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Good will to robots

08 December 2017

channel 4

Artificial desire: James, a sex robot enthusiast, with Harmony, a prototype sex robot, in The Sex Robots Are Coming (Channel 4, Thursday of last week)

Artificial desire: James, a sex robot enthusiast, with Harmony, a prototype sex robot, in The Sex Robots Are Coming (Channel 4, Thursday of last week)

WITH its customary theological acuity, last week Channel 4 kindly helped us prepare for the season of the incarnation with a crop of programmes about the latest developments in robotics. I’m sure that you follow my train of thought: as we approach the mystery of the Word made flesh, we mortals now create machines that we seek to endue with the lineaments of vitality.

The Robot Will See You Now (Tuesday of last week) presented an experiment in which people sought counselling from “Jess”, a rather fetching table-top gizmo straight from Star Wars, which turned its head and rolled its eyes from suppliant to suppliant.

It is the offspring of university research: can such a machine help with personal problems more effectively and quickly than human therapists — and, no doubt the NHS hopes, more cheaply? On this showing, there might well be something in it. Jess’s inanimate nature, and reliance on crunching enormous amounts of data — the clients’ online shopping and downloading records, for instance — seems to inspire immediate confidence.

Unconstrained by the trammels of personal emotion, Jess asks simple and probing questions, brutally honest and straight to the point, that receive a surprisingly direct response. The sheer objectivity of the process enabled those approaching the oracle to see their own predicaments in immediate perspective, and begin to embrace solutions.

But there was a catch: it was not quite as purely an electro-mechanical process as it appeared. Jess was “operated with some human support”: there was a team of boffins under the table pulling levers and switching the tape recorder on and off.

More disturbing was The Sex Robots Are Coming (Thursday of last week). There is, we were told, already a huge market for life-size sex-dolls, their skeletal armature enabling you to arrange them in whatever contortion you please, with increasingly fleshlike covering.

There is, of course, no limit to what people (and, for once, this does largely mean men) will do to gratify their lusts, but the most disturbing aspect is the extent to which enthusiasts treated these fantasy objects as though they were human. We saw the inspired technicians preparing a huge breakthough in the market: giving the puppets robotic implants so that they can, of their own accord, assume expressions and hold (as yet somewhat limited) conversations.

James, who already has three dolls, was the lucky punter chosen to meet the prototype of this new frontier in artificial relationships, and was barely able to contain his excitement. On being challenged about whether he preferred his pliant plastic harem to his actual flesh-and-blood wife, Jim could come up with nothing better than: “That’s a really hard one.”

He could thus be signalling the end of the human race, and we might well think that the Almighty should properly conclude “And jolly good riddance, too,” as he turns his attention to more promising life-forms on other planets.

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