Love in the Age of Machines

What will be love’s place in a society increasingly dominated by AI and machines?

For those who know me well, I am far from being a romantic, and I am not known for effusively showing and expressing my emotions. However, I do have and feel them, and I recognise their immense importance in my life, although it took me decades to realise and accept this.

Like most human beings, love has a very important place in my life: romantic love, of course, but also love for family and friends, or love for something impersonal like food, running, or writing. I often think and reflect on love’s place in our current world and the future, especially in a world where more and more things are automated, and technology is taking an ever-larger place in our lives.

I decided it was time to gather some of those thoughts in an article.

What is love?

I won’t do a better job than Wikipedia defining love, so here you go:

“Love encompasses a range of strong and positive emotional and mental states, from the most sublime virtue or good habit, the deepest interpersonal affection and to the simplest pleasure. An example of this range of meanings is that the love of a mother differs from the love of a spouse, which differs from the love of food. Most commonly, love refers to a feeling of strong attraction and emotional attachment.”

From a scientific point of view, love is a physiologic process with no significant relevance. It is an emotional response that has fulfilled an evolutionary purpose and has helped us survive and propagate. Throughout the long millennia in history, love (spiced with a bit of sexual attraction) has brought mating couples together. It has enabled the creation of families, which are the nucleus in which a new-born baby can grow in a safe environment. It has also fostered cooperation and trust between friends and extended family members, so necessary to defend, protect, and prosper as small tribes and clans.

If you ask them, most people will tell you that love is much more than a mere biological process. Many will tell you it is the most beautiful thing in life, love is the only thing that can move mountains, is the energy that drives everything, and is the only thing worth living and dying for.

Living aside poetic hyperbole, it is true that love has taken a central part of our lives. Much of the contemporary art in books, films, songs, and paintings treat love as its primary subject.

There are other things to life, and love can also have negative aspects (when it becomes an obsession, or narcissistic, for example), but many believe that a life without love wouldn’t be worth living.

Post-human Love

I have written before about the Singularity and post-humanity. This theory postulates that AI and other technologies are growing exponentially. There is a moment in the near future (probably around mid-century) when we will reach artificial super-intelligence, which will usher the Singularity and an intelligence explosion. When this happens, AI will be growing its super-intelligence hyper-fast and what happens with lowly and dumb humans is anybody’s guess. Still, some proponents of this theory think we will merge with AI (is Elon Musk’s Neuralink a step in that direction?), so we will also become super-intelligent.

In that techno-utopia (or dystopia, depends how you look at it), we would all be connected to a super-intelligent cloud with immediate access to all the knowledge ever generated by the human, and now AI, races. This post-human civilization would become a giant brain with the sole objective of computing the answers to the real mysteries of life and the cosmos.

It all sounds very nice and grandiose, but what does this have to do with love? Well, that’s the question, really. Is there a place for love in this techno-utopia/dystopia? And for emotions?

Will the future break our hearts?

I imagine that when you become a super-intelligent, all-knowing, and hyper-connected being, love, fear, or sadness are not at the top of your list and are mere disturbances. You are too busy trying to find the nth number of Pi, figure out what happened before the Big Bang, or understand the world seen from the 11th dimension of super-string theory. Plenty of people find these things fascinating, and they are important, of course, but there is more to life than this-much more in fact.

Emotions are vestiges of our primitive brains, but they are still key parts of it. As the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio said:

“We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think”

Antonio Damasio

The feelings were there before rational thinking, and they still have an essential part to play.

I may be wrong, and I may have misunderstood the whole concept of the Singularity, but I have the feeling that the brainy people who postulated this theory had only the rational brain in mind when thinking about it.

In their utopian world, there is no place for love. If that’s the case, I don’t think I want a ticket for that particular journey.

Love in the Age of Machines

The Singularity, if we ever get there, is still far away. Before that, we will have some decades in which Artificial Intelligence will get ever more intelligent and capable of undertaking more and more tasks better and cheaper than humans, thus ushering an age of increased automation. We are already entering the age of machines. What’s love’s place in this world?

The AI expert, investor, and author Kai-Fu Lee believes that love has a central role to play. In his book AI Super-Powers, he tells in great detail and with grasping emotion, his encounter with cancer and the possibility of death, and how important his family’s love was in his healing process:

“There exists no algorithm that could replace the role of my family in my healing process. What they shared with me is far simpler — and yet so much more profound — than anything AI will ever produce.

For all AI’s astounding capabilities, the one thing that only humans can provide turns out to also be exactly what is most needed in our lives: love. (…) We are far from understanding the human heart, let alone replicating it. But we do know that humans are uniquely able to love and be loved, that humans want to love and be loved, and that loving and being loved are what makes our lives worthwhile.

This is the synthesis on which I believe we must build our shared future: on AI’s ability to think but coupled with human beings’ ability to love. If we can create this synergy, it will let us harness the undeniable power of artificial intelligence to generate prosperity while also embracing our essential humanity.”

Kai-Fu Lee, The AI Super-Powers

Then he goes on to explain his vision to combat the forces of job displacement through automation. He believes there will be an increasing market for jobs linked to caring for others and love, which we will prefer to have carried out by humans than machines. He promotes a symbiosis between AI and humans for many jobs carried out entirely by humans today. Each will play to their strengths and will thus deliver a better service or increase performance.

It is an attractive and compelling vision. Love is what makes us humans, what we seek out the most, and what machines cannot do better than us, so why not focus our efforts on it?

The next decades will tell us if we can make it work and successfully combine AI and love to transform the way we undertake the new jobs.

Artificial Love

We have so far created artificial intelligence; will we be able to create artificial love? The mere sound of it is wrong. Love has to be authentic, not artificial, and love is based on emotions and feelings. Surely there will never be a machine who can love… or will it?

In the movie Her, the male protagonist (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with an AI (whose voice is played by Scarlett Johansson). She understands him better than any real woman could ever do; she never gets annoyed by him, is very attentive, witty, and sweet. She is the perfect girlfriend, and he doesn’t seem to miss having sex with her or the lack of physical touching. He feels cheated when she tells him he is having similar “relationships” with other thousands of men simultaneously, and she seems to “love” hundreds of them equally.

This is fiction, of course, and in it, the AI doesn’t really love, but the male character certainly feels love, or some sort of infatuation, towards the AI. In a world where more and more people are feeling lonely and spend more time looking at a screen than to other human beings, this fiction is close to becoming a reality. We will only need good enough technology to pass for human and make people feel listened to and loved for people to use it.

Another area in which AI and love are and will be intertwined is in matchmaking. People increasingly use apps like Tinder to find their other half. The number of married couples who met through a dating app is going up in most places, but the algorithms’ job in this matchmaking is rather rudimentary. A user has to go through photos of potential matches and swipe left or right many times before a match happens.

The way things are going, the dating apps of the future will probably make matches on users’ behalf. The app will know the exact tastes of the user, even better than them, and will go through millions of profiles in a second to select a handful of them. Obviously, all the selected profiles will be a match, as the app will already know what the other users’ preferences are. Depending on the level of delegation given by the user, their AI-based personal assistant will be able to organise a date directly with the matched person’s own AI assistant, and the restaurant’s AI. All done and dusted, the user only needs to be in a place at the required time, and they will have a date organised for them in their preferred restaurant.

Purposeful companies and the loving leader

Although love and work aren’t usually mentioned in the same phrase, I would like to finish this post talking about the workplace of the future and love’s part in it. As Kai-Fu said, love is what makes us human, we love to love and be loved, and we will have to focus on this truism to succeed in a world increasingly dominated by AI. This will have implications for the future of work.

Following Kai-Fu’s train of thought, love has to be an essential part of a humane Future of Work. We need to make more place for love, compassion, and gratitude in our workplaces and organisations. Companies have to achieve cold targets and numbers, of course, but they also are places where humans gather to spend significant parts of their lives, learn, thrive, and, why not, to enjoy what they are doing.

The company of the future will be a purposeful company, and it will be based on values that go beyond the maximization of profit. It will be a place where people are cared for, and emotions are not suppressed or hidden but are regulated and channelled in the right way. A workplace where emotional intelligence flourishes and love and other emotions aren’t suppressed will be a happier and more effective workplace.

We have the transformational leader, the visionary leader, the servant leader… I won’t propose here a new type of leader with six specific competencies, three mindsets, and five dimensions, as is often the case in the leadership literature, but I would like to advocate for having more loving and caring leaders.

Love isn’t often mentioned in those leadership treatises. Still, I think a good leader has to love and care for her team members: has to accept them as they are, believe in them, support them unconditionally, help them when they are in need, listen to them, and push them to grow. There are many elements at play here, but a bit of love should always be one of them. The team will appreciate it; the performance will also improve.

Over to you now. What do you think will be love’s role in the age of machines and the future of work? Will love keep being what makes living worthwhile, or will its importance go down? And how can we entwine better the crucial worlds of work and love?

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Iker Urrutia

Iker Urrutia

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Writer, coach, HR executive. I inspire people to build a humane future of work at https://humanefutureofwork.com/