Humanity is lonely and heartbroken. Technology attempts to solve these issues.
Recently, I watched the 2018 movie, Zoe on Prime Video. The movie depicts a synthetic human companion (Zoe) who falls in love with her creator, Cole, played by Ewan McGregor. Cole ends up falling for Zoe as well. However, he grapples with the idea that she is not, in fact, human. The story is well done in its nuanced depiction of the complexities of human relationships. Although there is some understandable criticism on certain aspects of the film, I will not address them here. I am surprised that I have not heard of the movie until this point. Even though cliched, the “what ifs” of AI and the potential of creating synthetic humans still hold some promising landscapes to be explored. This movie is an example.
In Zoe, the company that Cole works for is also creating a drug that mimics the effects of falling in love. This drug is called Benysol and is part of the story’s context and perhaps the most interesting part of the movie. Once the drug is released, people are “crushing” or using Benysol for recreational purposes. In bars or just lying in bed, the drug is ingested and the pair simultaneously feel the intense emotional sensations of falling in love.
Falling in Love
As the Merovingian (from the Matrix movies) noted, “it is remarkable how similar the pattern of love is to the pattern of insanity.”1 Take what you will from this idea, however, what is true is that love is a powerful force driving much of human nature. Love is something each human experiences. Though it remains a mystery as to who will trigger a love response, the following are 11 psychological reasons we fall in love. These include similarity, propinquity (proximity), desirable characteristics, reciprocal liking, social influences, need fulfilling, arousal/unusualness, readiness, isolation, specific cues, or mystery.2
Serotonin, the calming neurochemical, is often lower in those who have fallen or are falling in love. This creates a neurobiological state similar to obsessive-compulsive behavior causing us to be consumed with the object of our love. Relatedly, we often mistake the adrenaline and norepinephrine rush of anxiety for love. A 1972 experiment’s outcome suggests we are more likely to fall in love with someone who gives us a negative rating at first.3
Romantic love is often broken into three categories, lust, attraction, and attachment.3 Further, each of these categories is associated with its own neurochemistry and hormone signature. Lust is fueled by testosterone in men and estrogen in women. Attraction is related to dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. And attachment is often associated with oxytocin and vasopressin.
Men tend to fall in love quicker than women, are more impulsive while women are more analytical when it comes to relationships.5 Love can be a wonderful experience that can lower blood pressure, lessen pain, and reduce stress and anxiety.6
Love as A Recreational Drug
The neurochemical process of love functions along the Dopermagenic pathway and therefore uses much of the neural circuitry responsible for reward and addiction. And so there is the controversial idea of love or relationship addiction.4 It is difficult to qualify love as recreational, although hookup culture may have (to a degree) normalized this.
Research is currently underway to determine whether the effects of MDMA (commonly known as “ecstasy” or “molly”) may help couples regain the connectedness of their relationship.7 This drug is often associated with the club scene and all-night dance parties known as “raves.”9 The supporting logic at work here is there is a pill for depression, why shouldn’t there be one for relationships? However, researchers warn of the dangers of a relationship fueled by drugs.
Anecdotal evidence seems to point to the existence of “fake” love brought on by the experience of E (ecstasy, molly, MDMA). It’s been reported that while initially not romantically interested in another in close proximity while taking E the feelings of love arose for this person. However, afterward, the “love” feelings had dissipated.
MDMA has been shown to raise the levels of oxytocin, the chemical responsible for social bonding.7 Brian Earp, Co-author of Love Drugs: The Chemical Future of Relationships, is careful not to describe the potential for MDMA as “treatment”, but rather an enhancement of relationships.8
MDMA, like other similar substances, is powerful and should not be taken lightly. You don’t have to look far to find anecdotes explaining how if someone didn’t take molly they wouldn’t have fallen in love with their husband or wife. On the other hand, with the wave of positive research looking into its benefits, it is more difficult to grasp its dangers. MDMA can impact the body’s ability to regulate temperature, the body getting too hot. This can have an adverse effect on the liver and the heart. Additionally, the drug is antidiuretic, or it causes the body to hold water. This can cause rather severe issues.
The depth of the bond created while on MDMA impacts powerful, primal neural chemistry and may create difficulties as well with letting go once a relationship has ended. Like all powerful things, there are two sides, the positive and desired effect, and the potential negative impacts. This information should be heavily considered before consideration of use.
Relationships With Synthetic Humans
During March and April 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic began and social distancing took hold, orders for sex dolls increased dramatically.10 Although it is not clearly understood why this happened, it is at least related to some degree to social isolation.
In 2019, Sony introduced AIBO the robot dog. In studies, owners attributed real “dog-like” emotions to their AIBO. History shows that people are very likely to anthropomorphize or attribute human traits to technology. Reborn baby dolls are very life-like replicas of newborns. Demographically, they are mostly collected by women. Sex dolls, similarly, are mostly purchased by men. However, this appears to be changing as both women and couples appear to be a growing market. In a 2018 study, sex doll owners reported companionship as a noteworthy consequence of their relationship with the doll. 11 And while a relationship with a synthetic human or other companion is itself synthetic, the emotions that arise from the existence of the relationship are real.
This idea is being explored in our popular entertainment including the movie Her and the HBO show, Westworld. As a culture, we are beginning to explore how synthetic relationships may occur as well as what this may mean. Perhaps we have a ways to go, but it is important to note that synthetic relationships are not mutual, meaning the AI, AIDO, or life-like sex doll does not have a goal, interest, or feeling. It is only a computation, a program, an algorithm. It is yet unclear how this will play into human evolution or the satisfaction that can be gained through synthetic relationships.
Questions You’ve Probably Never Considered
If you were having trouble in your most cherished relationship and a drug was a safe potential solution, would you take part?
If the social stigma surrounding sex dolls decreased, would you purchase one?
If you could not have children and a Reborn doll provided an option to make this sort of emotional connection, would you take part?
What happens to the human race when we are not able to rely on one another for the fulfillment of social, bonding, and belonging needs?
As technology drives forward, humanity is forever coupled to its development. Our fates intertwined. We are all cyborgs -part machines – whether we wear glasses or contacts, ride a bike, drive a car, or have an artificial heart valve. We live in an age where algorithms may dictate political attitudes, at the same time loneliness seems to increasingly be an issue and mental health concerns continue to arise. These items are related.
I believe that we as the “human race” will have to decide what is meaningful in all of this. And in that meaning, we’ll have to reconcile the needs needing fulfilling with the means of achieving them. In this view, however, humanity continues to fight the familiar battle it has fought since its infancy.