AI: Artificial Intimacy

How would you like a partner who always agreed with you, never got cross or upset, was always available, and was willing to engage in whatever intimate activities you desired whenever you wanted? In the real world, that’s an unrealistic and undesirable outcome. True intimacy results from a meeting of equals, not through a totally subservient partner.

However, a new breed of AI companions is emerging, and these companions may eventually offer an experience that some will find superior to real human partners.

More than a decade ago, the game LovePlus became popular in Japan, offering a virtual girlfriend on a Nintendo device. Thousands of Japanese young men “fell in love” with these virtual girlfriends. Some even went through marriage ceremonies with their cyber-girlfriends.

Virtual Partnerships

These virtual girlfriends offered canned responses instead of actual conversations and resembled cartoonish manga images. Still, thousands of Japanese young men fell in love with these avatars. How much more of an emotional connection will men and women make with cyber-partners who have human-level language skills and are rendered with realistic voices and, increasingly, video images?

AI might be able to provide otherwise lonely people with companionship and entertainment. I think anybody would prefer the company of a next-generation AI friend to a completely solitary life. So, for people struggling with loneliness or social isolation, an AI companion that could engage in lively discussions, tell jokes, play games, and listen could provide much-needed interaction and stimulation. However, if humans get used to the apparent “perfection” of totally compliant AI partners, they may find the give-and-take of real human relationships challenging. Some percentage of humans will likely settle for an AI partner even when human partners are available.

Furthermore, there is good reason to believe that susceptibility to virtual partners might not be gender-neutral. In other words, men may be more attracted to virtual girlfriends than women are to virtual boyfriends. Only time will tell, but pornography plays a similar role in the lives of many people, and a preference for pornography is higher in men than in women.

Human Companionship

Will an increasing number of people, disproportionately men, withdraw from the challenges of real human relationships in favor of AI? Indeed, there is some evidence of this trend already. The percentage of U.S. men reporting no sex within a 12-month period jumped from 10% in 2008 to 28% in 2018. Women showed some increase, but not to anywhere near the same extent. Obviously, AI cannot be responsible for that jump, but online lifestyles probably have something to do with it. When online life includes virtual girlfriends, the trend will probably increase.

AI may be a partial solution to the loneliness epidemic that is reported from many sources. However, real human connection and genuine intimacy are key contributors to human happiness and our greatest defense against mental illness.

I’m not convinced that an AI relationship with an entity with no emotions and no needs of its own can provide anything like the psychological satisfaction and growth of a human-to-human relationship.

[This is an early draft from Guy Harrison’s upcoming book AI, Blockchain and Quantum Computing, which is expected to be available toward the end of 2024. — Ed.]