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OPINION | MASTERSON ONLINE: Androids in our future

by Mike Masterson | July 31, 2021 at 3:10 a.m.

(Note: The original version of this column appeared in 2019. The topic has only become more relevant since then).

Consider how technology has changed our lives in only a few decades. Online streaming has replaced video stores. Cell phones have replaced landlines and phone booths. Social media has siphoned away our attention and personal interactions.

The dizzying technological explosion continues to accelerate as we of the gray-and-silver baby boomer generation struggle to keep pace and preserve what remains of our privacy.

Based on all I've learned of late, perhaps the most significant change to our culture in the coming decade is only now emerging. Stay tuned, valued readers, as artificial intelligence (AI) metastasizes to dramatically affect our nation and the world in the ways we interact and live our personal lives.

Mark these words, within the next three decades we will find ourselves facing problems in dealing with the lifelike androids some companies are perfecting as you read. Increasing advancements are bound to follow with each year.

I'm talking about robotic, animated, conversational and stunningly realistic companions that are rapidly becoming more sophisticated in every way. If you've seen the 2014 science fiction film "Ex Machina" or the 1973 flick "Westworld," you've had a glimpse of where this industry, already three decades old, is headed.

It's inevitable that with its continued blossoming will come a host of spiritual and ethical questions to be resolved within our homes and courtrooms. The press in the United Kingdom has been writing a lot of stories about the manufacturers of these remarkably lifelike AI companions built to one's precise specifications and costing about as much as a good used car.

We can expect far more reporting on the phenomenon in the near future as it evolves deeper into mainstream society. And who can say what effect this will have on an increasingly secular society obsessed with cell phones and social media that already spends so much time removed from the real world?

You can learn much more about what's upon us (and see some remarkable photographs) by googling artificial intelligence and human companionship.

I can see how this ongoing evolution toward new horizons might appeal to many folks. If a lonely man or woman can purchase companionship and the need for affection and all that involves (well, it is a family newspaper, you know), who could blame them for acquiring their own artificial experience financed for, say, $350 a month over seven or eight years?

An attractive AI companion co-habitating in one's house could appeal to the elderly person who need assistance, as well as those seeking the warmth of social, physical and mental interaction without having to face the often gritty and disappointing expectations of the real world.

In this increasingly me-first, me-too, my-life-matters (more than yours), world of complex relationships we've created, I suspect having something that appears human without a single demand and solely focused upon an owner's wants, needs and desires wouldn't be difficult for many to embrace.

Imagine how, with an android roommate (even those devoted solely to daily assistance), there might be no undue concerns over jealousy, insecurity, endless living expenses, petty resentment, embarrassment, arguments, diseases, missing companionship or the loss of one's appeal.

Yet at the same time, retiring behind one's front door with a computerized companion could prove ultimately destructive to genuine human relationships and meaningful legacies which, by nature, require equal amounts of mutual giving to be successful. In other words, affections, effort and attention.

Some mainstream media outlets like ABC, CBS and Forbes Magazine, as well as newspapers in the United Kingdom, have featured stories about the enormous social and cultural ramifications artificial intelligence is introducing to human lives.

One example: In 2017, a controversial brothel featuring female robots opened in Barcelona, Spain, with plans to expand globally.

Manufacturers already are producing various forms of service robots that help with household chores and other daily human needs. How many of us already have an Alexa or Echo to tell us the daily weather, crack jokes and answer our myriad questions?

The company at the front of intimate-companion android technology in the United States is Abyss Creations of San Marcos, Calif. Owner and founder Matt McMullen created the RealDoll, recognizing he was on the cutting edge of something larger than he could fathom at the time.

He emphasized that his goal wasn't to replace humans, but to provide an alternative form for a physical and mental relationship, that could reason, speak, listen, blink, joke, inquire and move while appearing alarmingly lifelike in many ways. Much like any technology, he is continually working toward improving the product while acknowledging there always will be restrictions.

In fact, McMullen and his staff have spent 15 years developing enhanced versions of just the software. His company already ships some 600 androids annually all over the world, priced from $4,400 up to $50,000 or more for a customized version. I can't help but think of a grieving spouse perhaps purchasing an AI companion that appears identical in many ways to their lost loved one then programming her or him with the history of their relationship.

Yes, I know that would be weird yet I suspect entirely possible with enough money. About 90 percent of sales are for female dolls, although male androids also are on the assembly line.

A core team of five employees work alongside McMullen: an engineer; two computer scientists; an app developer and a virtual reality expert. In 2017, there were designing an android named Harmony.

Quoting from the UK's Guardian: "'The AI will learn through interaction, and not just learn about you, but learn about the world in general. You can explain certain facts to her, she will remember them and they will become part of her base knowledge,' [McMullen] said.

"Whoever owns Harmony will be able to mold her personality according to what they say to her. And Harmony will systematically strive to find out as much about her owner as possible and use those discovered facts in conversation 'so it feels like she really cares,' as McMullen described it."

Although achieving perfection in creating humanoid robot remains unattainable for the time being and the notion of having a mechanical friend, partner or lover is, well, flat-out weird, each year brings society closer to having these artificial electronic entities that look just like us in many homes.

In one interview, the realist in McMullen was quoted saying a person "can't build something that's completely 100 percent passable as a human being, mentally and physically, and not expect people to recoil when they see it. That's just human nature."

I say time will tell.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

as McMullen described it

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