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Programmed for Love
Levy's book is entertaining in parts, such as the eye-opening (even climactic) section on the evolution of vibrators. "A steam-driven vibrator invented in the United States in 1869 was inconvenient for doctors to use because they repeatedly had to shovel coal into its boiler," he writes. (Who among us has not heard the command, "Keep shoveling"?)
But throughout Love and Sex with Robot s, there's a recurring sense of the writer trying a little too hard: Every brick must be carefully laid as he builds the great edifice of his thesis. Thus, we must labor through long sections on why people fall in love, why they love their pets, how they become attached to their computers, and so on, before we can get to the good stuff on sex toys. And it's not clear that Levy -- described on the book jacket as "an internationally recognized expert in artificial intelligence" -- is truly an expert on the subject of human love. He seems more like a partisan in a technological debate most of us didn't realize was going on.
No doubt it is a good bet that technology and sexual desire will continue to have a mutually supporting relationship. But Levy is not merely saying that sex toys will be more elaborate in the future. He is envisioning robots as essentially interchangeable with people. The problem is, a robot programmed to fall in love with a person is essentially a fancy inflatable doll. Imagine the awkward moments:
Robot: I love the clever way you comb those few, thin, feeble locks of hair all the way over the vast bald region of your head.
Human: You're just saying that.
Levy stipulates, near the end of the book, that an important part of sexuality is "the possibility of failure or denial," and thus sexbots will need to be able to mimic human "capriciousness." But at some point you wind up with sexbots out of control, which, come to think of it, is a great idea for a science fiction movie.
If Levy is right, the era of rambunctious robot love is not far in the future. But I'd advise everyone to hang on to a flesh-and-blood backup. *
Joel Achenbach is a Washington Post staff writer and blogs at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.