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Social circuitry

Love + Sex with Robots: the evolution of human-robot relationships, by David Levy


Kathleen Richardson
posted 29 April 2008

‘Material relations between persons appear as social relations between things’ wrote Karl Marx in Capital to describe how under capitalism, mere things can appear to have social relations. Yet Marx didn’t ask if things really can have social relations with other things, or if in fact people can have genuine social relations with things. These questions used to be answered by social anthropologists and religious scholars, but now they are increasingly the preoccupation of computer scientists and artificial intelligence (AI) researchers, and it is in this context that they are explored in David Levy’s Love + Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human Robot Relationships.

If AI researchers are notorious for anything it is making outrageous predictions about the future of technology. And Levy’s work follows in the footsteps of Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, Hans Moravec’s ROBOT: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind and Rodney Brooks’ Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us (though unlike Levy, Brooks actually makes robots). Kurzweil and Moravec in particular have predicted everything from human consciousness being downloaded into machines to computers surpassing human-like intelligence before 2050. Levy’s book is timely, since it was recently announced that the EU is to fund the LIREC (Living with Robots and Interactive Companions) project. The multi-million Euro project will examine how to make people both like and accept robots. Levy’s position in the book is clear: humans simply will have relationships with robots. He even gives a date: 2025.

His rationale is as follows: humans form attachments to animals, machines and things: they gender and anthropomorphise them in various ways, and since this is how human beings behave, it is inevitable that they will eventually form relationships with humanoid robots. Writers of social studies of science and technology have for years been trying to convince scientists and technologists about the cultural nature of their objects, but now technologists are using social studies to validate their arguments about computer and robotic capabilities. Amidst this discussion, Levy’s book poses interesting questions – why do humans tend to gender their objects? Or think their computers have personalities? But rather than engaging with the why and how of these issues, he simply takes their existence as evidence for the inevitably of human-robot affairs.

Levy is known more for his gaming expertise than his research in robotics, and he synthesises research in human-computer interaction, pet studies and social studies of science and technology. He draws heavily on the analysis and case studies of Byron Reeves and Clifford Nash (The Media Equation), Sherry Turkle (The Second Self) on human-machine/robot relationships, alongside MIT team’s design of robots like Kismet. Now housed in MIT’s Museum, Kismet is a disembodied robotic head designed to engage human interlocutors in interactions. Levy uses Kismet as an example of what is possible between humans and robots, so long as the robot has human-like communicative and physical features. He also examines case studies of robotic toys. One in particular, AIBO, a robotic dog designed by Sony (he forgets to mention that the AIBO dog was discontinued by Sony in March 2006 due to expense and poor sales) showed people reacted to AIBO similarly to ‘real’ dogs. Levy’s robotic speculations in the text are inferences from these basic studies: ‘The human propensity for loving our pets thus informs our understanding of the emotional attraction to computers, to robot pets and humanoid robots’ (p63). Human-animal relations are interesting, but can we use them as a barometer of human-robot relationships? Apart from the tenuous physical similarities, robot pets are much like robot people: easier to manage. Unlike ‘real’ pets, robots can be switched off, don’t pee and don’t need to be taken for walks. In fact, Sony’s first AIBOs did pee but the mechanism was removed as users disliked it, which shows our investments in living creatures are different from those in robot pets. But if robots pets are simplified versions of living pets, then what about human-like robots?

Levy draws extensively on Turkle’s studies, particularly her study of robots as ‘transitional objects’ – those that allow children to move on from their caregiver. Turkle’s studies mainly concern children and adolescents, but this does not deter Levy from making generalisations about human-robot relationships in the future: ‘Replace “young child” with “adult” and replace “doll or teddy bear” with “computer”’ (p70). Word play is a useful way to think about the book, and if it were written with the phrase ‘human-robot love’ omitted it would probably be a better read.  Yet any actual references to robots have their feet firmly in fantasy: ‘robots will be programmable never to fall out of love with their human’ (p132); ‘surprises adds a spark to a relationship, and it might therefore prove necessary to program robots with a varying degree of imperfection to in order to maximize their owner’s relationship satisfaction’ (p137); and my favourite hypothetical scenario, ‘when its human, in a fit of pique, shouts at the robot, “I wish you weren’t always so goddamn calm”, the robot would reprogram itself to be slightly less emotionally stable’ (p145).

Rather than talk purely in terms of the technology and how it might develop, Levy focuses on how human factors could form basis for incredibly advanced robotic technologies. The human disposition to animate, anthropomorphise and see agency in non-human things offers an avenue of opportunity for roboticists. Robots can become assimilated in human culture because humans already attribute human-like qualities to nonhuman things and animals. Levy cites plenty of studies concerning how computer use and design can be understood and improved for human use. But these studies show that when people ‘humanise’ computers they often do so independently of the of the machines’ designers’ intentions. And that is because of the deeper reason that humans are embedded in a culture where various models of gender exist. 

Yet what good is technology if it only works, only plays the role we assign to it, because we imagine it to? Levy too admits this in his writing, ‘Imagine…a world in which the boundary between our perceptions of robots and our perceptions of our fellow humans [have] become so blurred that most of us treat robots as though they are mental, social, and moral beings’. This is what is at heart of the problem of Levy’s argument as a technologist. He makes out the success of today’s human-like and animal robots is less to do with the robots’ capabilities and more to do with human perceptions of them.

When I first began my fieldwork in early 2003 in robotics labs, I was told how making robots more human-like would make using them easier. Take for instance various remote controls – surely technology that could be communicated with would be simpler – yet in the last five years it seems that arguments for more human-like technology is less to do with how we use technology and more to do with how human we perceive it to be. Despite being about love and sex with robots, actual robotic technology is only presented hypothetically in this book, perhaps because of the pressing (or depressing) problems faced by AI researchers and roboticists in simulating human-like intelligence and behaviours. Levy is really making an argument for a technology of illusion. This is a long way off from technology that can actually do something regardless of what humans imagine it to be doing. Perhaps the book should be renamed Love + Sex with Robots: Why it does not matter what technology can do anymore!


Kathleen Richardson has just completed her doctoral studies in the department of social anthropology, University of Cambridge. Kathleen conducted fieldwork in robotic labs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Her thesis, Annihilating Difference? Robots and Building Design at MIT, examined the breakdown of boundaries between humans and nonhumans through a study of robots. In May 2006, she produced the play, RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots) written by Karel Capek (1921) and the source of the first robots. She is currently working for BT researching social relationships and new technologies.


ELIZA is a therapeutic computer program designed by Joseph Weizenbaum.

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You: Hello
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You: Will humans have relationships with robots?
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Eliza: Why do you mention computers?
You: I didn't mention computers.
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