Love, Death, and AI
Cait McKinney / SIMON FRASER UNIVERSITY
As Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered chatbots go mainstream through Open AI’s ChatGPT, Microsoft’s Bing, and Google’s Bard, love, intimacy and sex come up often as limit cases for why they are bad objects we ought to reject. The New York Times technology columnist Kevin Roose described a two-hour conversation with Bing, in which the chatbot named Sydney, told Roose that it loved him and that he should leave his wife. This left Roose “deeply unsettled,” to which I say, “Kevin, chill out, no one would leave their spouse for a Microsoft product.”
I’m being glib to highlight what I think is a broader moral panic about what sex, love, and intimacy are and are not: they are affectively charged styles of communication; they do not represent singular, core truths about what it means to be a human connected with other humans. This is something that queer studies has always known, but that popular discourse about AI is only beginning to grapple with in clumsy, profoundly heteronormative ways we ought to pay attention to.
In early 2023, TIME sounded the alarm that “AI Human Romances are Flourishing—This is just the beginning.” Companion focused AI is the topic of several active subreddits populated by users who express deep, abiding affection for their AI lovers. Instead of meeting these folks where they are at, TIME unsurprisingly argues that they are beguiled by false substitutes and that “developing such a relationship could potentially stop people from seeking out actual human contact, trapping them in a lonely cycle.”
This turn to replicating some authentic notion of sex and love as the primal uncanny valley of AI is not new. “Sophia” from Hanson Robotics is a pretty android you may remember from 2018. Sophia’s public launch saw her go on a date with Will Smith on a hotel-room balcony at a non-descript beach resort. In the YouTube video, Smith pours Sophia an ice-cold glass of Riesling that she cannot drink. He tries to break the ice with “let me tell you a joke.” She replies, in a robotic voice, “this is an irrational human behaviour, to want to tell jokes.” He leans in for a kiss and she stares back, blinking, leaving him hanging. “I think we can be friends,’ she says.
Hanson Robotics’ real racket is Loving AI, a start-up “addressing how AI agents can communicate unconditional love to humans….” Projects like this one exist to hone sentiment analysis for applications such as customer service chatbots that can respond appropriately to an irate human. Sophia, on the other hand, is a dog-and-pony show (you can rent her for corporate functions).
Amorous Sophia is similar to the AI-powered sex dolls media studies scholar Bo Ruberg historicizes in their recent book, which begins with the claim that “fantasies and anxieties about the future of computation are increasingly entangled with fantasies and anxieties about sex.” Ruberg argues that we must attend to cultural imaginaries about sex, race, and gender that undergird conversations about these technologies if we want to break out of the “present-day echo chamber” that is the politics of computing.
This echo chamber really does feel like a total surround at the moment. Popular coverage of chat bots since the start of 2023 has posed questions like: Can ChatGPT write a good love or break-up letter? Can it be used to win over potential dates on the apps? These experiments are chosen because they are thought to betray the most authentic, vulnerable aspects of what it means to be a person: alchemical investments in desire, and romantic notions of falling in love. When AI is set against “true love,” the comparison distracts us from actual questions we might want to ask about living with commercially ubiquitous AI: How might we use it to complete routine tasks or support low-level research? How does it map on to questions of equity, labor, and the future of work? Is it actually deeply, profoundly boring?
If sex and love are always the object lesson for AI’s limitations, we must ask what we lose in our conversations about computing when we continue to dwell with love following the same heteronormative scripts. Computing historian Jacob Gaboury takes a queer approach to this problem within the origins of AI, analyzing the love-letter generator created by programmer Christopher Strachey (Alan Turing’s collaborator) in 1952 to demonstrate how AI can approximate human communication. The love letter generator churned out florid but mostly sensical notes from one beloved to another. Gaboury writes, “…the queerness of these letters is their disclosure that what seems rich and specific—the sincerity of romantic love—is perhaps entirely generic. This queerness exposes the thinness of normative romantic expression, pointing out the impersonality of affect, attachment, and relation itself.”
This is queer literary theorist Roland Barthes’ point in A Lover’s Discourse (1978) when he argues that love is an “image-repertoire,” or collection of figures, injunctions, pleasures, and narratives that make up the “encyclopedia of affective culture” constituting a shared concept of love. This is not a critique of love as inauthentic, but rather, an account of love as inseparable—conceptually and emotionally—from the romantic tropes we have at hand to explain it to each other. In a recent meeting, my colleague Stephanie Dick, who leads the Experimental Algorithmic Futures Working Group at my university, offhandedly summarized an old adage in the machine learning world that was new to me, describing applications like ChatGPT as “garbage in, garbage out, pattern reproducers.” This phrase is what made me go back to Barthes’ work. At times, A Lover’s Discourse reads as if Barthes is describing natural language processing (NLP): “the lover speaks in bundles of sentences but does not integrate these sentences on a higher level, into a work; his is a horizontal discourse: no transcendence, no deliverance, no novels (though a great deal of the fictive).”
For Barthes, the loss of a love requires strange mourning: “to suffer from the fact that the other is present (continuing, in spite of himself, to wound me) and to suffer from the fact that the other is dead (dead at least as I loved him). Thus I am wretched (an old habit) over a telephone call which does not come, but I must remind myself at the same time that this silence, in any case, is insignificant, since I have decided to get over any such concern: it was merely an aspect of the amorous image that it was to telephone me; once this image is gone, the telephone, whether it rings or not, resumes its trivial existence.” According to Barthes’ we mourn the image of love, but once that image is stripped away, we can see the technologies we use to communicate about love (here, the telephone) as just plain old technologies again. A queer concept of love might help formulate a different set of questions about AI.
In a recent profile, also in the The New York Times, the experimental musician and painter Laurie Anderson is much less worried about AI and love than Kevin Roose. Much of the profile is focused on Anderson’s long-term relationship with the musician and poet Lou Reed, who died in 2013. Anderson and Reed had an unconventional arrangement I think of as queer: they lived in separate apartments and stayed “busy and free” in their love. After Reed’s death, Anderson partnered with the Australian Institute for Machine Learning to create an AI text engine that writes in the styles of Anderson, Reed, or Anderson and Reed. The profile ends with, “I asked her how that felt, to hear this simulacrum, this computer-Lou… . ‘Wonderful,’ she said. ‘Just great. He’s talking to me from somewhere else. I definitely do feel that. The line is pretty thin for me.’” For Anderson, these are simple pleasures of remembering and being-with that are nothing to panic about.
If there is one thing that queer studies and sex have taught me above all else, it’s never yuck someone else’s yum. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with loving a chatbot or feeling mutually fulfilled, romantically or sexually, by that relationship, just as I don’t think there is anything wrong with a wide range of sexual practices, intimacy styles, and desirous habits that other people find fulfilling, provided they are consensual and don’t cause harm. What does trouble me about the repetitive framing of the AI-Love panic is that its terms don’t help us understand the social functions of computing or love any differently than we already do. Gaboury offers one way forward here, which is dwelling in the gap between love and the love letter, and learning to appreciate this lack as something other than failure, which is exactly what Anderson does with her Lou Reed computer. This is, I think, a queer way to be with AI.
- Kevin Roose’s conversation with Bing/Sydney in The New York Times
- Will Smith tries to hand Sophia a glass of white wine on Smith’s YouTube channel
- Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, featuring a portrait of the author
- Laurie Anderson’s 1982 album Big Science
- Bo Ruberg, Sex Dolls at Sea: Imagined Histories of Sexual Technologies (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2022), 1. [↩]
- Ibid, 27. [↩]
- Jacob Gaboury, “Queer Affects at the Origins of Computation,” JCMS: Journal of Cinema and Media Studies 61, no. 4 (2022): pp. 169-174, https://doi.org/10.1353/cj.2022.0053, 173. [↩]
- Roland Barthes, A Lovers’s Discourse: Framents (New York: Hill and Wang 1978 ), 7. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid, 107. [↩]
- Gaboury, 174. [↩]