Can Robots Cure Our Loneliness?

Despite being more connected than ever, beyond our screens we’re still seeking physical intimacy and comfort.

In his book The Master Algorithm, Pedro Domingos suggests there will be a robot in every house “someday”: doing the dishes, making the beds, even looking after the children while the parents work. A Professor at University of Washington and researcher in machine learning, Domingos is a firm believer in the idea that robots will be able to help us with our most basic needs, but doesn’t breach the topic of emotional wellbeing and loneliness. Yet there’s constant debate about whether technology increases our levels of loneliness – even though social media was supposed to put an end to isolation.

According to a survey released by Lifeline in 2016, more than 80 per cent of Australians believe our society is becoming a lonelier place. A recent SBS Dateline episode on Robots and Love profiled the culture of Japanese people who saythey are ‘too busy’ for love”. The Japanese Prime Minister’s solution is to fill this relationship gap with robots.

It doesn’t look like Australia is going to be heading down that route anytime soon, but we’re still embracing different types of technology to feel less lonely.

#1 Do more than just hit that ‘Like’ button

Loneliness is often accompanied by feelings of inadequacy, status anxiety, invisibility or isolation. Loneliness isn’t a modern phenomenon but today it’s framed as a symptom of social media, an affliction of the socially desolate.

You don’t want to end up like Tom Hanks in Castaway, talking to Wilson the volleyball. Human-to-human relationships require effort. It’s also necessary to understand more abstract concepts like consent, experimentation and intimacy. These things require practice. Accept that it will never going to be easy. And you shouldn’t expect it to be.

#2 Don’t expect technology to solve all your problems

It’s only natural that we turn to technology as a way of solving our problems. If you don’t know how to make friends or it’s always been troubling for you, technology opens doors. Can’t find a decent sexual partner to grind down those gears? Almost every woman I know has a pink vibrator and spare pack of batteries. It’s fine. Sexual intimacy can be enjoyed on one’s own.

The rise of the sex robot looks like a saviour to the perpetually lonely, or sexually shy, or even those who think themselves sexually forward. They encourage experimentation or self-discovery before trying out the ‘real deal’, that deal being a human person. What robots do is encourage this idea of having relationships with property. How long before we see a real-life situation a la Lars and the Real Girl? The dark side of using those tech solutions to solve our loneliness is that it makes things like ‘involuntary’ abstinence and consent super abstract.

A piece of tech can’t say no to one of your sexual whims— if they do, then they’re not really satisfying the purpose of their existence.

This makes the waters murky, as isn’t being considered property the problem that most sex workers have with consent and rights? After a while, sex robots might even lead us to misunderstanding the definition of human and robots. Making something (or someone?) yield to our sexual fantasies, understanding them to be our property (after all, we bought the sex robot with our cash right?) blurs the lines of consent.

#3 Communities must continue to exist

The more distance we put in front of ourselves, the harder it becomes to achieve a real human connection. Social media and robot use rises steadily when people feel isolated. Online communities make that feeling more bearable because they give us the warmth we crave. Robots don’t give us warmth; they don’t build communities or links in the way people can. A robot is a one-person solution and there’s nothing to gain from that relationship other than temporary relief.

There’s no need for alarm now – sex robots are only beginning to enter the market but for now, we have a pretty lax stance on tech ethics, especially given the rapid evolution of how we’re designing these ‘solutions’. Young people are most vulnerable because they’re more willing to try, experiment and embrace these new technologies. While this is generally a great attitude, it means that we might be susceptible to tech that might be destructive to our interpersonal and emotional strength.

Technology isn’t going to address our ethics problem. Tech is going facilitate a lot of things that we don’t even have ethics or laws for—that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be vigilant about how it’s going to affect our lives.

If you’re in need of help, try Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue.