Robots in love

Review: The Love Makers, by Aifric Campbell

Image credit: Dreamstime

The Love Makers explores human-machine relationships through an essay collection and novel, spanning familial love, companionship and erotic love with robots.

The Love Makers (Goldsmiths Press, ISBN 9781912685844, $29.95) defies easy categorisation.

The novel, Scarlett and Gurl, is described as a philosophical thriller and leans heavily towards the former. It follows a pair of women learning about each other’s lives as they drive to an airport on a Christmas Eve in a near-future in which robots have taken on roles as caregivers and lovers.

‘Scarlett’ (not her real name) is a former banker, now at the head of a tech company. She relies on her partner to take the role of primary caregiver, shunning the ubiquitous ‘I Moms’ for old-fashioned human care. Her partner and friends respond to her insistence on human care with frustration, ridicule and even disgust (imagine how one would respond to a modern mine owner employing a trapper instead of using automation). iMoms are objectively ‘better’ at childcare than the human mothers they imitate. Still, Scarlett can’t put out of mind Harry Harlow’s animal experiments, which starkly demonstrated the importance of contact and comfort in infancy.

Scarlett offers a lift to ‘Gurl’: a garrulous young woman with very different ideas about human-machine relationships.

Gurl is thoroughly at ease with robots. She considers Roxanne – the sex robot her abusive boyfriend adopted from the local brothel – to be her closest friend. Gurl goes beyond anthropomorphisation, considering her relationship with Roxanne superior to those with other humans. Given her experiences of relentless abuse and objectification at the hands of everyone she should have been able to trust, her preference for a robot companion is entirely understandable, even if ‘questionable coping mechanism’ springs to mind.

Only a robot, Gurl argues, is capable of perfect kindness; after Scarlett attacks her, she is forgiven with “You’re only human”. Other characters express similar sentiments regarding the benefits of inhuman caregivers and lovers: sex robots are lower maintenance than human partners (“How much will a real woman cost you over a lifetime?”) and come with the personality option of an underage girl.

The two women reflect the fault lines between second-generation and fourth-generation feminists. Scarlett rankles at Gurl willingly submitting to replacement by a machine and constantly corrects her use of “she” pronouns (“You mean ‘it’!”). Gurl is frustrated by Scarlett’s clinging to outdated ideas about human-machine relationships and her inability to look beyond her comfortable bourgeois perspective. Neither are lazy cut-outs. Campbell is empathetic towards both women and their arguments. At times their conversation evokes Socratic dialogue, but neither side is destined to trample triumphantly over the other.

Scarlett and Gurl is followed by 12 essays considering robots and AI from the perspectives of ethics, philosophy, history, race and gender, and policy. A stand out is Kate Devlin’s ‘while (alive) {love me;}’, which argues that – given the ease with which we form social bonds with non-humanoid devices – sex robots do not need to appear human or even have bodies. More generally, she says, human-machine relationships need not resemble human-human relationships.

The essays cover all the big debates in this area and are written with lay readers in mind. While anyone with an existing interest in robotics and AI will be familiar with many of these concepts already, they would serve as a great introduction for readers new to this area. Given that Scarlett and Gurl is on the shorter side, however, 12 essays may be a few too many; the overlap between them is noticeable.

E&T does not normally judge a book by its cover. This is a mercy for The Love Makers, which has been disguised as something along the lines of an undergraduate ‘Introduction to C++ for Chemists’ textbook with an indistinct pixelated red shape on the cover which looks like it should turn into something recognisable when one squints at it, but lacks the decency to do so. Perhaps the only alternative was a picture of a sex robot with big round metal breasts? No, because somewhere towards the front of the book is a beautiful ascii art ballerina. This should have made its appearance a few pages further forward to the cover. The appearance of the book is only worth mentioning because The Love Makers is a book to make one think, but it looks like a book to make one learn.

Is The Love Makers a novel or is it an essay collection? Yes. Its very refusal to slot into one category or the other reflects the challenge robots present to the old person-object binary opposition. The book is worth buying alone for Scarlett and Gurl, which manages to explore human-machine relationships with empathy, fully fleshed-out characters and genuinely original ideas. The essay collection is secondary, but well worth reading, especially for those unfamiliar with the debate around human-machine relationships.

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