In his Naked Sun, Isaac Asimov creates the world of Solaria. What distinguishes this world from other human worlds is that it has a strictly regulated population of 20,000 humans and 10,000 robots for each human. What is perhaps the strangest feature of this world is a reversal of what many consider a basic human need: the humans of Solaria are trained to despise in-person contact with other humans, though interaction with human-like robots is acceptable. Each human lives on a huge estate, though some live “with” a spouse. When the Solarians need to communicate, they make use of a holographic telepresence system. Interestingly, they have even developed terminology to distinguish between communicating in person (called “seeing”) and communication via telepresence (“viewing”). For some Solarians the fear of encountering another human in person is so strong that they would rather commit suicide rather than endure such contact.
While this book was first serialized in 1956, long before the advent of social media and personal robots, it can be seen as prophetic. One reason science fiction writers are often seen as prophetic is that a good science fiction writer is skilled at extrapolating even from hypothetical technological and social changes. Another reason is that science fiction writers have churned out thousands of stories and some of these are bound to get something right. Such stories are then selected as examples of prophetic science fiction while stories that got things wrong are conveniently ignored. But, philosophers do love a good science fiction context for discussion, hence the use of The Naked Sun.
Almost everyone is now familiar with the popular narrative about smart phones and their role in allowing unrelenting access to social media. The main narrative is that people are, somewhat ironically, becoming increasingly isolated in the actual world as they become increasingly networked in the digital world. The defining image of this is a group of people (friends, relatives or even strangers) gathered together physically, yet ignoring each other in favor of gazing into the screens of their lords and masters. There are a multitude of anecdotes about this and many folks have their favorite tales of such events. As a professor, I see students engrossed by their phones—but, to be fair, Plato has nothing on cat videos. Like most people, I have had dates in which the other person was working two smartphones at once. And, of course, I have seen groups of people walking or at a restaurant where no one is talking to anyone else—all eyes are on the smartphones. Since the subject of smart phones has been beaten to a digital death, I will leave this topic in favor of the main focus, namely robots. However, the reader should keep in mind the social isolation created by social media.
While we have been employing robots for quite some time in construction, exploration and other such tasks, what can be called social robots are a relatively new thing. Sure, there have long been “robot” toys and things like Teddy Ruxpin (essentially a tape player embedded in a simple amnitronic bear toy). But, the creation of reasonably sophisticated social robots is a relatively new thing. In this context, a social robot is one whose primary function is to interact with humans in a way that provides companionship. This can range from a pet-like bots (like Sony’s famous robot dog) to conversational robots to (of course) sex bots.
Tech enthusiasts and the companies that are and will sell social robots are, unsurprisingly, quite positive about the future of social robots. There are, of course, some good arguments in their favor. Robot pets provide a good choice for people with allergies, who are not responsible enough for living pets, or who live in places that do not permit organic pets (although bans on robotic pets might be a thing in the future).
Robot companions can be advantageous in cases in which a person with special needs (such as someone who is ill, elderly or injured) requires round the clock attention and monitoring that would be expensive, burdensome or difficult for other humans to supply.
Sex bots could reduce the exploitation of human sex workers and perhaps have other benefits as well. I will leave this research to others, though.
Despite the potential positive aspects of social robots and social media, there are also negative aspects. As noted above, concerns are already being raised about the impact of technology on human interaction—people are emotionally shortchanging themselves and those they are physically with in favor of staying relentlessly connected to social media. This, obviously enough, seems to be a taste of what Asimov created in The Naked Sun: people who view, but no longer see one another. Given the apparent importance of human interaction in person, it can be argued that this social change is and will be detrimental to human well-being. To use an analogy, human-human social interactions can be seen as being like good nutrition: one is getting what one needs for healthy living. Interacting primarily through social media can be seen as being like consuming junk food or drugs—it is very addictive, but leaves one ultimately empty…yet always craving more.
It can be argued that this worry is unfounded—that social media is an adjunct to social interaction in the real world and that social interaction via things like Facebook and Twitter can be real and healthy social interactions. One might point to interactions via letters, telegraphs and telephones (voice only) to contend that interaction via technology is neither new nor unhealthy. It might also be pointed out that people used to ignore each other (especially professors) in favor of such things as newspapers.
