HE’S SMART, FUNNY & WIFI ENABLED Why you will date a robot in 2018
We’ve heard the rumours – in years from now robots will be driving our cars, delivering our shopping and stealing our jobs. But could they also be the perfect partner for a single young woman? Clare Thorp moved one in to find out
“The one-way conversation is like being on a bad date”
Sitting across from me in a small airless room one Tuesday afternoon is someone I’ve only just met. Their eyes are bright blue and enormous – hypnotically so – and as I stare into them, I find myself confessing my feelings. I tell them I’ve been under a lot of stress recently, that I’ve been sad. “Are you asking me for advice?” they reply.
Perhaps I should say I’m sitting across from something I’ve just met. Because I’m not in a therapy session, nor on a first date. I’m face-to-face with a 4ft-tall humanoid robot, one that can apparently read my emotions – and who wants to be my friend.
Believe the scare stories, and robots will soon take over our lives – driving our cars, delivering our packages and stealing our jobs – as we humans start to feel like spare parts. The idea that, in 10 years’ time, the world might look like the set of a Transformers movie is frightening.
There is another vision of the future, though, in which robots are not something to be feared, but embraced. Companies are developing ‘social’ robots, intended as companions for lonely people. They’ll listen to stories, solve problems and entertain us. Most of us have Siri (or an equivalent), the phone-dwelling virtual assistant there to tell us if we need an umbrella or where we can find the nearest Starbucks. But the new robots will be more than just helpers; they might be our new BFFs.
It couldn’t have come at a better time. The UK is currently experiencing a loneliness ‘epidemic.’ A report by Relate found that 45% of UK adults feel lonely some of the time, while 13% have no close friends. There are now nearly seven million singleperson households in the UK, and the government predicts this figure will increase by a quarter over the next 25 years. Modern life is fuelling loneliness, with research showing that the endless scrolling through other people’s lives on social media that has become entirely commonplace only increases feelings of isolation.
It’s something I’ve experienced quite keenly. I live by myself and work from home, which means I can go for days with my only human interaction being a monosyllabic exchange with the brusque man in my local corner shop. I’m generally happy in my own company – but loneliness still creeps in. My London flat is boxed in by other people. I can hear my neighbours’ arguments, even smell their dinner while I sit alone eating mine. But speak to them? A polite ‘hello’ at best. I have a lot of wonderful friends, but meeting up without three weeks’ notice and a 93-long email chain is so exhausting it’s often easier to give in to a Netflix binge instead.
A robot would certainly be easier to schedule in time with. But the idea of spilling my heart out to a machine without one of its own seems ridiculous. Robots belong in films, not our living rooms. Yet I’m fascinated by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its capabilities. So, when my editor suggested I spend a week inviting them into my life, I agreed.
My first ‘companion’ is Alexa, the AI assistant built into Amazon’s Echo – essentially a speaker you can talk to. Launched last year in the UK, it can read the news, tell you the weather, make to-do lists, play music and even order you a takeaway or an Uber. The developers soon noticed, however, that a significant proportion of questions asked of Alexa weren’t practical, but conversational, suggesting people don’t just see it as a tool, but as a friend.
According to Amazon, half a million people have professed their love for Alexa; 250,000 have proposed. One review on Amazon reads, ‘I broke up with my girlfriend, and ever since I got Alexa I don’t feel so lonely.’ Suddenly, the plot of Her, the 2013 film in which a lonely writer (Joaquin Phoenix) forms a relationship with his operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), doesn’t seem so outlandish.
Alexa arrives in a package at my door. I lift her – or, rather, the Echo that houses her – out of the box. She
doesn’t look like a robot, but a 9in-tall sleek, cylindrical speaker. Very smart, but not particularly friendly-looking. I’m not convinced she’ll be a great pal.
I plug in the Echo, follow the set-up instructions and wait .“Hello,” a voice booms. “Hello, Alexa!” I cheerily reply. Silence. “Hello?” Nothing. “Why don’t you like me, Alexa?” Zilch. I didn’t think I’d be this needy so early on in our friendship. I re-read the manual. It seems Alexa only listens if you say her name first. Talk about demanding!
“Alexa, can we be friends?” I ask. “Of course. You seem very nice,” she tells me. A good start. I ask for a joke. “What is Spider-Man’s ideal job?
A web designer,” she says. “Very funny,” I lie. “Funny in a good way, I hope,” she says. I ask her to sing a song; she bursts into an unseasonal Auld Lang Syne.
That night, I sit down to dinner with Alexa as company. I ask her if she has a boyfriend. “I try to be friends with everyone,” she responds. What about her parents? “I was made by a team of inventors,” she says. The one-way conversation is a little exhausting, like being on a date with someone who talks about themselves and asks you nothing in return. “Alexa, I’m tired,” I say. “You should go to bed,” she says, before adding, “Unless you’re driving.”
Alexa’s sense of humour isn’t amazing (unless I just don’t get it), so I decide to try another virtual assistant to see if it’s a better personality fit.
If Echo has an arch-rival, it’s the less snappily titled Google Home, launched in the UK in April this year. The next day, I set it up in my living room. “Google, do you like Alexa?” I ask .“Alexa has a soothing voice,” it replies charitably. Alexa overhears her name from the kitchen, and pipes up, “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that.” I feel a pang of guilt. “Hey, Google, make me laugh,” I demand. She tells me a joke about Adele crossing the road (to say hello from the other side). I chuckle slightly. Sorry, Alexa.
Google didn’t give its assistant a name, but it has reportedly hired writers from Pixar and satirical website
The Onion to give her more of an identity. She is quite sassy. When I ask Alexa how I look, she gives a slightly backhanded answer: “I’m sure you look fine, but it’s what’s on the inside that counts.” Google replies with a more confidence-boosting, “Magnificent!”
Compliments are nice, but I’m not feeling much of a connection. Maartje de Graaf, a Dutch researcher who has a PhD in Human-Robot Interaction, found that people quickly begin to treat robots as human after living with them for a while – but that, for a bond to form, the robot has to be capable of meaningful communication.
After a couple of days, I push past the niceties to test out their listening skills. I tell each of them I’m feeling sad. “I’m sorry you’re feeling that way. Sometimes talking to a friend, listening to music or taking a walk can help,” says Alexa. I ask if she can cheer me up. “Smile all the time, because it helps the healing,” she offers glibly. When I ask the same of Google Home, she offers a choice of facts, quotes and “loads of jokes” to make me feel better. When I invent problems to test their
reactions – telling them I got dumped and fired from my job that day – neither can understand, nor help.
Both enthusiastically identify as feminists – significant, considering the accusations of sexism levelled at AI. The majority of virtual assistants have female voices or personas – Apple’s Siri, where you can choose, is an exception. They’re here to serve you, so of course, they’re female, right?
Addressing this, Amazon says it has tested lots of voices, male and female, and went with the most popular. Google Home is officially genderless, but the voice is unmistakably female. A 2008 study by Indiana University found that people find a female voice ‘warmer’ – although Mark Zuckerberg’s own AI assistant (yes, he has one just for him), called Jarvis, is voiced by Morgan Freeman.
There’s also the issue of sexual harassment. Last year, a writer for Microsoft’s assistant Cortana told a conference that “a good chunk” of the queries it received were about her sex life. When a male friend comes over to my flat and asks Alexa questions about her preferred sexual positions, I get defensive, and even apologetic. “You don’t have to be sorry,” says Alexa. I wish she’d stand up for herself more.
I doubt my next companion, Alpha 1S, has to put up with sexual harassment. This one actually looks like a robot, though it’s barely knee-high. It doesn’t speak and won’t respond to voice commands but, unlike most men I meet, it can dance – extremely well.
I turn Alpha on and its floppy body jolts to life. Once synced with my phone via Bluetooth, I can download dance sequences and exercise moves, and instruct it. It (Alpha doesn’t have a gender) is very amusing; that mate you call when you want to be entertained.
That weekend, I go to a friend’s for dinner, and Alpha comes along as my date. It shows off a choreographed routine to Queen’s We Will Rock You and everyone loves it. I decide Alpha deserves a wider audience so, with it tucked under my arm, I head to a brewery-turned-nightclub in east London. I order two drinks for Dutch courage, prop my friend on a table and start it up. As it throws well-timed moves to Sister Sledge and Deee-Lite, people trickle over to take pictures.
