An artificial intelligence researcher predicts that robotics will make such dramatic advances in the coming years that humans will be marrying robots by the year 2050.
Robots will become so human-like -- having intelligent conversations, displaying emotions and responding to human emotions -- that they'll be very much like a new race of people, said David Levy, a British artificial intelligence researcher whose book, "Love and Sex with Robots," will be released on Nov. 6.
Gone, he says, will be the jerky movements and artificial-sounding voices generally associated with robots. These will be highly human-like machines that people fall in love with, becoming aides, friends and even spouses.
It may sound like science fiction, but Levy, who turned his book into an academic Ph.D. dissertation at Maastricht University in The Netherlands this fall, said it's something we've been moving toward for decades now.
"Robots started out in factories making cars. There was no personal interaction," said Levy, who also is an International Chess Master who has been developing computer chess games for years. "Then people built mail cart robots, and then robotic dogs. Now robots are being made to care for the elderly. In the last 20 years, we've been moving toward robots that have more relationships with humans, and it will keep growing toward a more emotional relationship, a more loving one and a sexual one."
Yes, Levy was quick to say that humans will have sexual relationships with robots, perhaps within five years -- sooner than most might think.
Building that kind of robot will be much simpler than building a robot that could be a good human companion, though. Levy said the biggest advancement in robotics will come in the form of enabling a robot to carry on an interesting conversation, have self-awareness and emotional capabilities.
"There are already people who are producing fairly crude personalities and fairly crude models of human emotions now," said Levy. "This will be among the harder parts of this process… Human/computer conversation has attracted a lot of research attention since the 1950s, and it hasn't made as much progress as you'd expect in 50 years. But computers are so much more powerful now and memory is so much better… so we'll see software that can have interesting, intelligent conversations. It's really essential that both sides are happy with the conversations they're having."
Levy also estimated that robots will be able to have interesting conversations -- not yet at the level of a college graduate but enjoyable -- within 15 years. In 20 or 30 years, however, he expects them to carry on sophisticated conversations.
The robot's specific knowledge, Levy says, will be up to the owner.
According to Levy, people will be able to order a customized companion, whether a friend who enjoys the arts or travel or a spouse.
"There will be different personalities and different likes and dislikes," he said. "When you buy your robot, you'll be able to select what kind of personality it will have. It'll be like ordering something on the Internet. What kind of emotional makeup will it have? How it should look. The size and hair color. The sound of its voice. Whether it's funny, emotional, conservative.
"You could choose a robot that is funny 40% of the time and serious 60% of the time," he added. "If you get fed up with your robot making jokes all the time, you can just download different software or change the settings on it. You'll be able to change the personality of the robot, its interests and its knowledge. If you're a movie buff, you can ask for a robot with a lot of knowledge about movies."
Levy said he sees great social advantages to having robotic companions. People can fill out their group of friends and shy or lonely people can have the companionship they're lacking.
So, in between watching movies with their human companion and playing Frisbee in the park, will the robots be off leading lives of their own?
Levy said he doesn't think that will happen by 2050, but it could occur by the turn of the next century. "The robot is probably sitting in the corner in your house waiting for you to decide what you'd like to do next… instead of out living a life of its own," he added. "In this time frame anyway, robots will be there when we need them, as we need them."
That, however, doesn't mean they won't become integrated into the family.
In terms of how much time people spend with their robots and how attached they become to them, Levy said robots definitely will become family members. "By mid-century, I don't think the difference between robots and humans will be any more than the difference between people who live in Maine and people who live in the bayou of Louisiana," he noted. "People will be surprised to know that robots will have emotions like ours and they'll be sensitive to our emotions and needs."
So what do researchers need to get robotics to this advanced level?
First, according to Levy, they'll need much more powerful computer hardware that can handle the complex and computational-heavy applications that will be needed to design and run conversational capabilities, along with emotions and more advanced artificial intelligence.
Once the hardware and software needs are in place, Levy said advances in robotics will quickly begin to multiply.