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Vicki Larson

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Can Loving a Robot Lead to Divorce?

Posted: 12/20/11 04:00 AM ET

When the anatomically correct, customizable, touch-responsive, personality-changing sexbot named Roxxxy was unveiled at the Adult Entertainment Expo last year, it -- she? -- was met with a lot of snarky responses. Only losers and perverts would be interested in shelling out $7,000 for a glorified sex toy, many said.

Inventor and TrueCompanion founder Douglas Hines doesn't see it that way. With about 4,000 pre-orders, Hines believes artificially intelligent robots such as Roxxxy are "the future of robotics."

It also maybe the future of love and marriage, if you believe artificial intelligent (AI) expert David Levy, author of Love and Sex With Robots.

According to Levy, human-robot sex, love and marriage is inevitable -- perhaps as soon as 2025. He predicts that robots may not only be more lovable and faithful than many humans, but they may even be more emotionally available than the "typical American human male." Not only will they make us become better, more creative lovers, but they also will offer those singles who feel a void in their emotional and sexual lives and married couples with differing sexual needs new, nonjudgmental ways to be happy and healthy.

Even if you can't wrap your head around the idea of loving a robot (let alone marrying one), imagine that for a certain percentage of the population it's not only not fantasy but preferable to relationships with humans. What will that mean for us as a society as a whole?

Although Levy believes that the "availability of regular sex with a robot will dramatically reduce the incidence of infidelity as we know it today," he also acknowledges there may be some potential sticky points. "(S)ome human spouses and lovers might consider robot sex to be just as unfaithful as sex with another person."

And that's what caught the interest of Sonya Ziaja, a San Francisco Bay Area attorney who blogs at numerous law and policy media outlets as well as her own, Shark. Laser. Blawg. After reading about Roxxxy, Ziaga says she wondered about hypothetical situations in which a sexbot might create some legal headaches. "It was most fun to discuss those (situations) in which laws that were designed to regulate interactions between humans suddenly faced (with) the prospect of regulating interactions between humans and machines," she writes.

And what could be more fraught with legal dilemmas than a love triangle among a married couple and a sexbot? How that might impact a divorce? That's what Ziaja explores in her paper, "Homewrecker 2.0: An Exploration of Liability for Heart Balm Torts Involving AI Humanoid Consorts," which she presented at the 2011 International Conference on Social Robotics that took place in Amsterdam at the end of November.

"If the doll's owner becomes enamored with the doll, and leaves his spouse, can the spouse sue as she or he would be able to if the interloper had been human? And who would be sued? The manufacturer? Inventor? The AI itself?" she questions. "(S)o long as we're intent on adding socially interactive AI into situations that would ordinarily be only human. ... socially interactive robots need to be 'safe to play with' in a way that manufacturers of toaster ovens never had to imagine."

Ziaja isn't promoting or rejecting robot relationships (nor is she intending to offer legal advice); all she wants to do is explore what Levy suggests will be a not-too-distant reality. If humans and robots are going to get entangled romantically, what does that mean if things go awry? Her analysis, relying on heart balm torts, should make any spouse contemplating love -- or just a roll in the hay -- with a robot take notice.

Ziaja was kind enough to answer my questions by email:

Q: It sounds like a bad sci-fi film: A Robot Wrecked My Marriage. Can robots really be homewreckers?

A: If robots are designed to be social companions and sexual partners, it's foreseeable that those robots could contribute to the dissolution of relationships between humans.

Q: What exactly are heart balm torts?

A: In the most basic and general sense, heart balm torts allow someone who is in a protected relationship (usually marriage, but it can be parent-child) to sue someone outside of that relationship for interfering with it. So, for example, alienation of affections -- a type of heart balm tort -- allows a married person to sue a third-party paramour for damaging the relationship. In other words, If Alice the wife of Bob has an affair with Charles, Bob, the husband can sue Charles for money damages. Of course, the husband in this case would have to prove specific element depending on the type of tort.

Q: Aren't there just eight states with heart balm torts, Illinois, Hawaii, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah and New Hampshire? So, would it only be a problem if you lived in one those states?

A: The argument in my paper isn't that the heart balm torts necessarily directly apply to cases involving robots in any particular jurisdiction. Rather it is that law can adapt to new technologies by reviving old torts.

Q: In what way would heart balm torts with a human-robot relationship be the same as with two humans? In what way would they be different?

A: There is a possibility of combining social-based or emotionally based torts with more traditional product liability theory -- something that creators might want to keep an eye on. Social robots as products, because of their social nature, have the potential to cause social and emotional harm. This is something that designers and manufacturers never really had to think about before. The short take home is this: Robots are not toasters.

Q: Robots Unlimited and Love and Sex With Robots author David Levy predicts marriage between humans and robots will be common in 50 years; what kind of headaches does his create for lawyers? What about for the creators of the robots?

A: I think the challenge here will be for the creators and policy-makers to agree upon who should be held liable in cases where robots cause social harm, and some common standards to potentially limit liability.

Q: Let's say a husband fell in love with his sexbot and decided he enjoyed her company more than his wife's. Could the wife sue for divorce, and whom would she sue? What if a robot and a human marry and adopt a child; could the female robot end up with custody?

A: There are many hypothetical situations where human-robot interactions could lead to outlandish and sci-fi-like results. But, there are also many steps that would probably occur well before. For example, establishing what level of responsibility -- both social and legal -- for which people are willing to hold robots or their creators accountable.

Q: Do you think robots will create more marital headaches than benefits?

A: I think that will depend on how robots are designed and what people expect from them.

Huffington Post bloggers Vicki Larson and Susan Pease Gadoua are collaborating on a book on reimagining marriage, "The New I Do." If you are interested in being a part of their research, please contact them at info@changingmarriage.com

 
 
 

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