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znet.com. Will this be the touch that touches back?

With the advances in artificial intelligence comes the prospect of artificial intimacy. I contend however that “relationships” with robots do not personify them, and do not humanize the individual. That is to say, artificial intimacy with [sex] robots further depersonalizes humans – forcing humans to be individuals rather than persons. It further conceals the ontology that we are made in the image and likeness of God, created to be persons in relation to the One who made us for Himself, and to be in relation with other persons.

What’s the Difference between Persons and Individuals?

Georg Simmel was able to distinguish the difference between persons and individuals when he defined individuals as “closed, self-centred, unambiguously distinct beings.” Thus he states that intimacy cannot be achieved merely in the presence of “intimate content”, rather relationship is based on its “un-individual ingredients.” He suggests that intimacy probably becomes more and more difficult as differentiation among individuals increase… “modern man, possibly, has too much to hide to sustain a friendship… personalities are perhaps too uniquely individualized to allow full reciprocity of understanding and receptivity…”

Having too much to hide to sustain friendship means that the individual relies more heavily on the secrecy and isolation that technology affords – even seeking “intimacy ingredients” from technology wherein artificial intelligence offers nothing more than artificial intimacy. This secrecy and isolation comes out of a loneliness that James Houston says is “the result of ambiguous relationships, which in a technological society are bred by the double threat of meaninglessness and powerlessness.” Dr. Ashley Moyse elaborates on this double threat when he states that “the essence of technology is to see everything as raw material to be bestowed value or discarded, and to control all nature, including our own.”

The Misplaced Optimism of Homo Deus

Historian Yuval Harari, appears to greet this eventuality optimistically as he considers humans to be “the self-made gods of planet earth… who will shape the twenty-first century—from overcoming death to creating artificial life.”

“Every day millions of people decide to grant their smartphone a bit more control over their lives or try a new and more effective antidepressant drug. In pursuit of health, happiness and power, humans will gradually change first one of their features and then another, and another, until they will no longer be human.”

In a recent interview with Harari, Derek Thompson considered the algorithms of artificial intelligence bringing him closer to himself.

“… Over time, my decisions have been reduced to brain signals and brain signal readers. ‘I’ am not special, or sacred, or even individual. I’m a vessel for a bunch of signals that are best read by a computer. There’s no room for ‘me’ in that arrangement.”

Yuval Harari replied,

“What really happens is that the self disintegrates. It’s not that you understand your true self better, but you come to realize there’s no true self. There is just a complicated connection of biochemical connections, without a core. There’s no authentic voice that lives inside you.”

Harari therefore asks:

where do we go from here?

Humankind will next seek immortality, boundless happiness and divine powers of creation. But the pursuit of these very goals will ultimately render most human beings superfluous…

This is the shape of the new world, and the gap between those who get on-board and those left behind will be bigger than the gap between… Sapiens and Neanderthals.  This is the next stage of evolution. This is Homo Deus.

Face to Face with our Superfulous-ness?

It is difficult to see how Harari thinks humankind will gain divine powers of creation as humankind concurrently becomes superfluous. In contrast to this diminishing value of humankind, Simmel offers a profoundly different perspective to personhood. He makes an observation about the “mutual glance between persons… that signifies a whole new and unique union between them… What occurs in this direct mutual glance represents the most perfect reciprocity in the entire field of human relationships.” Raya Jones says this mutual glance “is the dialogical space between persons”, and asks, “what happens to this quality in encounters with robots? Would you look a robot in the eye?”

Jones notes that designers of socially interactive robots are well aware that without eye contact – without this face to face interaction – people are not fully engaged in conversation: “Eye gaze is one of the most important non-verbal cues helping humans to understand the intention of other social agents…” thus “creating the illusion of eye contact poses technological challenges of designing robot eyes that communicate gaze…” a person wants to know there is “someone behind those eyes.”

The illusion of eye contact exemplifies the artificialness of artificial intimacy. Robotic scientists and social scientists are exploring how people usually connect with each other in order to predict “how [they] are likely to interact with robotic platforms” for the express purpose of social interfacing with robots (in stead of, or in replacement of persons). In reaction to this, Dr. Kathleen Richardson contends that intimacy with robots “is not a mutual experience… Sex is an experience of human beings – not bodies as property, not separated minds, not objects; it’s a way for us to enter into our humanity with another human being.”

Intimacy: Greater than the Sum of its Parts

Though sex is often mistaken as the locus of intimacy, intimacy is a more robust notion in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – or to borrow Simmel’s metaphor – intimacy is greater than the sum of it’s [intimacy] ingredients. Intimacy requires relational mutuality and reciprocity. In other words, intimacy can only occur with and between persons; the best that artificial intelligence of robots can provide is the artificial intimacy of the interaction of intimate ingredients devoid of the mutuality of personhood.

Relationships with robots do not personify them, and do not humanize us. Artificial intimacy depersonalizes humans for it further conceals that we are made in the image and likeness of God, created to be persons in relation to the One who made us for Himself, and to be in relation with other persons. What it means to be a person is rooted entirely in what it means for God to be a person – for we access this understanding on personhood from the Triune God who Himself is a Person – that is to say God is a Person in Relation, or as John Zizioulas succinctly states, God’s Being is Communion.

This is more enigma than dogma.


Originally presented as a paper in “Theo-Anthropology in the 21st Century

“Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Intimacy: The dehumanizing and depersonalizing influences of technology.”