While this counter does have some appeal, social robots do seem to be a different matter in that they are something new and rather radically different. While humans have had toys, stuffed animals and even simple mechanisms for non-living company, these are quite different from social robots. After all, social robots aim to effectively mimic or simulate animals or humans.
One concern about such robot companions is that they would be to social media what heroin is to marijuana in terms of addiction and destruction.
One reason for this is that social robots would, presumably, be designed to be cooperative, pleasant and compliant—that is, good company. In contrast, humans can often be uncooperative, unpleasant and defiant. This would make robotic companions rather more appealing than human company. At least the robots whose cost is not subsidized by advertising—imagine a companion who pops in a discussion of life insurance or pitches a soft drink every so often.
Social robots could also be programmed to be optimally appealing to a person and presumably the owner/user would be able to make changed to the robot. A person can, quite literally, make a friend with the desired qualities and missing undesired qualities. In the case of sex bots, a person could purchase a Mr. or Ms. Right, at least in terms of some qualities.
Unlike humans, social robots do not have other interests, needs, responsibilities or friends—there is no competition for the attention of a social robot (at least in general, though there might be shared bots) which makes them “better” than human companions in this regard.
Social robots, though they might breakdown or get hacked, will not leave or betray a person. One does not have to worry that one’s personal sex bot will be unfaithful—just turn it off and lock it down when leaving it alone.
Unlike human companions, robot companions do not impose burdens—they do not expect attention, help or money and they do not judge.
The list of advantages could go on at great length, but it would seem that robotic companions would be superior to humans in most ways—at least in regards to common complaints about companions.
Naturally, there might be some practical issues with the quality of companionship—will the robot get one’s jokes, will it “know” what stories you like to hear, will it be able to converse in a pleasing way about topics you like and so on. However, these seem to be mostly technical problems involving software. Presumably all these could eventually be addressed and satisfactory companions could be created.
Since I have written specifically about sexbots in other essays, I will not discuss those here. Rather, I will discuss two potentially problematic aspect of companion bots.
One point of obvious concern is the potential psychological harm resulting from spending too much time with companion bots and not enough interacting with humans. As mentioned above, people have already expressed concern about the impact of social media and technology (one is reminded of the dire warnings about television). This, of course, rests on the assumption that the companion bots must be lacking in some important ways relative to humans. Going back to the food analogy, this assumes that robot companions are like junk food—superficially appealing but lacking in what is needed for health. However, if the robot companions could provide all that a human needs, then humans would no longer need other humans.
A second point of concern is stolen from the virtue theorists. Thinkers such as Aristotle and Wollstonecraft have argued that a person needs to fulfill certain duties and act in certain ways in order to develop the proper virtues. While Wollstonecraft wrote about the harmful effects of inherited wealth (that having unearned wealth interferes with the development of virtue) and the harmful effects of sexism (that women are denied the opportunity to fully develop their virtues as humans), her points would seem to apply to having only or primarily robot companions as well. These companions would make the social aspects of life too easy and deny people the challenges that are needed to develop the virtues. For example, it is by dealing with the shortcomings of people that we learn such virtues as patience, generosity and self-control. Having social interactions be too easy would be analogous to going without physical exercise or challenges—one becomes emotionally soft and weak. Worse, one would not develop the proper virtues and thus would be lacking in this area. Even worse, people could easily become spoiled and selfish monsters, accustomed to always having their own way.
Since the virtue theorists argue that being virtuous is what makes people happy, having such “ideal” companions would actually lead to unhappiness. Because of this, one should carefully consider whether or not one wants a social robot for a “friend.”
It could be countered that social robots could be programmed to replicate the relevant human qualities needed to develop the virtues. The easy counter to this is that one might as well just stick with human companions.
As a final point, if intelligent robots are created that are people in the full sense of the term, then it would be fine to be friends with them. After all, a robot friend who will call you on your misdeeds or stupid behavior would be as good as a human friend who would do the same thing for you.