When it comes to making sense of the basic questions in life – love and sex – a new and spectral materialism is shaping affective narratives. I ask if it is possible for love to flourish from an algorithm – is love reducible to code, wires, circuits, silicone and metal?
In December 2016, second edition of the Love and Sex With Robots congress was held in London. It was chaired by David Levy, one of the most cited persons in the field of robotic ‘love’ and ‘sex’. In the lecture “Why Not Marry a Robot?” Levy puts marriage with robots on a par with the history of interracial marriage and even says there is “no sufficient reason to deny robots the same rights and protections as humans”.
A big part of Levy’s recent speech is a rewriting of the history of same-sex and interracial unions – and a reflection on the future of human – object relationships. Let’s just examine this question – is it really true that the history of racism and colonialism can be compared to humans and robots?
Mildred and Richard Loving (above left) fought a battle against racial discrimination that led to changes in marriage laws in the US.
Is the violence humanity has suffered and experienced through racism really comparable to imagining marriage with dolls and machines? Really?
I see quite some reasons to deny that – this essay provides answers to a question why and how human-robot relationships can be understood through the history of racism & corporate personhood.
From corporate property to commodity personhood
“As more and more people have come to accept the concepts of love and sex with robots, so society as a whole will develop laws that govern human-robot relationships. And as those laws evolve, the type of legal restriction which prevented Angela Marie Vogel from obtaining a legally valid marriage license in Seattle, to allow her to marry a corporation – such laws will begin to fall by the wayside. Just as the laws preventing interracial marriage did in the 1960s and those relating to same-sex marriage have done during the current decade” says Levy.
Source: The marriage of Corporate Person and Angela Vogel
In Levy’s words, the 2012 marriage of Angela Marie Vogel to a corporation or specifically Corporate Person, was repealed as the Court ruled there was no consent involved in the act. In fact, her marriage was repealed because it was made possible only for a bureaucratic mistake. And interestingly, the pastor at the marriage told the visitors: “For Angela, dear, sweet victim of corporate propaganda, she has been swept up in a love that knows no boundaries, nor limits, no moral concerns …”
Angela Vogel is not an object-fetishist, but an anti-corporate activist. The marriage of Corporate Person and Angela Vogel was a provocation by the Seattle Initiative 103 that wants to ban corporate personhood and dehumanize corporations. It was a reaction to Mitt Romney’s statement that corporations are people. We could dismiss the claim as flawed, but it is unfortunately true. Even more surprisingly, the legal history of this insanity goes back to the abolishment of slavery and the humanization of corporations needed to maintain the privileges of We the People, white and wealthy men.
In 1886, the Fourteenth Amendment gave constitutional rights to people born and naturalized in the U.S. But the wealthy abused anti-discrimination laws for their own agenda even before women and blacks got the right to vote by privileging the corporations. Corporate personhood is a legal doctrine from the late 19th century and an unfortunate result of the successful fights of the abolitionists. Amendments to the US Constitution questioned who or what is characterized as a person and consequently, worthy of equal protection by the law. But they worked in favour of the wealthy, not former slaves, when they defined corporations as metaphysical persons.
“Slavery is the legal fiction that a person is property. Corporate personhood is the legal fiction that property is a person. Like abolishing slavery, the work of eradicating corporate personhood takes us to the deepest questions of what it means to be human.” (Hammerstrom 2002).
Source: The 14th Amendment used the term ‘person’ picked up and appropriated by corporations. Much like what is happening in European Union in 2016/2017 with the creation of the term ‘Electronic Persons’. Recognising forms of property extends the rights of property owners.
Reading Levy’ s references to gay or lesbian marriage and interracial marriages together with this historical context, one senses their perverse instrumentalization for the rights of robots – commodities. His argumentation is, like other Enlightenment justifications, Universal, ahistorical or historically selective and taken out of context. His is an attempt to grant political rights to a commodity, an artifact, the next step from giving corporations personhood and the freedom of speech.
It seems like a Final solution for our world dying through excessive production and consumerism.
Designing the Other
“By the time there are no laws to prevent human-robot marriages, robots will be patient, kind, protective, loving, trusting, truthful, persevering, respectful, uncomplaining, complementary, pleasant to talk to, and sharing your sense of humour. And the robots of the future will not be jealous, boastful, arrogant, rude, self-seeking or easily angered. Unless of course, you want them to be.”
Robots, at least the ones envisioned by Levy, are perfect beings on command. But having relations with others is not supposed to be a Master-slave relationship. Levy’s description of robot characteristics one hears twice in the talk made me think of Michael Taussig’s (1993, 105) words: “through detailed description, power is gained over the thing described”. Taussig analyses the colonial mentality and imagination, and the lack of relational thinking associated with it. He delves into commodity economy, which “has displaced persons, if not into things then into copies of things flaring with life of their own” (Taussig 1993, 231).
Social robots are a striking example of capitalist progress and are a symptom of the alienating historical development. The prosperity, which enabled such progress is built on colonialism and slavery, and races were designed to maintain hierarchies. In robotics, capital investment is abused for classist and elitist reasons: to make another race, another species, to design a perfect and therefore fascist, personhood.
Source: The First Robot, from R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), 1920/1921.
The promotion and marketing of the undead Others is not at all concerned with the alive Others who suffer and die for our gadgets. For example, “when robot creatures are generally perceived as being similar to biological creatures, the effect on society will be enormous. It will be as though hordes of people from a hitherto-unknown and far-off land have emigrated to our shores, a people who behave like us in many ways but who are very clearly different.” (Levy 2009, 303) We talk of hordes in the context of animals, not people. And the people are already migrating to our shores, in a big part as a consequence for our unrelenting thirst for commodities. A sensibility turned towards gadgets on the other side causes, or can be read as, a dehumanization of immigrants and refugees.
Josef Čapek suggested the word robot – meaning a forced worker – died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The racist and classist imaginary accompanying the discourse on love and sex with robots is not in line with his, and his brother Karel Čapek’s emancipatory ideas from the painfully topical Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R). The brothers have agreed that love is the unconstructed, random bit. They devised a societal critique that should be taken seriously. It is a critique of materialism and progress measured in terms of efficiency, and we live in an era when societal change is seen in terms of technological progress, not global prosperity.
Development of companions and love partners with personhood is perverse. It is clearly a follow-up to the corporate intrusion into human rights, personhood and interpersonal relations. The development from corporate to commodity personhood is a tool of domination by the predominately white, male and wealthy – not an emancipatory or a therapeutical project.
It is not belief in organized religion, neither limitless science, but belief in the diverse humans and humanity free of slavery and class, which teaches one to love and be loved. There is no final solution for being a person, and no algorithm that could love and be loved.
Nika Mahnič is a contributing writer. Her BA thesis in Cultural studies/Anthropology at University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, focused on technofetishism and the unheimlich robotic love. She is a writer, editor and co-founder of Danes je nov dan, Institute for other questions. Her interests revolve around robots and humans, sexualities, commodity fetishism, political change, music and dance.
Ellegård, Alvar. 1990. Darwin and the General Reader: The Reception of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in the British Periodical Press, 1859-1872. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Levy, David. 2009. Love and sex with robots: The evolution of human-robot relationships. London: Duckworth Overlook.
Taussig, Michael. 1993. Mimesis and Alterity: A particular history of the senses. New York and London: Routledge.