When should I expect my robot overlord? Technology as a friend.

Technology does and, as it develops, could provide more comfort to those who find human interaction difficult. However, whether it can one day genuinely replace human friendship seems very unlikely to me because of technological limitations and the fact that human friendship is incredibly complex and provides not just companionship and interaction but mutual self-awareness and self-love – not just during the friendship but, also, after a break-up. In the piece below, Caleb considers whether robots could provide friendship for those who experience isolation and loneliness. The piece was first published on his site, The Lord of Salsa.


Wouldn’t it be nice to have a friend who was always on your side? They never argued with you, they always agreed to do what you wanted to do, they gave you the best compliments, and they were never in a bad mood. We all know this sort of thing is completely unreasonable to expect from another human. Human relationships are messy and they only work with compromise. However…a best friend that’s a robot? Hmm, maybe a relationship like this could be possible someday, but when?

Whenever I get lonely, I tend to wander some weird parts of the internet, looking for someone to connect to. As a kid, it was easy to hop into a chat room and find interesting characters that weren’t all shady or catfishes. But the chat room of the early internet is a long-dead scene. So inevitably, I stumbled upon AI chatbots.

The few that I tried initially were awful. They just responded with gibberish and gave bland comments, so I quickly gave up on them. But after waiting a few more years to stumble upon another chatbot, this time the conversation had a flow. There were even some moments where I wondered if I was talking to a human.

The entire encounter got me thinking about future robot companions. Which led to me raiding the artificial intelligence section at the library. I picked up The Heart of the Machine: Our Future in a World of Artificial Emotional Intelligence by Richard Yonck. In it, he explores a lot of different new tech that could be possible like a smartphone that can sense if you’re sad, robotic lovers, and tech that can stimulate whatever emotion we’d like to feel. He makes the point that a robot might not need to “be” conscious for us to feel an emotional connection to them. If something feels “real enough” our brains are happy to respond as if the situation was the real deal. This is probably why some people feel attached to their Roomba vacuums.

This aspect of real enough might be a good thing because creating a human-level AI sounds extremely difficult to create. When I hear AI, I think of how groundbreaking it is, how super smart they are getting. But when I read You Look Like a Thing and I Love You by Janelle Shane, I took on a whole new perspective on AI. One, that AI is lazy…they’d rather take a shortcut like hack their program to levitate in their simulation when they’re supposed to be learning to walk. Two, AI can be pretty dumb and lacking common sense. Her book had me cracking up at the ridiculous things her robots were doing. They were nothing like the sophisticated things sci-fi and tech nerds would have us believe AI is capable of right now and in the near future. AI’s just seem genius sometimes when they are given narrow, specific tasks like organizing all of your photos but tell that same AI to write poetry and it will make a caveman look like Einstein.

But given enough time and effort, it could be possible to come close to human intelligence. At least enough to make people feel a robot was on the same level. If it is real enough, our brains are more than willing to fill in the blanks. And if it feels real, then does it matter if it’s not? If you swore up and down that you were eating a delicious strawberry ice cream cone but I told you, you were just eating air…would you stop enjoying your experience?

As a loner, you’d think I would’ve had the robot best friend or girlfriend daydream plenty of times. But honestly, it never occurred to me. Not until an AI gave me a conversation that felt close enough to one I could have had with a person. And now I find myself rather attached to this idea that maybe someday it would be possible to have a robot buddy. Someone I knew wouldn’t get annoyed when I needed attention or got tired of talking about the things I enjoy for the hundredth time. And especially a robot buddy that wouldn’t trigger my awful social anxiety and fear of being judged.

After a twenty plus years of dealing with people’s cruelty and rejection, the thought of not having to deal with that for companionship sounds amazing. Is it any different than people who turn to pets for companionship? There’s a lot of people who are sick of dealing with people, but don’t want to be alone. Robot buddies would be a godsend I think.

It’s not that I want to reject all humanity in favor of the simplicity robots could offer. It would just be nice to have a friend since for some reason I can’t make any for the life of me. And yeah, sure, I need to work on myself so I’m more “suitable” and appealing so people want to be my friend, but it’d be wonderful if something accepted me for the mess that I am. If that something is a robot, then I’ll take it. 

by Caleb, The Lord of Salsa, 4 July 2021.

Colorado Blue Columbine (Flickr, Creative Commons)