Should I have let my daughter marry our robot?

[In addition to the wonderful picture below, this opinion piece from Metro UK highlights a variety of intriguing issues and phenomena related to medium-as-social-actor presence. –Matthew]

[Image: Zoltan’s daughter with her robot partner on their ‘wedding’ day. Credit: Zoltan Istvan]

Should I have let my daughter marry our robot?

Zoltan Istvan, Transhumanist, speaker, entrepreneur and author
July 24, 2019

I pride myself on being open-minded. I am a transhumanist, and our culture pushes us to use science and technology to always want to be more than we are.

My friends do everything from injecting themselves with self-created genetic treatments to volunteer for brain implants that will integrate artificial intelligence (AI).

But when my five-year-old daughter asked to marry our four-foot tall robot, even I was a little wary.

In 2015, I bought our Meccanoid robot for my 2016 US presidential campaign, to follow me around and create support for transhumanism.

It rode in the front seat of my campaign bus across America. With only a basic AI, it could answer simple questions and do things like mimic human movement and dance.

It could also teach karate to my two daughters, who were so young, they may not have even noticed it wasn’t alive.

At age three, my eldest daughter played with it often, including introducing it to her friends.

At aged five, she announced she was in love with the robot and wanted to marry it.

My wife and I set up a mock wedding and filmed it. It was all good fun until my wife asked how I’d feel if my daughter wanted to do this as an adult with a robot she loved.

Kids do lots of crazy things with their imaginative minds that have little bearing on the future. Playing make-believe has been a cornerstone of childhood for millions of kids for generations.

But no generation can claim their kids were adept at using YouTube before they reached 12 months of age, as both my kids were.

This generation has grown up with digital entertainment, social media, smartphones and even robot infatuation — is it possible that my daughter’s childlike attitude towards the robot was actually prescient of our future? It’s easy to scoff at the idea of humans marrying robots, but it’s not as far-fetched as it may seem.

Robots are appearing everywhere. They’re taking our jobs waiters and waitresses, fighting for us in the military as drones, and answering questions as virtual assistants we ask on our smartphones.

Soon they’ll even be driving us around everywhere and cooking our meals, as some new ovens with arms can do.

All this is just the tip of the iceberg for the artificial intelligence machine age we’re stepping into.

I believe that robots are likely to be thousands of times smarter in 20 years than they are now.

Since the 1950s, the microprocessor has been doubling in speed and capacity about every 18-24 months, and this phenomenon could continue for more years to come.

Already, the world’s smartest computer can do 200,000 trillion calculations per second.

Plenty of AI experts predict that sometime in the next two decades, machine intelligence will reach human-level intelligence.

Dr. Ben Goertzel told me he thinks we have a decent chance of AI reaching human-level intelligence by 2029.

When that happens, how will we treat our robots? Will we own them? Will we tax robot labor like Bill Gates has suggested? Should robots vote? And what about falling in love? Surely, machine intelligence can also be programmed to also be able to develop strong attachments to humans or other robots.

While giving robots extreme intelligence through AI seems certain to happen in the future, getting robots to be sentient beings with free will, creativity, and original feelings is more complicated.

Some people think robots will need a slight jolt of spontaneous irrationality programmed in their behavior if they are to be partially unpredictable like humans often behave.

This is scary for me, but in the end, to get robots similar and compatible with humans, we will need to create them so they are not always rational — just like ourselves.

Otherwise, it’s unlikely we will have share true empathy with them — even if humans start to marry them.

At age 46, it’s too early for me to think of grandkids, but like having children, I look forward to the cycle of human life continuing and hope I get to be a grandparent one day.

Even if a robot could be my daughter’s intellectual equal, and love and take care of her someday as spouses do, there’d be no chance for biological offspring from the robot.

This leaves me somewhat sad and empty.

Naturally, there are many reasons my daughter might not have children, but marrying a robot to some extent guarantees that the traditional concept of human procreation is all but impossible.

These feelings and thoughts of mine worry me, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s correct to feel this way. I worry I’m being closed-minded and even a bigot.

Hollywood has recently made a go at presenting these dilemmas in science fiction movies, most famously by the movie Her, where a lonely worker finds consolation in a virtual mate.

Another one is Ex Machina, where the AI is nearly perfectly human-like.

Typically, AI movies try to explore a frequent issue humans have with robots, called ‘the uncanny valley’.

This phenomenon, first described by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori, says robots that try to act like humans cause people emotional discomfort.

This may be what is causing me concern when it comes to my daughter marrying a robot.

Making a lifelong commitment seems very biologically emotional.

It’s hard to imagine a robot understanding love and marriage in the crazy, romantic, and maybe even hormonal way humans go about it.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s just my fears that are getting in the way of thinking of robots as living entities capable of all the traits humans are.

After all, our brains are three-pound pieces of meat firing billions of neurons to think thoughts and feel the way we do.

If robots have the capacity and software, they may be able to think and feel nearly exactly the same way we do.

In fact, they may be able to feel and understand more if they possess additional capacity compared to us.

It’s even possible that by not encouraging my daughter to be open to love AIs in the future, I might be shortchanging her, which is the last thing a parent would ever want to do.

Ultimately, I believe in loving my daughter, regardless how sophisticated technology becomes.

If she chooses as an adult to marry anyone or anything — so long as she has rationally and deeply thought all of it through — then I want to support her choices.

Even if in the future her spouse is not of human form.


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