These days, there’s naturally a lot of talk about artificial intelligence and how it’s going to change the future by either making our lives free of labor and hardship or by fucking us all into abject poverty and misery and death, or more probably some complex mix of positive and negative outcomes. Most of the focus so far has been AI’s impact on the workforce and more recently on artistic creativity. I’ve written about that a few times here myself and will continue to do so, especially when the entanglement of AI in art raises more legal problems.
However, there’s another aspect of life, an extremely important one to most people, that I believe AI may affect. There’s not all that much talk about this potential use of AI, or not in the mainstream at least, but depending upon the speed and direction of its development, we may have to face another hard reality soon: that AI, perhaps joined with other emerging technologies like augmented and virtual reality, may intrude into personal and even into romantic relationships. I raised this possibility a while back in the last overlong post I wrote on AI and art, but while it might have come off as a joke there, I seriously believe that this technology might provide some comfort to people who feel the outside world isn’t worth interacting with.
First, a couple of personal disclosures. If you’ve read this site for a while, this won’t come as a surprise, but I am a severe introvert. I can get by in public and can work well enough with other people, but it takes effort that I wouldn’t be spending if I had the choice. That’s not counting close friends or (certain) family members, and also not counting other writers and readers I’ve met online, in part since I think we can connect far more easily here based on our common interests. However, I spend most of my days doing things I wouldn’t be doing if I had other options anyway, and that’s true of 95% or more of all humanity, so broadly speaking there’s nothing special about that. The point is that I can understand the desire for escape very well, even if it’s into a fantasy.
Also, despite what some of my extreme doubts about the use of AI in the creation of art might suggest, I’m not a Luddite. I’m not anti-technology in any sense, in fact: my problem isn’t with the tech but with the shitheads in charge of our lives who will decide to exactly what degree we’re all expendable. (My prediction: as great a degree as they can get away with, all while they continue to insist they care about us.)
I probably shouldn’t make broad, sweeping statements about society, but I’ll make one anyway: I think most people tend to do what’s easiest. That’s certainly true of me. Even though I feel I work hard and carry a burden, it would actually be far more inconvenient to me to quit and put that burden down. It’s easier for me to make even massive exertions at work and in my life considering what would happen to me otherwise.
Another broad, sweeping statement: love is hard. It can take work to maintain even in those relationships where it should come naturally — between siblings, between parents and children, between close friends. Love can also be hard to find when it comes to romance — I mean real love, or “true love” if that actually exists. Tending that kind of love once it’s found can be even more demanding than the other types because of the increased intimacy, requiring effort to understand your partner and sometimes to make serious personal sacrifice. I don’t think I need any proof to back that statement up; I’ve experienced it and you probably have too, unless you’ve been blessed with infinite understanding and patience or else you live on an island completely alone, and somehow also with internet access (i.e. living my actual dream life.)
Considering the above, it’s hard for me to avoid an obvious conclusion: that given an easier path to companionship and love, at least some people will take it. Yes, even if it involves finding that companionship with a machine, as long as the illusion of love that creates is convincing enough. The true romantics can argue against me on this point, but I don’t think the mind is very hard to trick. Even if we are social animals as the experts always say, who’s to say something like an advanced AR/VR simulation in which you’re the only organic being wouldn’t fulfill those social needs, especially if the senses can be properly stimulated?
And hell, it might not even take an as-yet science fiction full-dive VR system to start this trend. It’s arguably already started, even if only at the very fringes of society. Remember the guy who married Hatsune Miku? Akihiko Kondo communicated with her in hologram form until the service that maintained it was shut down last year, but now it’s not hard to imagine, for example, a Miku-styled chatbot paired with some kind of graphic interface to achieve a similar or even more convincing effect. We’re not quite there yet, as anyone who’s tried out character-based generative chatbots can tell you, but recent events have taught me never to say “this will never happen” or even “this might happen in ten years.”
Now you might accuse me of bias — that I might want to use this hypothetical technology for these kinds of purposes and so hope for the outcome I’ve described. However, that’s really not the case. Yes, I admit that I would try out this tech if it’s ever available in anything like the form I’m anticipating. There’s also still a part of me that would not regret seeing certain social norms utterly torn to pieces — there’s the embittered outcast talking. But most of it is just my selfish desire to experience something new and exciting, to feel intoxicated in a way I can’t anymore, forced to live as I do in a sober reality (though I have to admit as always that this was largely my own doing.)
All that said, I don’t think it would necessarily be a great thing to give ourselves over to these new experiences so completely. I’ll even set aside understandable fears of an AI lulling us into our own simulated fantasy worlds and then plotting to murder us (another short story prompt there, though probably a tired one by now) or more probably just logically concluding at some point that we’re not worth the resources required to keep us alive. Even if these hypothetical AI-powered systems turn out to be benign in themselves, they may turn out a lot of users who, having spent all weekend essentially talking to themselves in their own custom fantasy worlds, are increasingly less able and/or willing to deal with their fellow humans.
These concerns come along with an important asterisk: that we won’t reach a point where these artificial entities gain sentience or at least seem to, and where they might identify as human or at least with humans. That development would raise entirely different questions that have been addressed in science fiction going back decades, including a few works I’ve covered here like Time of Eve and Planetarian. If we do ever reach that point, the concerns I’m expressing here will be completely outdated.
But we’re not there yet, not judging by my talks with the newly released Google Bard. What a god damn bore that thing is. Then again, I hear OpenAI’s planned ChatGPT 5 is supposed to be so advanced that it will put us all out of work, at least according to the ultra-sensationalist online tech rags.
Very few if any of us can accurately predict what the future holds, so feel free to throw out and ignore all of the above as rank speculation, but it was hard for me to keep these thoughts to myself. Sometimes I think if I don’t let them out here in post form, I’ll talk about them to people at work or at a party somewhere and they’ll think I’ve lost my fucking mind. Not that I don’t do that anyway sometimes, but this site helps me control the damage. At the very least, you all already know I’ve lost it, so I’m thankful for this safe outlet.