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3 technological revolutions shaping relationships

The decision to marry was announced after two months of “dating.” Zheng Jiajia, 31, a Chinese engineer from the city of Hangzhou carried his wife, Ying-Ying, to the wedding ceremony. She wore a black suit with a red scarf, as traditionally accustomed. With the appearance of a young, slender Chinese woman, Ying-Ying generated warmth and responded dexterously to speech and hugs. At home, Zheng had enabled her to walk and even to help with household chores. Surrounded by his mother and friends, Zheng married his robot wife on March 28, 2017. When asked what he thought was missing, Zheng emotionally replied: “A beating heart.”

Whether we accept it or not, three technological changes—we can even call them revolutions—make the relationships between Zheng and Ying-Ying possible and more common. We must consider them even if we want to reject them.

1. The Cognitive Revolution

The first and perhaps the most important one is the cognitive revolution, which is happening through artificial intelligence (AI) applications and personal assistants. On the one hand, AI researchers have not yet created anything nearly as capable as a human brain: most AI bots are heavily dependent on an external database from which they get the information needed to accomplish their tasks.

On the other hand, AI has achieved functionality that most experts thought until recently was decades away, if possible at all. The ability of today’s AI software to recognize objects, identify individual faces, understand spoken words, translate between languages, and complete many other useful tasks were all made possible through AI methods, and the pace of development is only getting faster.

More sophisticated models are now being implemented to achieve responses based on massive amounts of human-to-human conversational data. These improvements come from better databases, models, and methods, and they are making human-to-machine conversations more satisfying and interesting. For example, researchers recently developed different tones for AI personal assistants that proved to increase the conviction that they are conversation-worthy.

Take Woebot as an example: an AI system that already goes deeper and interacts with users on emotional levels. Launched in mid-2017 by a team of Stanford psychologists, Woebot is an app designed to chat with users and check in with them by asking open-ended questions such as “How are you feeling?” The app further monitors users’ moods and applies cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques to help them with day-to-day problems including stress, mental health ailments, and loneliness.

Users can message the app and receive encouragement, advice, or replies to what its users have to say. It is programmed to respond in a very human-like way, although it acknowledges itself as an AI device and will occasionally remind users that it is a robot. Each week Woebot responds to around 2 million messages from users and already has proven results. My own study on Woebot also found that it receives outstanding emotional reactions from users.

2. The Sensorial Revolution

The second is the sensorial revolution. The borders between the biological world and virtual realities are becoming thinner and more permeable. It is only a matter of time until we become part of a technological universe (or metaverse) just as real as the non-virtual, non-augmented parts of our lives. The seamless blending of the biological with the technological will fundamentally affect our senses and perceptions, revolutionizing what we expect from reality.

Some examples of the sensorial revolution’s impacts on relationships are already available. For example, inhabitants of virtual worlds such as Avakin Life and Second Life develop emotional experiences and interactions. Users report on having real feelings in these unreal worlds, or, more accurately, in these extended reality worlds. After all, the feelings, experiences, and emotions developed in these offerings are real in many measures we can think of.

3. The Physical Revolution

The third is the physical revolution. The global market for humanoid robots—that is, robots built to mimic human motion and interaction—is expected to grow significantly. This prediction is especially plausible in light of the many technologies and applications developed for the first time during the recent Covid-19 pandemic, which might be a watershed moment in the use of robots. Acknowledging the urgency to protect healthcare workers and cleaners, robots got a boost in their development, funding, and deployment.

For the first time, a robot named TOMI developed with the U.S. Department of Defense was put into action to fight the pandemic by automatically applying UV disinfecting technology in critical places that require immediate decontamination. Another robot, named Tug, employed AI to diagnose people infected without risking others. Finally, Boston Dynamics, one of the leading robotics companies, open-sourced some of its technology to help healthcare workers dealing with the pandemic.

Although this might sound like science fiction, robots already satisfy many human needs. Robo-psychologists and robo-nurses, for example, can motivate patients to be mentally and physically healthier, while also working with their physicians, dietitians, and other health professionals.

The Future of Relationships

These three revolutions combine to imitate three central aspects of human dynamics that, if replaced by technology, can change our personal relationships in significant ways. The cognitive revolution is changing the way we converse with technology, the sensorial revolution is changing the limits of the sights and sounds we experience through technology, and the physical revolution is changing the ways in which we are assisted by technology, whether the tasks involve moving, touching, cleaning, or even receiving hugs and physical warmth.

Without noticing, we are already chipping away at the fathomless complex of human-tech interactions. Engineers and software developers divide our emotional needs into tiny nuggets, each containing a different aspect or nuance of human communication. We are currently experiencing what could be considered the twilight of an era wherein humans and their technological approximations are still distinguishable, but with every coming day, new technologies, inventions, and developments are blurring the boundaries between the biological and the electric. In some ways, we have already crossed the elusive threshold that prevented human-technology relationships.

Although the social acceptance of related phenomena is still low, the implications of this shift are too revolutionary to be ignored. We ought to decipher how these revolutions affect the formation of our relationships, how they catalyze the movement into Relationships 5.0, and how we will react when they are truly capable of satisfying our emotional needs.

Robots might soon help with physical tasks such as taking care of us when we are sick, helping us move around when we are old or mobility-confined, or managing household tasks, particularly when we find ourselves alone. AI technologies might assist us mentally and emotionally by helping us to digest the passing day, offering a sympathetic ear to those who want to offload emotions, or by simply being a friend who we can share experiences and create memories with.

How will we feel about these developments? How will we prepare for these changes? What risks and fears these developments might entail? No matter the extent and pace of the coming change, we must start discussing it openly.


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