The pandemic made artificial intimacy a reality as people in isolation leant more heavily on the digital tools to work, socialise, and play. Though machines may lack intimacy of real humans, virus-induced human seclusion has unleashed changes so extensive that artificial intelligence and virtual reality have come to proxy human needs for touching, feeling, and connections like never before.

The threat from AI to human future notwithstanding, algorithmic matchmaking and digital lovers are close to mimicking human thoughts, emotions, and sensations. People have long pushed buttons for machines to perform tasks, it is now for machines to return the favour - by pushing our buttons.

Gaining human intimacy

Literally, that is where the future seems headed. With Apps able to sense when users are falling in love, when they are fighting, and when they are likely to break up, the machines are getting better and faster at gaining human intimacy. They titillate our senses, stimulate our preference, play to our biases, meet many of our wants, and sometimes even satisfy some of our needs. They not only respond to our voices, even talk back with voices of their own. The machines are already building intimacy with us, and us with them. One need look no further than today’s social media ecosystem to see how indeed are artificial intimacies flourishing in our lives.

For University of New South Wales evolutionary biologist Rob Brooks, in his book, Artificial Intimacy: Virtual Friends, Digital Lovers, and Algorithmic Matchmakers, the question isn’t if machines will outwit humans but whether the implications of artificial intimacy (ArtInt) will short circuit evolutionary pathways to help us understand ourselves better. While positive fallout of artificial intimacy by way of enhancing personal therapy, supporting mental health, and improving people’s lives are easy to embrace, its downside impact on reductions in marriage rates, shorter-lived relationships, and a more complex social order remains trickier to comprehend. The future is likely to get more complicated though.

A reading of the dominant trend from reams of data indicates that digital innovation is up against human nature, cultural institutions, and social norms. Having studied how sex and reproduction shape the lives of humans, Brooks contends that new technologies could unleash extensive changes in the sexual revolution of the late twentieth century. The pandemic has only propelled digital technologies to interact with, simulate, and even exploit human yearning for belonging, thirst for intimacy, capacity for love, and desire for sex. Not without reason at an annual growth rate of 9 per cent, the sex toy market has been worth US$ 31 billion in 2020.

Artifical intimacies

If the current pace of digital revolution is any indication, there is little denying that plenty of good and plenty of bad will come from artificial intimacies in future. One thing is clear that the bonds that users feel towards artificial intimacies will grow stronger and more profound, making it difficult to distinguish their love for some ArtInt from the love they feel for other humans. Haven’t we demonstrated our growing intimacy with social media and video games to that effect? Brooks draws positives from such change in attitude, counting its impact on openness to a variety of sexualities, gender identities, and reproductive freedom.

Book Review
Artificial Intimacy: Virtual Friends, Digital Lovers, and Algorithmic Matchmakers
by Rob Brooks
Columbia University Press, New York
Pages: 293, Price: ₹2,254.

Artificial Intimacy weaves an engrossing story on the future that awaits us, without predicting whether or not it will be promising or dystopian. Much will depend on who owns the data, as artificial intimacy applications will be powered by data. Proper regulation for data protection is critical for ArtInt to deliver positive results. It ought to establish user safety and protection in the first place alongside valuing privacy while bridging the digital gap and inequity. Whether or not the emerging world of artificial intimacy becomes virtuous will depend on how mature is its acceptance by the public and the policy makers. Viewed from an evolutionary lens, Brooks’ optimism stretches into a brave new world of artificial intimacy which holds potential to make friendship, intimacy, and sex become safer, more equitable, and personally rewarding. There are no options but to prepare ourselves for a new future of human relationships.

Check out the book on Amazon

(Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic)