Your phone will never love you back (and you shouldn't want it to)

Commentary: Futurist Ray Kurzweil says our devices will soon be able to process and mimic human emotions. But even if that's possible, it's not exactly a great idea.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
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Eric Mack
3 min read

Forbidden love? Or just a really bad idea? Eric Mack/CNET

Sometimes it seems like our relationships with our phones, tablets, and other devices are much easier than those we have with other meatbag humans and pets. Communication is often easier, and the mountain of data we share can enable our gadgets to know us more intimately than just about anyone else.

So it's easy to understand why super-smart futurists like Ray Kurzweil -- he of "the singularity," computer-aided immortality, and Google engineering fame -- think that we could soon be interacting with our devices on an emotional level, much like in the Oscar-nominated film "Her" about a man in love with a Siri-like operating system.

"Computers will be at human levels, such as you can have a human relationship with them, 15 years from now," Kurzweil said last week at the Exponential Finance conference, where he also described "Her" as a realistic depiction of how software will be able to be funny, romantic, loving, and even sexy.

Oh, really?

I love Kurzweil and his techno-optimism, but I worry when engineers begin trying to break amorphous adjectives down to binary code.

No matter how powerful our computing ability, no matter how much data we gather, software is designed by humans -- woefully flawed and inadequate folks like you and me who will stumble and stutter for several seconds if you ask them to define concepts like "funny," "romantic," and "sexy" before likely uttering a stream of equally vague and unquantifiable synonyms.

The meanings of these words, let alone the experiences that humanity kind of roughly agrees that they represent, is subject to insanely broad variation. Ask all 7 billion-plus humans to write an essay on what love is and you undoubtedly will get no identical responses. A software engineer might be able to harness this data to identify common themes in our understanding of love and other emotions that a machine could understand, but this would inevitably water down whatever artificial emotional intelligence could be created from it.

We'd end up with irritating and needy phones that think they're in love with us because they understand love on the level that a child understands it as a warm, fuzzy feeling it gets from the sense of attachment and security provided by family or a particular teddy bear -- "Yes, Siri, thank you for writing 'I love you' in fractals again. That's great, honey, I love you too. Now please tell me how to get around this effing traffic jam!"

There's a crazy paradox in the quest for artificial emotional intelligence (AEI) that Kurzweil and fictional works like "Her" tout. We, as humans, don't yet understand our own emotions enough to synthesize them digitally. And if we reached that enlightened moment where we truly got them, we probably wouldn't need or desire computers to replicate them. I mean, whenever I've had an awesome block of sharp Wisconsin cheddar in my fridge, I've never pushed it aside in favor of a slice of Velveeta.

And let's not forget the dark side of AEI that Kurzweil fails to mention, but that others like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking seem to ponder. If computers can be programmed to love and feel, doesn't the ability to manipulate and tear out your heart come right along with that? "Her" doesn't have the happiest ending after all.

While I'm very near to in love with my devices, they are still tools, and the ultimate goal in using them is almost always improving and enriching interactions with other humans. Maybe our species has a tragic inferiority complex, but I think I prefer the company of other clueless meatbags. At least we know what we don't know. With software it's always true or false, on or off, one or zero; but the beauty and poetry of life and the human experience isn't binary, rather it's in the undefined.

Actually, maybe that's the key to cracking the code for true AEI: Love=NULL. Try running that and see what you get.