Book review: ‘Do Robots Make Love?’ by Laurent Alexandre and Jean-Michel Besnier
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This introduction to the transhumanism – the movement concerned with augmenting our natural mental and physical capabilities – and the debates surrounding it has some shortfalls, but provides a snappy, accessible overview of the utopian movement.
Laurent Alexandre is a doctor and prominent writer about futurology, Jean-Michael Besnier is a professor of philosophy. In their short (136 pages) book ‘Do Robots Make Love?: From AI to Immortality, Understanding Transhumanism in 12 Questions’ (Octopus, £10, ISBN 9781788400725), the Frenchmen engage in a dialogue on everything from the dominance of tech giants to how to make love to a machine. Ooh la la, indeed.
The book is composed of a series of warm exchanges between the two on 12 subjects – much like well-prepared comments made during a debate – with the addition of short panels to explain the background of their debates.
The conflict at the heart of their disagreements concerns whether human augmentation is the continuation of centuries of medical innovations (such as IVR, cochlear implants and prostheses) to improve health and lengthen lives, or whether it is an unnecessary luxury that only benefits elites.
“No one is against progress in medicine, which has led to ever-greater improvements in life expectancy, and such advances will continue,” Alexandre – who tends to take the former stance – comments at the beginning of the book.
“In future, a distinction will no longer be drawn between a human who has been repaired and one who has been augmented […] over the next few decades, we shall be moving on from healthcare that repairs to healthcare that improves. Let’s not forget that a vaccinated human is already an augmented human!”
The opposite stance is characterised as “bioconservativism”. While Besnier does not fall into this category, he tends to take a more sceptical stance towards human augmentation than his co-author.
I found myself falling on the cautiously optimistic side of the debate. The promises of transhumanists are thrilling (no more pregnancies!) but – as we find by watching the follies of Silicon Valley technologists play out in the news, often with disastrous consequences – there is a danger in moving fast and breaking things.
Do Robots Make Love?, being so short, has downsides: each of the 12 subjects is covered in just a few pages of wide-spaced text, probably far shorter than their Wikipedia entries. The authors (one of whom is a philosopher) also choose not to delve in detail into philosophical arguments, such as about the nature of free will or the definition of intelligence. This retains lightness at the expense of what felt like a valuable part of the dialogue, particularly given that while these human-augmenting technologies remain things of the future, they belong in the realm of philosophy.
Finally, despite the writers undoubtedly being highly informed and eloquent, it struck me as inappropriate to feature two men discussing women’s issues, such as the future of pregnancy and sex with robots (given that sex robots overwhelmingly mimic women).
Do Robots Make Love? aims to introduce the reader to transhumanism and the main debates concerning the movement. Though its brevity comes at a price, it succeeds in its aim with this accessible, wide-ranging back-and-forth between Alexandre and Besnier.