Elove: What Does Fiction Know?


Olimpia, Hadaly, Rachael, Faustine, Samantha, Albertine.... All loving machines, like we say “washing machines” or “answering machines,” machines that you may love and that have the potential of loving you back. All fictitious, of course. As emotions are starting to make their way into computing—think of the pervasive use of emoticons, or more interestingly, of IBM’s Watson which, in its text-analysis tool, attempts to give an idea of what it calls “personality insights"of the writer (IBM, Watson Personality) and the "emotions and communication style of the text" (IBM, Watson Tone). Think also of what is called “Affective Computing” (Picard), a research area in its infancy that has focused so far on detection of emotions, or consider the multitude of startups, some quite frightening, that focus on emotions for consumerism or even emotional support (Thomson). It is perhaps time to test the limits of such directions, I mean their extreme limit, namely love. What does it take to make such a machine? I don’t mean the technologies involved. Technology changes with time. But with machines being machines regardless of their technological evolution, and human beings being constantly human beings (or so I hope, pace- post- and trans-humanists), it is the conceptual components necessary in making such a loving machine that I will explore.
Luckily, fiction, literary and cinematic, unbridled by reality, has been exploring these conditions of the possibility of love between a human being and a machine for quite some time. As it happens, we have recently marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sand-Man,” in which a young man falls in love with an automaton and is convinced that the automaton loves him back. These fictions create worlds, very much like mind experiments, coherent most of the time, with their own laws and principles, where such a love occurs. And they have a lot to say to us today about what conceptually goes in making such a machine.
I will not attempt to demonstrate whether love between a human and a machine is possible. The works of fiction I consider all do that marvelously, each in its own way. Neither will I foolishly attempt to define love, a very complex and multifaceted notion that philosophers have timidly started to deal with. Let us just say that, for my purpose, love, while difficult to define, is easily recognizable, especially in works of fiction. It encompasses many feelings, such as attraction, desire, affection, complicity, intimacy, trust, friendship, etc.; it is also idiosyncratic in the sense that, just like love between two humans, machines and humans fall in love with a particular other; its signs are also highly idiosyncratic: a certain look, a certain smile, a certain texture of the skin, a certain voice, etc. The issue here is not what love is all about, whether mechanical or human, but under what conditions, in works of fiction, could a character or a reader identify love.
I will attempt to identify some of these conceptual components and the questions they raise. They are all interrelated and form a fairly complex network in which each component acts as a node that is linked, implicitly or explicitly, to other conceptual nodes. It is in their interrelationships that their complexity and richness arise.

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