Many researchers have voiced ethical concerns about the potential effects of machine companionship. They are concerned that the more that people turn to machine companions, the more they’ll lose touch with other humans—yet another shift toward an existence of being “alone together,” to use sociologist Sherry Turkle’s term.
Despite this apprehension, there is surprisingly little research that examines the effects of machine partners. We know quite a bit about how technology, in general, affects people in relationships, such as the benefits and harms of sexting among young adults, and the ways in which online dating platforms influence the long-term success of relationships.
Understanding the benefits and drawbacks of AI partners is a bit more complicated.
We are now in an age of what sociologist Elyakim Kislev calls “relationships 5.0” in which we are “moving from technologies used as tools controlling human surroundings and work to technologies that are our ecosystem in and of themselves.”
As we have seen with dating apps, technological advancements in the context of relationships initially face skepticism and disagreement. However, there’s no question that people seem capable of forming deep attachments with AI systems.
Take the app Replika. It’s been marketed as the “AI companion who cares”—a virtual boyfriend or girlfriend that promises to engage users in deeply personal conversations, including sexting and dirty talk.
Early last year, the Italian Data Protection Authority ordered that the app stop processing Italian users’ data. As a result, the developers changed how Replika interacts with its users—and some of these users went on to express feelings of grief, loss and heartbreak, not unlike the emotions felt after a breakup with a human partner.
Legislators are still figuring out how to regulate sex and love with machines. But if we have learned anything about the ways in which technology has already become integrated into our relationships, it is likely that sexual and romantic relationships with AI-equipped systems and robots will become more common in the not-so-distant future. The Conversation