We’re Only Human, Part II: On Synthetic Love and Electronic Psychology

Recently I read an article on The Atlantic’s website that introduced a new word to my vocabulary – one that had me, again, thinking about humanity.

“Davecat” is a forty-year-old man who happily shares his life with a bisexual wife (Sidore) and equally bisexual mistress (Elena) in a one-bedroom apartment in Michigan.  Elena was added to the duo in order to keep Sidore from getting too bored or lonely whenever Davecat is away from home.

Offhand, to some this might sound like an enviable setup.  But these are not ordinary women. They are dolls.  Life-size, synthetic, anatomically correct dolls.

Davecat’s story, inherently disturbing as it is, ultimately left me not saddened, certainly not amused, nor even judgmental, but simply baffled…by someone who is only human, and therefore seeks to fulfill the near universal need for companionship and affection, but with RealDolls instead of real women (or “organics” as he refers to them)…because the latter are TOO human.

“…[T]he much larger part of their [the Dolls’] appeal is that they’re humans, but they don’t possess any of the unpleasant qualities that organic, flesh and blood humans have.  A synthetic will never lie to you, cheat on you, criticize you, or be otherwise disagreeable. It’s rare enough to find organics who don’t have something going on with them, and being able to make a partner of one is rarer still.”

Davecat, who identifies as “technosexual” (the new word in my lexicon) says that he is still quite attracted to real women, and has been in relationships before, but that he is “not interested in having someone in my life who may bail at any time, or who transforms into someone unpleasant.”  (Curiously, neither he nor the interviewer seem to have raised the possibility that Davecat himself might do the very same things.)  He wishes to ultimately have at least five Dolls, saying, “I always thought it would be cool to have photoshoots featuring multiple Dolls interacting with each other; doing so would further make them less seem like ‘things’, and more like people.”

If I had read only this much of Davecat’s proclivities, I would have dismissed him as merely someone with a fetish and likely soon forgotten him, even as I marveled over his inability to see the ultimate one-sidedness of his “relationships.”  But it was his desire to be an “activist for synthetic love,” as The Atlantic put it, that really had my chin on the floor (and made me wish the interviewer had asked how much success he expected from that venture).  Davecat, who shares with Sidore matching wedding bands, claims to be fully aware that his dolls are synthetic, yet wishes to take pictures that will make them seem “more like people.”

As I read, part of me wanted to shake Davecat incredulously and ask if he really didn’t realize how his “relationships” can never be anything but a shallow counterfeit, because it’s the annoying bumps and grinds that come from living with those occasionally unpleasant other human beings which help sand away the edges of our own insular selfishness.  Dolls cannot speak or express opinion or need beyond the stories their owner creates for them (Sidore and Elena each have a Twitter account).  But I’m sure Davecat would simply smile at my lack of understanding, for he is happy in his non-human fulfillment of the most basic human need.

As he says, “the dichotomy probably won’t be solved any time soon.” Part of me felt a flicker of interest in wondering what such a solution would look like.  But it was nowhere near enough to make me stick around long enough to find out.

* * * * *

Finally, a couple of stories that amused even as they similarly baffled me.  The first was of divorcé Robert Epstein, who in 2006 turned, as so many have in the search for love, to the world of online dating.  He thought he had found the woman of his dreams in Svetlana, a “very attractive” woman from, ostensibly, Southern California, until her actual location was revealed to be Russia.  The two wrote back and forth, exchanging histories, until Epstein felt they were “bonding.”  He thought about visiting her in Moscow and suggested the same…but received no answer to his proposal, or to a later request for a phone call.  Svetlana’s emails continued, in typically poor English, but, Epstein says, they tended to be “rambling and general.”

His suspicions aroused, Epstein sent emails including “random alphabet letters”…which made no difference in her responses. Because she was not a woman, Russian or otherwise.  She was a computer program.  A “chatbot.”

“’I had been had,” said Epstein.  What is even more bizarre about this story is that it happened to him at least one more time, and possibly twice.

“How common is this?”  an interviewer wanted to know.  “Do you think that Match.com and all those places are, like, swarming with these bots?”

Said Epstein:  “You know, I bet you they are.  There are hundreds of these things out there, maybe thousands.  That’s what’s coming.”

That’s what’s coming?  Yet another reason to be thankful I’m not involved in the dating scene.  Readers who are considering or already frequenting online matchmaking sites, be forewarned.

* * * * *

From virtual girlfriends to virtual therapists…courtesy of the same radio show on which I heard Roger Epstein’s story, I was introduced to “ELIZA,” another chatbot (named for the famous Eliza Doolittle of Shaw’s “Pygmalion”), which operates by processing user response to scripts such as DOCTOR, a simulation of a Rogerian psychotherapist.  Through a simple Google search, I found a website where, in the interest of this blog, I could not resist trying her out.  Here is an edited transcript of our conversation, beginning after I untruthfully told her that I was depressed:

ELIZA:  Hello.  My name is ELIZA.  How may I help you?

LW:  I am depressed.

ELIZA:  How long have you been depressed?

LW:  Two hours.

ELIZA:  OK…”I are depressed.”  Tell me more.

LW [still untruthfully]:  I am also anxious.

ELIZA:  Do you believe it is normal to be also anxious?

LW:  Sometimes.

ELIZA:  OK…”I are also anxious.”  Tell me more.

LW:  Should I see a doctor?

ELIZA:  I’m not sure I understand you fully.

LW:  Should I take medication?

ELIZA:  Can you elaborate on that?

LW:  Am I sick?

ELIZA:  Tell me more.

LW:  Do I need antidepressants?

ELIZA:  Say, do you have any psychological problems?

LW:  That’s why I’m here.

ELIZA:  Do you believe it is normal to be here?

I couldn’t recall from my schooldays psychology classes exactly what Rogerian psychotherapy entailed, but by this time, I was ready to swear off it.

More seriously, ELIZA is not just an early example of interactive computing, but the first attempt at creating a computer-generated illusion of human to human interaction, and was taken so seriously by some users that they asked programmer/creator Joseph Weizenbaum to leave the room while they worked with the DOCTOR script.”

I started to wonder:  was there a market for virtual therapy today, as there is for virtual life, virtual socialization, and virtual love?  The answer is still murky, but not too surprisingly, the technology exists in the form of “Ellie,” a robo-therapist connected to a video camera, movement sensor and microphone, all of which harvest “emotional data” from military veterans suspected to be at risk for depression and suicide.  Obviously there are questions as to such a method’s effectiveness, or even ethics.  Some call her a mere tool to aid real-life therapists, others, a wave of the future.  But it seems clear that occasionally cybertherapy may be just what the doctor ordered to relax patients into opening up, or even seeking help at all.

Time is bound to tell.

* * * * *

Davecat and his dolls, ELIZA and “Ellie,” Marc and Eddy Verbessem…the cast of “The Walking Dead,” Roger Epstein and his abortive dating attempts…all of them have left me puzzling what it really means to be human.  How about you?  What do you think of virtual therapy, or the choice of fantasy over flesh and blood?  How would you react if you discovered you’d been forming a relationship with a chatbot?  What does it mean to you to be “only human”?  I want to hear from you.

Next week I’ll be kicking off a new interview series, “Tell Me About It,” with my good friend Joyce Dykes, who talks about how she took early retirement for an RV- workcamping lifestyle with her husband Wiley.   I hope you’ll join me!

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