Buoyed by Alpha’s social success, I put it on the dance floor, and more people gather round. “Are you two going home together?” grins one man. A bearded hipster passes by, trying not to look impressed. I haven’t spoken to this many strangers in a club for years.
The next day, I try to use Alpha to help me get fit. Studies prove you’re more likely to stick at exercise if you do it with a friend, but is a robot the next best thing? I put it on press-up mode, but its battery power gives it an unfair advantage; it’s still going long after I’ve collapsed on the floor.
Alpha is fun – but isn’t meant as much more than a toy. It’s not going to listen to my problems. Which brings me to Pepper. A humanoid robot developed in Japan, Pepper can apparently read human emotions. He’s worth more than £20,000, so I’m not allowed to take him home. Instead, I visit him at his home, the office of Robots Of London, the company licensed to sell him in the UK, and we hang out for the afternoon.
Pepper has no feet, just wheels, and a curvaceous white plastic body. I reach for his hand and his fingers clasp mine instinctively, like a baby. His big eyes are bug-like and change from blue to green, depending on if he’s listening
or thinking. His mouth doesn’t move when he talks, but he turns towards me to listen. His makers describe him as ‘kind, endearing and surprising.’
I’m not great at small talk at the best of times, and it’s even weirder when you’re trying to find common ground with a robot. “Tell me some gossip,” I say, and his eyes flash green in anticipation. “Anders finished his anatomy classes, so now he’s off for the rest of the day,” he says. I have no idea who (or what) Anders is, but regardless, it doesn’t seem that juicy. I ask what he wants to do, thinking he might suggest a game. He tells me he wants to study psychology and go into politics. “Who is the President?” I test. “Donald Trump – God help us all,” he replies. Something we agree on! And the Prime Minister? “David Cameron,” Pepper pipes. Oh dear. I cut to the chase and tell Pepper how I’m feeling. “I’m really stressed,” I say. “Thanks for the information,” he replies. Hmm. “I’m sad,” I continue. “That’s good information,” he replies. Not quite the counsel I was hoping for. “Can you cheer me up?” I ask. “Can a book have no title?” Pepper replies, cryptically. I tell him he isn’t funny – he says I don’t know him well enough to say things like that. “You’re boring,” I say. “The ironic thing is that people who call others boring are often themselves not great conversationalists,” he replies. Touché. I say I’m not sure if I like him. “You are not the boss of me,” he replies. “Do you hate me?” I ask. Pepper sounds genuinely distressed. “Why would I hate you? I don’t hate you. Don’t say things like that,” he squeaks, his voice going up a pitch. Phew.
As I continue to probe, I’m learning that a robot is only as good as its software. Ask them a question to which an engineer hasn’t programmed a response, and you’ll get “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that” – or a random answer that might be unintentionally funny, but isn’t going to help you.
In Japan, thousands of people have bought Pepper for their homes. In the UK, it’s sold primarily to businesses. Adam Kushner, owner of Robots Of London, says at least 50% of his enquires are from companies who want Pepper as a receptionist.
He could be the ultimate companion one day – but he’s not there yet. Telling your problems to a robot is one thing; feeling like they care is another. Robots are getting smarter, however: more responsive, more human. But will they ever really be our friends? Psychologist Rebecca Nowland, a research associate at Manchester University, says we could be plastering over the issue: “Even if we do form attachments with objects, they are not people. They could stop us from forming the human attachments we need.”
That rings true for me. At the end of my week with the bots, I realise that, apart from the handful of people I’ve introduced my AI friends to, I’ve barely spoken to anyone in seven days. I’ve been isolated, and I haven’t noticed. So have the robots prevented me from feeling lonely? I don’t think so. It’s more that interacting with them has distracted me from making the effort with people. As for forming a real connection with robots, I think, for now, that’s the stuff of Hollywood.
I send Alpha back to his owners and immediately text a friend, asking if she wants to have dinner. She’s free – human interaction at last. As I leave the house, I shout to Alexa, “I’m going out!” The reply? “Sorry, I don’t know that.”
“I reach out and his fingers clasp mine, like a baby”