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More people want romance with robots and cartoons. Is this really our future?
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More people want romance with robots and cartoons. Is this really our future?

Our yearning to love real people might be stronger than some think.

The specter of replacing humans by their creations has long haunted the collective psyche. We have always feared human obsolescence, from assembly lines to personal computers to, now, artificial intelligence.

The discussion often centers on labor — machines taking our jobs. The factory-worker replaced by an assembly line; the software engineer replaced by artificial intelligence.

There’s also a longstanding fascination, if not outright fear, that something similar could happen in romance, from the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion and his ivory statue brought to life to early science fiction works featuring artificial women, like Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's novel "The Future Eve" (1886). Recent works like the 2007 film "Lars and the Real Girl" or "Her" (2013) have taken our deep-seated dread into the 21st century, but we still seem to come back to the idea that while, yes, maybe machines can change how we work, they won’t be able to change how we love: Artificial companions cannot truly replace genuine human connection, no matter how lifelike or personalized. Love is what makes us human.

I suspect it’s likely that AI boyfriends will present a more complex challenge than AI girlfriends.

As technology has advanced, the idea of artificial companions has shifted away from the realm of film and literature to sex dolls and, more recently, AI-powered virtual partners, with disproportionate attention placed on AI girlfriends. Men are addicted to porn, this is the next iteration — right?

A few months ago, an article about the supposed rise of AI girlfriends went viral on X.

The crux of the piece was: "If women become infinitely personalizable (and probably beautiful), how will real-life women compete?" Most people in my corner of social media were skeptical, arguing that what makes romance romantic isn't perfection or customization. Even with OnlyFans models, there’s some promise — no matter how small — of connecting with a real person.

And while it’s true that some people indeed enjoy erotic roleplaying with AI, it’s rarely to the exclusion of a human girlfriend or boyfriend. If there is no human in the picture, it’s likely because they cannot find one, not unwilling to. What’s more, this may be true even if they do have a specific fetish for AI or robots.

What came first, the gooner (internet-speak for compulsive masturbator) or the microwavable meal for one? To some critics, the answer is the former: These technologies aren’t a symptom of isolation but are the cause of isolation. While that’s tempting — blame the porn, blame the robots — everything we know, from the eccentric to the mundane, suggests differently.

I'm reminded of a 2007 article by MIT professor and sociologist Sherry Turkle, “Authenticity in the Age of Digital Companions.” Then, now, and significantly before 2007, machines existed in this liminal space of both inauthentic and alive.

Children, for example, perceive machines as emotional, sometimes "living" beings. We also have emotional responses to what Turkle calls "relational artifacts," such as objects like Furbies, Tamagotchi pets, and these days, chatGPT (ever apologized or said please after a request?). Turkle wrote that we can form emotional relationships with them, but they aren't comparable to our relationships with other people. Turkle ends the piece with an anecdote about a friend who is severely disabled, one that I think is still relevant.

"Show me a person in my shoes who is looking for a robot, and I'll show you someone who is looking for a person and can't find one," he tells her.

According to Turkle:

[Richard] turned the conversation to human cruelty: "Some of the aides and nurses at the rehab center hurt you because they are unskilled and some hurt you because they mean to. I had both. One of them, she pulled me by the hair. One dragged me by my tubes. A robot would never do that," he said. "But you know in the end, that person who dragged me by my tubes had a story. I could find out about it."

For Richard, being with a person, even an unpleasant, sadistic person, made him feel that he was still alive. It signified that his way of being in the world still had a certain dignity, for him the same as authenticity, even if the scope and scale of his activities were radically reduced. This helped sustain him. Although he would not have wanted his life endangered, he preferred the sadist to the robot.

Richard's perspective on living is a cautionary word to those who would speak too quickly or simply of purely technical benchmarks for our interactions. What is the value of interactions that contain no understanding of us and that contribute nothing to a shared store of human meaning? These are not questions with easy answers, but questions worth asking and returning to.

The counterargument concerns whether that lack of authenticity arises because we know machines are not human or the technology isn't there yet.

I tend toward the former. Even in the “Love Revolution” manifesto of the “fictosexual” writer Honda Toru (that’s someone who knowingly seeks romantic relationships with fictional characters, as opposed to real people), there are the echoes of "I am like this because I have to be" as opposed to "I am like this because I was born this way":

"Some of us find satisfaction with fictional characters. It's not for everyone, but maybe more people would recognize this life choice if it wasn't always belittled. Forcing people to live up to impossible ideals so they can participate in so-called reality creates so-called losers, who in their despair might lash out."

