Thursday, 13 February 2014

A rose by any other name?

Debashish Munshi & Priya Kurian

It’s Valentine’s Day and quite a bit of the discussion around the most romantic day of the Western calendar in recent times has been on the future of Love in a technological age.  Can human love survive when more and more people seem to be so infatuated with their technological gadgets that they have little time to think about the finer points of long-term relationships?

The Sunday magazine of New Zealand’s Sunday Star-Times, in its most recent issue, features the views of a neuroethicist, a futurist, and a philosopher on what it might be to be ‘in love’ in the years ahead. In piecing together their views in an article called “The Love Equation”, Rose Hoare talks about a wide range of possibilities ranging from chemical sprays to keep wavering couples monogamous to “nano-neural interfacing” that allows people “to share thoughts and memories”.

While traditional characteristics of what it is to be human are rapidly disappearing amidst the onslaught of technology, new characteristics are emerging that are blurring the lines between human and artificial intelligence. Regardless of where we are headed, love will still have a place in some form or the other. Hoare cites the French philosopher Alan Badiou as describing love as something that allows an individual to see beyond oneself. And self-fulfilment comes only when one can see oneself reflected in another being. A ‘selfie’ on a flash new smartphone can never be a substitute.

Yet, the question raised by the new Hollywood science fiction movie Her is whether self-fulfilment can be achieved through a relationship with another being that is not necessarily biologically human but a computer operating system much like the Siri of iphones. The male character of the movie is emotionally and psychologically drawn to the voice of ‘Her’ – she not only keeps pace with the man’s emotions but in many ways gallops ahead of him. Can that be love?

At the dawn of the 21st century, another science fiction movie, AI, had a memorable scene where a woman asks a professor: “It occurs to me with all this animus existing against Mechas [robots] today it isn't just a question of creating a robot that can love. Isn't the real conundrum, can you get a human to love them back?” Her suggests that humans can indeed “love” software-generated beings back but can the human-machine love continue to be based on 20th century notions of love based on integrity, respect, even monogamy? 

Science fiction of our times can sometimes be a crystal ball one can gaze into and prepare for the future. With limited avenues for the public to engage with decision-making on new technologies, science fiction is, for better or for worse, a resource to stimulate thinking about science and the future of society.

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