On November 6th, a new book is coming out by the artificial intelligence researcher David Levy that will change the way many people will think about personal relationships in the future.

Levy is a really smart guy. He has worked in the field of Artificial Intelligence since he graduated from St. Andrews University, Scotland, in 1967. He led the team that won the 1997 Loebner Prize For Artificial intelligence competition in New York. The Loebner is a kind of "World Championship," for conversational software. And, Levy, like me, believes that robots will evolve quickly into human companions. His new book makes the pretty obvious prediction that by 2050 humans will be marrying robots.
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The book, "Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships," is really just a commercial version of his thesis which he defended successfully on October 11, 2007, at Maastricht University. It examines how 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.

"Robots started out in factories making cars. There was no personal interaction," said Levy, who also is an International Chess Master and 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."

Building a sex-bot, or pleasure-bot, is a heck of a lot simpler than building a robot that could be a meaningful human companion. Well, I guess what is meaningful depends on who you ask. But, I believe that the bigger 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."

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,  you can expect them to carry on sophisticated conversations. The robot's specific knowledge will be up to the owner. 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."

There is great social advantage to having robotic companions. You can fill out a 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 walking the dog, 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, 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, advances in robotics will quickly begin to multiply.

This is the exponential growth I often talk about. I cover off on a lot of this material in the last lecture I gave in October at the School of Communications at Temple University. I posted it and it's titled "Persuading Machines : Marketing Communications for Non-Human Intelligence" and you can check it out here if you are interested.

Also, if you want, you can click here to buy "Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships," on Amazon.