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Science

‘Artificial Intimacy’ examines our loving relationship with technology

Are AI romantic partners really on the way?

In Rob Brooks’ Artificial Intimacy: Virtual Friends, Digital Lovers and Algorithmic Matchmakers, the University of New South Wales professor examines the way that artificial intelligence has affected our relationships with the world around us, and how that impact may continue to grow as technology improves. Brooks looks at these relationships from his perspective as an evolutionary biologist specializing in the study of how sex and reproductive strategies affect the behaviors of animals. As such, while many of the issues brought up in Artificial Intimacy can be applied to technology as a whole, Brooks keeps a tight focus on the way AI affects interpersonal relationships on both a macro and micro level.

Artificial Intimacy adroitly navigates some of the fear-mongering around new technology.

Brooks approaches the subject matter in a way that helps keep the bar for entry low, starting with our present day realities: social media, robot pets, and digital scammers, looking at how each of these developments has impacted the day-to-day lives of people. Artificial Intimacy adroitly navigates some of the fear-mongering around new technology without falling into naive optimism, instead addressing the benefits and pitfalls of AI with a combination of objectivity and humanism.

Artificial Intimacy then moves into its titular content, how this advancing technology affects human relationships. To do this, Brooks looks at both evolutionary science and sociology, examining sex as an evolutionary tool and the ways that technological advancements change the way humans relate to sex. Brooks cautions against the naturalistic fallacy, creating two commandments for his book:

Commandment 1: Never cherry-pick examples of how other species behave in order to claim that similar behavioral in humans is more “natural.”

Commandment 2: That which is “natural” is not necessarily good, nor right, nor inevitable.

The reasons for these commandments becomes evident as Artificial Intimacy moves further into the sociological side of literal sex machines. To extrapolate what may happen with the proliferation of better, more intimate artificial intelligences, Brooks looks at how past advances have led to changes in relationships. This includes how farming led to women being moved inside the home, allowing for a decrease in the visibility of their work, and thus a diminished value applied to their work.

Brooks also looks at cultures outside of the Western purview, examining sexuality and sexual practices of the peoples of the Chiricahua, the Amazonian Mehinaku, and the Namibian Himba. These sections are a bit brief, with Brooks utilizing the information gathered by anthropologists, rather than information accumulated more directly. But Brooks still effectively illustrates the way different cultures have confronted the the challenges of sex as a resource, highlighting the diversity of solutions that have come up in various cultures, and providing a strong foundation for a more complex look at how technology changes sex.

Brooks doesn’t shy away from some of the more controversial social ramifications of sexuality and gender, with ample space in Artificial Intimacy dedicated to addressing incels and violence due to toxic masculinity and sexual frustration. Brooks draws attention to the way that scientific research and its language have been appropriated by men seeking to rationalize the worst aspects of their own behavior. Brooks avoids a patronizing tone, and though the book suggests ways in which technology can replicate and possibly replace human intimacy, he rightfully points out the flaws in the idea of pushing AI substitutes onto a sexually frustrated population.

On the technological end, Artificial Intimacy looks at the way algorithms on websites and apps like Facebook, OkCupid, Tinder, and OnlyFans learn from our behavior to develop faster, more engaging results, and how the data gleaned from our interactions can be shared between sites, eliminating a true sense of privacy for even our most intimate thoughts and desires.

The various scenarios range from apocalypse to utopian, with the mundane in between.

Brooks closes with a look at possible futures, examining multiple different scenarios where technology, sex, and society intersect. The various scenarios range from apocalypse to utopian, with the mundane in between. At the same time he points out that apprehensions about technology and the moral questions surrounding them are the same as they’ve always been.

In the end, Artificial Intimacy leaves the reader with a new understanding – and a million curiosities – about how technology influences our intimate relationships, and how that might change in the future.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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