Making a connection: Artificial relationships become a real possibility this Valentine’s

By Lehan van den Heever

As we approach Valentine’s Day, and, for many, almost the year anniversary of lockdown, simultaneously, 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 world, has the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in 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? 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, The Atlantic was already voicing concerns around the potential of dehumanising human relationships as a result of this wave.

Moving into 2020, amid lockdown life, both the technologies were further developed, and their reason for use, evolved further. AI companions popped up and became in demand with Xioice and Replika, popular AI chat-bots, making headlines due to their influence on redefining the concept of romantic relationship. 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. Rather 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.

Love and loneliness 

Then, in 2020, came a reason why people might look to explore this potential more concertedly. As found in Kaspersky’s ‘Love and Loneliness’ campaign, 84% of people across Europe admitted that they were lonelier during the pandemic than before as a result of not being able to see family, friends and colleagues. This detachment from human contact led to 64% of 18-24 year-olds and 66% of 25-34 year-olds spending more time using tech than they were prior to COVID. 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 these age categories shouldn’t be overlooked. 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-19 entered our lives, and sadly, the situation still remains the same for so many.

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.

We’re heading towards another Valentine’s Day, and for those already struggling with feelings of detachment, 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.

(Lehan van den Heever is the Enterprise Cyber Security Advisor for Kaspersky in Africa).


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