My man-made partner

Me and it.

I once met an elderly woman on a bus in Berlin. She was evidently on her own. She had a small lesion on her leg. After giving her a Band-Aid, I asked where she was going and whether I could help her in any other way. She gave me a tired smile – and a surprising response. She was fine, she said, and she wasn't going anywhere at all. She took a bus every day for the sole purpose of meeting people. Otherwise she would be completely alone. This encounter was several years ago, but my thoughts keep returning to it.

(Image: iStock)

People possess a fascinating ability: they are able to form relationships. They can attach themselves to a partner, an "other half" who – as with the woman on the bus – doesn't have to be a specific person. In numerous other cases it isn't even a human being. A spectrum of different relationships is available – ranging from business associations through to love affairs, sexual liaisons to platonic friendships – but it is no broader than the range of potential "other halves." People adopt animals into their family and mourn their eventual passing. They play violin pieces to their houseplants to make them grow faster. Some can't bear to part with blankets from their infancy; others give names to their cars. If we take the political theorist Hannah Arendt at her word, there may be a simple reason for this: in their minds people are never really alone. Instead, they maintain a personal attachment to an imaginary partner. Arendt calls this fact of human existence the "inner dialogue between me and myself." And every relationship that people enter into is a manifestation of it.

That also applies to relationships with the inanimate world. Objects arouse an array of emotions in us. They evoke reassurance and security, keep us company and even annoy us on occasion. Be honest now! How many of you out there have never screamed at a computer? Which of you has a favorite cup in your kitchen, a lucky sock, or an old teddy bear you confide in? Some of us even enter intimate associations with inanimate objects. In 2016 Aaron Chervenak married his iPhone in Las Vegas, while a Berlin resident named Michelle has sustained a relationship with a Boeing 737-800 since 2014. That makes these two individuals members of a rare class of people who have been 'diagnosed' with objectophilia, an ability to forge strong emotional bonds with physical objects. For most people, cases like this provoke laughter, a headshake of disbelief or a rejection of them as pathological nutcases. I, however, interpret them as honest, if rather odd, examples of the aforementioned ability to maintain relationships with inorganic entities as well as animate organisms like people and pets. In short, not only with everyone but with everything.

But – as some individuals might be inclined to protest – am I not taking the easy way out by trying to measure every type of relationship with the same yardstick? Isn't there a difference in quality between a business relationship and a close friendship? And seeking the comfort and protection of your favorite blanket isn't the same as loving it. Could it therefore not be that Michelle and Aaron have a screw loose if they choose to marry their iPhones and have sexual relations with a model aircraft? Aristotle at least would have thought so. He distinguished between three types of friendship – pleasant, useful and good – and categorically ruled out 'inorganic' relationships. He supported his theory with the treatise “On the Soul,” to which the majority of readers will intuitively subscribe. In his view, objects are specifically defined by the fact that they are dead and possess no metaphysical qualities, i.e. they are mere 'things.'

On the other hand there is plenty of room for debate about what a soul really is, and which entities within the cosmos can justifiably lay claim to having one. The answer to this question also varies from culture to culture. For example, Aristotle's position epitomizes the traditional western view of the world. By contrast the concept of animate objects is fundamental to animist religions such as Japan's Shintoism, and commonplace in Germanic mythology. Moreover, individuals like Michelle and Aaron don't justify their attachments to their preferred objects by claiming that they have a soul or spirit that make them lovable, but rather by the fact that they consummately fulfil their expectations of an intimate or romantic relationship: a feeling of being in harmony with and in the object – falling asleep together, experiencing sexual satisfaction, holding conversations, and valuing one another.

For this reason I would like to propose a different definition of friendship, one that can function without a spiritual dimension: the better the "other half" can satisfy one's own needs, the easier it is to enter into a relationship (including a friendship). People can decide for themselves in which way and to what extent that is the case and under which circumstances the response is interpreted as appropriate. Consider, for instances, E. T. A. Hoffmann's famous short story The Sandman, in which the student Nathanael falls in love with an automated, humanoid wooden doll called Olimpia – albeit without realizing that the beguiling figure is a lifeless machine. Despite appearing taciturn and slightly simple-minded, Olimpia can initially provide the response to Nathanael’s needs that he desires. Who are we to say whether this form of affection is better or worse, or of a 'lesser quality,' than one to another living creature?

Readers who are uncomfortable with the idea of feeling love and friendship towards an object might consider less intimate types of relationships. In the area of service robotics, artificial systems are currently being developed to help people in their everyday lives. Examples include the automatic vacuum cleaner Roomba (iRobot), self-steering lawnmowers like the Automower (Husqvarna), the sales assistant Paul who guides customers through Saturn electronics stores and, notwithstanding their still very limited functions, the household assistance systems and entertainment robots like Pepper (Aldebaran Robotics SAS in conjunction with SoftBank Mobile Corp.). As representatives of a growing collection of social robots that provide services within people's personal spheres, they need to possess social skills – regardless of their function and the degree to which they directly interact with human beings.

The existence of relationships between people and machines is more apparent in the areas of social care and therapy. A 2007 study by William A. Banks showed that old people can establish similar bonds with robotic canines (in this case Sony's AIBO) as they do with real dogs. Dementia victims, many of whom tend to isolate themselves from human caregivers, can above all relate to the robotic seal Paro (designed by Takanori Shibata).

To my mind there is not the slightest doubt that the old woman I met on the Berlin bus would have taken to AIBO and Paro. An artificial companion might not be able to replace all forms of human interaction, but it can at least alleviate solitude. Maybe she would even experience a renaissance and again feel valued and understood – moreso than she has with people in recent years. Humans don't instantly lose their amazing ability to enter into relationships with everyone and everything as soon as robot enters the scene. For me personally, cultivating this human capacity for relationships – irrespective one’s counterpart – is much more important than discussing whether affection for a human is better than affection for an animal, a plant or a robot. I would consider it dishonest if somebody in an age of increasing old-age solitude, of appalling exploitation and extreme physical pressure in geriatric nursing, would oppose implementing robotic assistance systems because they might deter people from forming relationships with other human beings. After all, when was the last time you visited your great aunt or uncle in a retirement home? And how many of you are dreamily caressing the smartphone next to you as you read these lines?

Janina Loh (nee Sombetzki) is a teaching assistant in the Department of Technology and Media Philosophy at the University of Vienna.

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