Reading Toru's writing about “love capitalism,” a term he uses to describe the transactional nature of romance in Japan, it seems like he wouldn't have chosen a “waifu,” or anime wife, if he felt more accepted by society.

Talking to Cait Calder, another fictosexual, I got a similar impression.

Neither Cait nor Toru argue that their attraction to and love of fictional characters aren't real — they describe the experience as weird, wonderful, and authentic — and both want acceptance for who they are. But there is also an acknowledgment that this orientation doesn't emerge in a vacuum, whether they say so explicitly, like Toru does, or implicitly like Cait did when she spoke about her autism diagnosis.

I wonder if part of the quest for people to stop invalidating these relationships is partially the argument that they're not maladaptive; they're perfectly rational in our mediated and sometimes very alienating world as it is.

Gender dynamics also complicate this conversation, with women overwhelmingly being framed as the losers as men chose simulated women over real ones. That’s intuitive, but I think it's incorrect. I suspect it’s likely that AI boyfriends will present a more complex challenge than AI girlfriends.

My prediction is that AI boyfriends will trend in four core manifestations:

  1. For a minority, like fictosexuals or those who are deeply committed to a fandom, AI companions will substitute for physical world romantic partners. However, even within this community, many report not being able to fully suspend disbelief, finding AI interactions fun but less satisfying than daydreaming or writing fan fiction.
  2. AI will be a form of play, similar to The Sims, playing with dolls, or role-playing. While potentially addictive, it won't be a 1:1 substitution for human interaction.
  3. They will be a form of erotica, similar to romance novels, with some users preferring to "play a character" within the AI chat narrative universe. They may become popular in fandom communities.
  4. They'll be deployed in romance scams against the naive and gullible, like those who believe celebrities are directly messaging them on Instagram.

Among these manifestations, the third one seems most likely to gain traction. This is because there is already a well-established precedent for women forming emotional attachments to fictional characters and celebrities and engaging in fantasy relationships through various media, including romance novels and fan fiction. AI boyfriends could serve as an interactive, personalized extension of these existing tendencies, allowing women to engage in immersive, emotionally satisfying experiences tailored to their desires and needs.

That being said, any AI companion's threat to real-life relationships is likely overstated.

Text-based roleplaying and dating simulation games have been around for years. While they can provide a sense of connection and fulfillment, they have not replaced the desire for human companionship. They're proxies for it. That's what all of this stuff is — a proxy. No teenage girl, since time immemorial, has preferred a Sherlock Holmes, an Edward Cullen, or a boyband member to a real-life boyfriend.

The same is broadly true in reverse until AI can power sex dolls. Unfortunately, the jury's not out on sex robots that can strongly mimic a human woman. As it stands, though, chatGPT, Replika,, and Digi are not substitutes for girlfriends among men who feel confident in their ability to find a girlfriend. When this type of media becomes an obsession, it betrays a lack in one's life. If they inculcate people with unrealistic expectations, then those are people who've had very few opportunities to have their expectations lowered.

Ultimately, I don't believe AI companions will become widespread, sustainable substitutions for physical-world partners or replace dead loved ones, as in the film "Marjorie Prime." The uncanny valley (the unsettling feeling when AI or robots closely resemble humans but are not quite convincingly realistic) will likely limit their appeal. Ultimately, people crave genuine human connections, and while AI companions may offer a temporary salve for loneliness, they cannot replace the depth and authenticity of another person.

I do see a halfway point becoming more common in the future, and indeed, this might be the situation we’re living in now.

A surge in internet, but not dating-app-native, relationships and prolonged pre-dating communication squares better with what we know about younger generations. As dating apps lose favor while online socialization continues, meeting potential partners and friends online is becoming more common and accepted. People aren't ashamed they have "internet friends" anymore, and it seems like every app except dating apps are used for dating.

People still crave uniquely human connections, but in an increasingly isolated world, the compromise is human-machine-human interaction, not human-machine. While these technologies can provide comfort and companionship for some, they cannot substitute the richness and authenticity of face-to-face human interactions.

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Katherine Dee

Katherine Dee

Contributing Editor, Return

Katherine Dee is an internet culture reporter.
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