04 May 2009

Customized love, designed devotion

Imagine a future society where artificial intelligence (AI) and cybernetics are sophisticated enough to allow the creation of artificial humans with organic bodies. The definitive difference between them and ‘real’ people is that these artificial humans are manufactured rather than being sexually conceived. Other than that, they are almost indistinguishable from ‘real’ humans.

In this future society, the breakdown of authentic connections between people – a breakdown accelerated by the corresponding rise of virtual reality technology as a substitute for holistic human connection – results in an unprecedented number of lonely souls who are cynical of relationships and/or suffer from various neuroses, which include feelings of personal inadequacy, a sense of being abandoned or ignored, self-loathing, fear of intimacy, depression, paranoia, hyper-misanthropy and other newly discovered psychological ailments. Pharmaceutical corporations are reaping record profits from the sale of popular mood-altering and hallucinogenic ‘medication’.

And so a market for synthetic humans, or ‘synthetics’, is recognized and artificially inflated. Manufacturers tout the superiority of their products over that of their competitors, with the premium range of synthetics being fully customizable down to the length, width and hue of their toenails. Their AI can be programmed with specific behavioral traits and their organic shells come in various shapes, sizes and cosmetic appearances (invariably smoothed skinned and blemish-free of course) to suit any taste. They can be designed to express unconditional love and devotion to their owners. They are predictable, emotionally stable and will never, ever complain.

Initially the exorbitant prices of such commodities will put them out of the reach of all but the wealthy elite, whose purchase of such companions validates the ancient truism that wealth does not guarantee emotional fulfillment with other human beings. Yet eventually economies of scale coupled with more efficient production methods result in ever greater numbers of the middle and working classes (assuming such socio-economic distinctions still exist) being able to afford a synthetic. A tipping point is reached when more and more of the masses are seduced into purchasing a synthetic tailored to their individual needs and desires.

With all the stress, effort and tedium in securing and subsequently maintaining a relationship with a ‘real’ person removed from the equation, excised from the rules of engagement with life, an exponential growth in synthetic ownership occurs. Traditional institutions like marriage, the family unit and reproduction, even romance and courtship, will all be aversely affected, perhaps even rendered obsolete, irrelevant in the reality of a post-human world, one defined by techno-centric rather than human-centric values.

And these questions will be asked: is love given to, and by, a synthetic still as valid? Does it really matter what form the object of affection, trust, intimacy and loyalty takes, so long as such values still exist? Is it perverse for the concepts of connectedness and empathy to be broadened to include synthetics? Does a higher proportion of synthetics in the global population correspond with a decrease in ‘authentic’ relationships, sexual or otherwise? What is the definition of ‘authentic’ anyway?

One could argue that by having a synthetic person created specifically for and, more pertinently, purchased by someone, it cheapens the intrinsic value of relationships by reducing their inherent complexity and associated risks and rewards into a mere sales transaction. It turns an act of personal courage into a shopping experience. It renders a sacred possession into an empty commodity with a certain market value. Something priceless acquires a price tag. And so this act of commissioning a synthetic is perceived as a morally reprehensible cop-out on the part of the customer. He (market surveys indicate a predominantly male customer base, comprising at least 87 percent of the market for synthetics) demonstrates emotional sloth in refusing to engage meaningfully with a ‘real’ person, or perhaps harbours a fear of potential obstacles like rejection, conflict and sacrifice that go hand-in-hand with the task of juggling relationships with non-synthetics and their accompanying emotional baggage, idiosyncrasies, irrational demands and unpredictable needs.

Paying for the creation of a synthetic without all the irritating and blaffling factors present in ‘real’ people is viewed as taking the easy way out, which is the (predictably) resentful opinion of those who have had to undergo a personal trial-by-fire in their own ‘real’ relationships. The idea of someone with the means to obtain a made-to-order friend or lover is understandably repugnant to one who bears battle-scars from beating the ‘natural’ path to love’s door. Yet it seems a flawed logic – one coloured by envy and bitterness – to condemn someone’s actions or choices on the grounds that it resulted in them suffering less than one did.

If love, affection, trust and loyalty are to be valued for themselves, should it matter if the recipient and giver of these values was not sexually conceived, but instead was manufactured from organic elements and imbued with an AI so advanced as to be indistinguishable from ‘true’ consciousness? Or do such values acquire a great measure of their meaning and worth from the fact that they have to be earned rather than simply being catered to us from pre-determined software?

“The value of love, affection, trust and loyalty is inseparable from and defined by the nature of the giver/receiver of these things.” Discuss.


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