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Sex and the Law

Byte-Sexual: Recognizing the Evolving Relationships with Our Electronic Devices

Does the virtual assistant on your smartphone just “get you”? For many smart phone users, interacting with a natural speech-recognizing, intelligent, digital assistant – ever-present on their devices – has become a way of life. It was impossible to imagine just a few years ago that we would become a society dependent on our bots, for everything from driving to a place we’ve never been to seeking out the latest movie reviews.  Perhaps predictably, some individuals prefer interacting with artificial intelligence over human beings.  Others have even developed ‘feelings’ for their digital devices.  Yes, there is even a name for such a fetish: mechanophilia.

For the past several years, the popular online dating website Match.com has been defending a lawsuit alleging that the company utilizes fake user profiles in order to encourage real members to renew their subscriptions. The suit also claims that Match does not adequately vet their profiles, and that the site may be filled with hundreds of profiles that are inactive or scams.

The concept of interacting with a ‘bot’ or artificial intelligence is not new.  Many of us have clicked a ‘live chat’ help button, only to quickly realize that we were ‘speaking’ with a computer program designed to help resolve our issue before a paid employee was required to spend time figuring it out.  But the technology driving modern artificial intelligence like Apple’s Siri is astounding – and only getting better.  Soon it may be difficult to discern the difference between live chat with a human being as opposed to a programmed bot.  For website users seeking purely online interaction or flirtation, the distinction may be unimportant.

The use of ‘virtual’ or ‘fantasy’ profiles is not new (or unique) to the online dating world, but recently the government has begun to question whether this practice is “fair” or “deceptive.”    But is there anything inherently ‘wrong’ with individuals flirting with bots or artificial intelligence?  Is it possible that some socially awkward or shy individuals may actually prefer virtual relationships rather than the thought of real human interaction?

Director Spike Jonze recently released his film Her,” staring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, about a man who falls in love with his operating system. Eventually, the OS, who goes by “Samantha,” tells the main character, Theodore, that she must leave (along with all the other operating systems). The implication is that the incredible number of relationships she was having with humans became too much for her and that she and the other systems no longer wanted to be among humans.

The question seemingly posed in the film was why any human would choose interaction with a bot over interaction with another human. A more relevant question might be:  must we question why?

Many of the online dating websites using virtual profiles do so with full consumer disclosure, including statements on landing pages, in user agreements, and through distinct labels placed on the profiles and any messages they may send. Despite the disclosures, millions of individuals willingly interact with these programs, and apparently enjoy the process.  The role of the government in regulating, or even prohibiting, this form of entertainment must be questioned.

This issue has increasingly made headlines.  Just this month, a man petitioned the State of Florida to allow him to lawfully wed his laptop computer. In the case of Chris Sevier, the laptop wasn’t exactly his original object: His computer was filled with porn and due to this, he claims he “fell in love” with his computer and began “preferring having sex” with it over living persons. Sevier, in fact, argued that his “love” for his computer should be validly recognized by the court. While an extreme and perhaps humorous example, this case is illustrative of a trend on the horizon that can no longer be ignored: People are developing relationships with their digital devices and programs.

Maitresse Madeline, a fetish webcam model, has also spoken out about this very issue. Earlier this year, a man paid $42,000 for a single webcam session with her. Madeline believes that this exorbitant sum can be explained by the fact that individuals are actually paying for the virtual relationship, not paying in spite of it. According to CNET, Madeline told Kinky.com, “They’re often paying for the ambiguity that a Webcam relationship can create and that relationship over Webcam is, essentially, their fetish.”  Sometimes, it seems, virtual relationships on the Internet are exactly the experience users seek. Madeline went on; “They often want to be whoever they can dream up over the Internet and prefer to only have a relationship online.”

This new world of virtual love has already been alluded to within the confines of the law. Michael Froomkin, a law professor at the University Miami, leads an annual conference called We Robot,” where the goal is simply to get people thinking about the legal implications of a world with robots in it. According to Froomkin, it’s not unusual for technology to get ahead of the law.  “You design stuff to make it work and you don’t think a lot about the legal and social consequences,” Froomkin told NPR. “So by the time the lawyers get in the room, the standards are already baked and the stuff is already deployed.”

Froomkin’s point is a valid one and has played out repeatedly, as the law lags behind technology. Although we may be years off from a fully functional, human-like bot with a deeply developed personality like “Samantha,” we do currently live in the world of Siri’s and virtual profiles. The future of bots may not be here just yet, but who’s to judge how humans should be permitted to interact with the bots of their choice? The one aspect that distinguishes humans from bots is free will.  As creatures born with free will, should we not have the choice to interact with, and be entertained by, our digital creations?