Saturday 20 February 2021 7:00 am

You Sex-AI thing - why relationships could be next to go digital

It is fair to suggest that the art of dating and formulating new relationships has undergone a paradigm shift over the past year. 

The notion of digitised matchmaking is nothing new of course, but that stage of the journey is traditionally followed by face-to-face interactions and experiences to complete the process. 

However, with COVID-19 expediting feelings of isolation, detachment and loneliness across the country, has the role of artificial intelligence in sex and relationships been pushed towards mainstream consideration?

Until now, this idea has very much remained on the periphery of social consciousness, or even acceptability. Even in popular culture, films such as Her and Ex Machina would be found under the SciFi category on streaming networks. But is it really such a bizarre concept to imagine? 

Read more: Dating app Bumble boosts size of its IPO offering

Back in 2018, Forbes described sex robots as ‘the most disruptive technology we didn’t see coming’, while predicting that robots in different forms and to different extents will become more familiar companions in the future. A year later, there were already concerns around the potential of dehumanising human relationships as a result of this wave.

Moving into 2020, amid lockdown life, both the technologies being developed, and their reason for use, evolved further. 

As such, AI relationships’ transition from a trend on society’s edge, to the next best alternative in the current climate, may not be such a big leap after all, looking forward. As people attempt to fulfil human connections with less human interaction, we may indeed be on the cusp of a surge in AI, robot and virtual relationships.

Examining gender in AI

The perfect storm of the rise of AI, meeting human demand for digitised relationships, is a trend that Kaspersky has inadvertently been monitoring through its own research over the past 18 months. Firstly, unveiling the ‘From science fiction to modern reality: Examining Gender in AI’ report in October 2019, we looked to assess the rise of AI as a human entity. R

ather than it being just a support tool to augment processes and human performance in industry and enterprise, we instead looked at how AI manifests itself in systems’ dialogues, communications and interactions. In this regard, a host of gender biases were brought to light; often stemming from the creator’s own preferences or prejudices.

Prime examples included satellite navigation voices, various chatbot applications, smart speakers or voice assistants – all of which are more familiar as female voices programmed to interact with the user, on demand. 

The burgeoning question is ‘why?’. But, within this particular subject, are two interesting prospects. Firstly, while gender bias is unequivocally wrong, with AI it has already planted a seed of awareness that AI systems, machines and robots can adopt a gender. They’re not just blocks of hardware and algorithms designed to present solutions. They have a recognisable voice akin to the same human relationships we’re missing out on at this very moment.

Secondly, if the creator pool becomes more diverse, but the creator bias holds true, then it is also likely that resultant systems will become more tangibly attractive to different groups of people. They will have been subconsciously designed for the creators’ wants and are therefore likely to also appeal to others within their demographic.

Read more: Fishing for likes: Facebook takes on Tinder as it rolls out dating service

Love and loneliness

Then, in 2020, came a reason why people might look to explore this potential more concertedly. Loneliness was on the rise. Tech became the only link to the outside world. Videocall technologies, online dating, online gaming, chatbots, or even conducting conversations with virtual assistants such as Alexa, were all prevalent activities to mitigate feelings of loneliness.

And it was younger age categories that found it hardest. More than any other demographic, it is Gen Z and millennial individuals who have struggled the most, as their normalities of frequent social gatherings and dating came to a halt. They are also the more likely age groupings to dabble with new innovations and tech. Critically, they may now be the catalyst for longer-term shifts in the relationship realm.

Securing a new relationship dynamic

A year has passed since COVID entered our lives, and sadly the situation still remains the same for so many. Fleeting respite last summer won’t have altered a new norm for most where anything outside of their existing households is off limits. 

During this period, people will have become more familiar, confident, reliant and creative with the technology and applications they use. And as feelings of loneliness intensify, it is fair and understandable to deduce that the idea of artificial comfort, company or closeness is no longer as bizarre as it may have seemed back in 2019.

Valentine’s Day won’t have helped those already struggling with feelings of detachment.

So it is important not to stigmatise solutions that are becoming more viable and effective. The use of AI and robots to enhance sex and relationships won’t be for everyone, but for those who do explore this burgeoning territory it is equally important not to force them underground or out of the mainstream discussion.

As ever with technology, to do so would be to create a less secure environment for the market solutions being used. 

In the same way the past year has called for heightened education around phishing scams, malware, data protection, VPN or password effectiveness, it is knowledge that keeps people safe. And knowledge can only be shared if everything is out in the open, and if we start this new human-machine relationship on the right foot.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

Share: