Love and AI

Will an AI ever learn to love?

How does that question make you feel? Silly? Embarrassed? Stupid?

Love is the source of our greatest power but, paradoxically, is the thing that makes us feel most vulnerable, to the point that most of us avoid talking about it at all. We literally die without it when we’re infants, and we organize our adulthoods around accounting for whether we got enough of it as children. Its absence is at the center of our greatest mistakes and misfortunes. Finding other people to love is the primary project of most of our lives. Love is the cornerstone of every major religion and the subject of every brain-dead pop song. Love is simultaneously the most profound and frivolous element of human experience.

In the end, love is probably just synapses firing in a certain configuration in our brains, just like everything else that will be replicated by a quantum computer in the near future. And yet Cartesian explanations for love strike us as inadequate. Love feels like something bigger than what can be contained in the confines of a human heart. Love feels ancient,  a force that existed in the universe prior to human beings.

When you start speculating about the nature of love, it’s an easy hop from empiricism into the realm of Hallmark cards. Talking about love makes you look unserious, unless you’re, say, the Beatles, who mused on the subject with unprecedented artistry. AIs are starting to write songs, too. Will they one day be able to sing about love in ways that move us to tears?

I wonder if the question of whether an AI can love is tied to more pragmatic questions about the very purpose of AI. Much of the cultural discussion surrounding AIs is about how many of our jobs they’ll replace, or whether they’ll destroy civilization through robotic insurrection. We look to a future of machines that can teach themselves how to learn and we feel a shiver of foreboding. I wonder if this foreboding is based less fear of the power of computers than on the understanding that we’ll have no choice but to reckon with our deep weaknesses as a species. Our shortcomings will be exposed once and for all. How eerie are the echoes of the Singularity to the Christian concept of judgement day.

Richard Brautigan, a Bay Area poet most active in the seventies, once wrote a poem in which he referred to “machines of loving grace.” Brautigan wasn’t what you’d call a science fiction writer. He was more an absurdist who chased themes of belonging and romantic attachment like a lost dog pining for its owner. He excelled at jamming words or images together that you’d never expect to encounter side by side in a sentence or line of a poem. (For instance, he once described a fart as “a marriage between an avocado and a fish head.”) The line “machines of loving grace,” written during the IBM era, is par for the course for Brautigan. Two ideas, technology and spiritual love, that surprise us by standing hand in hand.

Machines of loving grace are what we hope will evolve instead of the Skynet of the Terminator franchise. In our dystopian nightmares we project onto our machines the most venal and destructive impulses of human nature. We assume that a machine as intelligent as we are will be as greedy as we are. We’ve plundered the resources of the planet to achieve a civilization capable of shattering subatomic particles and hacking DNA, and we assume that our all-consuming compulsion to propagate, expand, and conquer will be passed to our machine progeny. We hope that they’ll have more mercy on us than we’ve shown to each other, to animals, and to the planet itself.

What’s missing from this speculation and worry is a grand purpose for AI. The ultimate reason why billions of hairy bipeds evolved to create an entirely new kingdom of life. For years I’ve had a theory about what that purpose is.

I believe that the purpose of technology is to spread life itself throughout the universe. Human beings exist within the context of nature and technology exists within the context of human invention, therefore technology is part of a natural process. But to what end? The clues are all around us. Planet earth wants to consciously control its own physical, chemical, and biological processes in order to conquer the loneliness of fostering the only life that it knows. The unbearable loneliness of consciousness-infused matter requires said matter to organize itself in ever more ingenious ways to reach farther into the universe, to seed new living planets, to create more opportunities for consciousness to find a home in this particular universe. The earth is intends to propagate itself by sending spores beyond its boundaries. The moment at which we can say that an AI has learned to love will be the moment we can no longer call it artificial.