In The Future, Everything We Think We Know About Relationships Could Drastically Change

Selfie ABC Show

The technologies we’re building today could throw some current relationship fundamentals for a loop.

The concept of marriage is based on a vow: “Until death do we part.” But what if scientists find a way for humans to never die? Or at the very least, for their life expectancy to drastically increase?

And what if you could pick the perfect genetics for the happiest, healthiest baby possible. Would women still get pregnant? Would people still have sex?

Here are a few ways current technology trends could change everything we think we know about relationships.

If we live forever, will people still get married?

Right now, about 40-50% of marriages in the United States end in divorce, according to the American Psychological Association. And that’s with men living until 84 on average, and women living until 86. If we live forever, or even if our life expectancy doubles, will people get married later or not at all?

Marriage divorce chart
The divorce rate is already high. If technology drastically increases our life expectancy, will we still get married? Chart via Washington Post

Google is working on ways to cheat death with its project, Calico. Scientists have already successfully extended the lives of other organisms. USC scientist Valter Longo was able to mutate two genes in Baker’s Yeast to extend its life from 6 days to 10 weeks. Mutating those same genes doubled the lives of lab mice.

Alexander Rose, a lead engineer on Jeff Bezos’ 10,000-year clock, stated the marriage predicament well in the science documentary, Through The Wormhole: “I don’t think I could live forever. My wife would kill me first.”

If scientists can create the most perfect, healthiest babies in a lab, will people still have sex?

Clones the island movie

A genetics expert spoke with Google Ventures last year about the future of sex. This expert told the team of investors that eventually, humans would only have sex for fun, not to procreate. The reasoning: Thanks to medical advancements and DNA sequencing, people will be able to hand-pick their children’s genes. They will be able to select physical traits, like hair and eye colour, as well as talents and health factors.

By selecting the perfect genes, parents and scientists will be able to create the healthiest, happiest, most perfect children who have the longest life-expectancy possible. When that happens, traditional conception will seem too risky. The baby might get bad genes. Expectant mothers risk unforeseen accidents. Or they might consume something harmful. Their children can be born with birth defects or diseases for no apparent reason.

Why leave something as important as your children to chance, when science can ensure they are perfect?

Francis Collins is the director of the National Genome Research Institute. He believes there’s a lot of good that can come from genetic technology. But he also describes how challenging genetic issues — like the ability to hand-pick children — will become.

“We say knowledge is power, but knowledge also carries with it tough decisions and responsibilities for making those decisions,” Collins tells PBS. “Right now one can test for a small number of things [with genetic technology]. In the future, that list will grow … And the difficulty in making the decisions will also grow. And if we’re having trouble now, hold onto your hat. It’s going to be much more challenging for couples.”

You can also imagine how much a process like this would cost a couple. Perfect, lab-grown super babies may only be for the elite, which could further distance the 1% from everyone else.

When virtual reality becomes so good that our brains and bodies actually believe we’re experiencing something in real life — particularly porn — will that change the definition of infidelity?

Oculus VR's headset Oculus rift Tokyo Game Show 2014
People try out Oculus VR’s headset Oculus rift development kit 2 at its booth in Tokyo Game Show 2014 REUTERS/Yuya Shino

Infidelity, by definition, is “the subjective feeling that one’s partner has violated a set of rules or relationship norms and this violation results in feelings of sexual jealousy and rivalry.”

To many people, thinking about cheating — while not readily admitting it — isn’t considered a death blow to a relationship. Acting on those thoughts, to whatever extent, is.

But what about in the future, when virtual reality becomes so real that you can load a cheating scenario — maybe even with someone you know — and feel as though you’re acting on it? And how about when our brains can actually be tricked into thinking it’s happening? If your body reacts the same way it would to physically cheating, will mental cheating and experiencing porn become problematic for relationships?

“The Oculus Rift [Facebook’s $US2 billion virtual reality headset] essentially tricks your brain into believing what it sees is real. People who can’t travel will be able to see the world, while others who might be physically impaired could, in true Avatar fashion, use their bodies in ways they have only dreamt,” The Daily Beast’s Aurora Snow writes about virtual reality’s sexual

Adult streaming platform SugarDVD recently announced that it’s building an app for Oculus that will bring porn viewers into the action. “Ideally, we’d like to include interactivity as soon as possible,” SugarDVD spokesperson Rebecca Bolen told Venturebeat in May. “[At first, this will be] similar to a ‘choose your own adventure’ type of experience. We already have these options for DVDs and movies with alternate ‘endings’ depending on what the viewer chooses, so we are looking forward to integrating those features into VR.”

As artificial intelligence improves, will we start falling in love with computers instead of each other?

Her artificial intelligence movie

It’s the scenario from Spike Jonze’s 2013 movie “Her,” where a person falls in love with his or her device rather than another human. Experts believe it could actually happen. And if you’re familiar with catfishing — the act of creating a false identity online in order to lure someone else into a relationship — then you know it’s possible to fall in love with someone you’ve never met, who might not even be real.

“When we communicate in an environment with fewer cues from facial expression and body language, people have a lot of room to idealize their partner,” The Verge quotes University of Wisconsin professor Catalina Toma on the concept. “It can be hard for real people, with all the messy complications of the physical world, to compete with that.”

Another professor The Verge spoke with, NYU’s Gary Marcus, says relationships with AI could start as simply as the way humans love their pets — they don’t fall in love with pets, but they appreciate them and mourn them when they’re gone. As AI improves and becomes more like us, Marcus believes falling in love with our devices could become a real possibility.

“It will be a while before we can have with computers the kind of complex emotional relationship we have with other people, but I imagine people having one-night stands with Androids will happen a lot sooner.”