is rooted not in scientific curiosity but in sexual urges, even romantic longing.
Modern science fiction fans are not the only ones enthralled by the prospect of intelligent machines; the idea of intelligent robots has been a part of human culture since ancient times, going back to Greek mythology, and actual automatons have existed ever since the ancient Egyptians created sacred statues that convinced the devout that they were alive.
The appeal of having highly functional robots to perform tasks that we can’t perform is obvious. But for George Zarkadakis, a Greek author and futurist, the allure of artificial intelligence runs deeper than our fondness for making tools.
Writing in Aeon, Zarkadakis makes a provocative case that the real driving force behind the quest for human-like artificial intelligence is not scientific, but erotic.
Zarkadakis writes that “technology is a cultural phenomenon, and as such it is moulded by our cultural values.” We develop medicine because we value health. We develop markets and creature comforts because we value wealth and freedom. We explore space because we are restlessly curious about our universe.
Yet when it comes to creating conscious simulacra of ourselves, what exactly is our motive? What deep emotions drive us to imagine, and strive to create, machines in our own image? If it is not fear, or want, or curiosity, then what is it? Are we indulging in abject narcissism? Are we being unforgivably vain? Or could it be because of
Zarkadakis isn’t just talking about sex with robots, but real love, with all that implies. He cites examples from literary history as well as the history of artificial intelligence, including an interesting backstory on the famous “Turing Test”:
As it happens, the modern history of AI began with a kind of flirtatious parlour game. Imagine three rooms, connected via keyboards and monitors that can display text. In one room sits a man. In the second there is a woman. The third room contains a person whom we shall call ‘the judge’. The judge’s task is to decide which of the two people talking to him through the computer is male. The man will try to convince the judge of his own masculinity. The woman will imitate masculinity, doing her utmost to deceive the judge into believing that she is the man.
In 1951, the British computing pioneer Alan Turing observed that, by modifying this ‘imitation game’ slightly and placing a machine in the second room instead of a woman, one thereby created a test for whether that machine possessed intelligence or not. The machine would imitate the man. If the judge couldn’t tell the difference, then the machine was a passable simulation of a human being, which would presumably mean that it was intelligent.
Zarkadakis goes on to speculate that, since Turing was gay at a time that homosexuality was a crime in the UK, perhaps his test was about more than just artificial intelligence. (Despite being a war hero for his work as a cryptographer during World War II, in 1952 Turing was arrested for his relationship with a man, and was sentenced to undergo barbaric hormone treatments for his “condition.”)
It is irresistible to suppose that his imitation game must have reflected something of his own, veiled sexuality: that it is he who is behind the door, both masculine and feminine at the same time, trying to fool the ‘judge’ that is society itself. Or perhaps Turing is the judge, examining the statements of his opposite number for a flicker of mutual recognition, a subtle affinity between kindred spirits. Behind the austere specifications of the famous ‘Turing test’, what fears and desires might lurk?
As Zarkadakis points out, one doesn’t have to try very hard to find examples of eroticized automatons in literature: “Western literature, ancient and modern, is strewn with mechanical lovers.”
Consider Pygmalion, the Cypriot sculptor and favourite of Aphrodite. Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, describes him carving a perfect woman out of ivory. Her name is Galatea and she’s so lifelike that Pygmalion immediately falls in love with her. He prays to Aphrodite to make the statue come to life. The love goddess already knows a thing or two about beautiful, non-biological maidens: her husband Hephaestus has constructed several good-looking fembots to lend a hand in his Olympian workshop. She grants Pygmalion’s wish; Pygmalion kisses his perfect creation, and Galatea becomes a real woman. They live happily ever after.
The Pygmalion myth, Zarkadakis explains, went on to enjoy a long and fruitful life in Western literature, drawn upon by the likes of Rousseau, Goethe, Shakespeare, and George Bernard Shaw.
And we don’t have to reach far for more modern examples. “Her,” in which Joaquin Phoenix plays a lovesick man who falls in love with an operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson, all but makes Zarkadakis’s argument for him.
For Zarkadakis, even our fears about artificial intelligence smack of love. In predictions that superintelligent machines will rebel and destroy us all, he sees the fear that “partners and children might indeed abandon us, regardless of what good we did for them.”
And in the idea that we should program any intelligent machines we manage to create with fail-safe measures that would ensure their loyalty, Zarkadakis sees the controlling hand of a jealous lover:
Since we are the designers of the robots, let us force them to love us, forever and completely. Let us become like Pygmalion and make them perfect. It’s in our grasp: to program our children and our lovers so that they will never fail us, never betray us, so that they remain forever faithful. Perfect love will no longer be elusive. Wasn’t this why we wanted artificial intelligence in the first place?
One doesn’t have to agree completely with Zarkadakis’s argument to find his argument intriguing. As we humans become more and more intertwined with our machines, it might be worth meditating on the nature of our relationship with them — especially those we make in our own image.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.