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ChallengeLife and tech
Monday [13.11.17]3 min read

WANTED Sad, lonely soul seeks virtual girlfriend for….

If anyone in the world knows just how sweaty your palms are, when your heart races, whose Facebook page you’ve been looking at, and whether you’ve managed to get a date, it’s your smartphone.

Your digital assistant knows all the seriously intimate details about your life – the kind you’d only share with a significant other. So, isn’t there a certain… logic to merging the two together?

The first modern-day virtual assistant was Siri, which came to market on the iPhone 4S in October 2011. Since then, Google, Microsoft and Amazon have all released their own versions of artificial intelligence personal assistants (AIPR) – Google Assistant, Cortana and Alexa respectively.

In less than six years, the little voices inside our phones have become immensely powerful and smart. While it’s debatable which of the four is most ‘clever’, according to legendary tech analyst Mary Meeker, Google Assistant can understand 95% of what we’re saying. So they’re tracking towards perfection within a decade of creation.

What’s more, they aren’t just mindless drones – advances in machine learning mean your phone will learn from you: from the cadence of your speech to your daily routine, and your likes and dislikes.

So they’re young, smart and they get you. What more could you ask for in a companion?

Maybe a face? Well, good news, Japanese company Gatebox AI is on the case.

Virtual girlfriend

Gatebox AI has created a virtual home robot that answers your daily queries, but rather than being a speaker with a disembodied voice, it's a clear cylinder where a hand-drawn animated (anime) character acts as your personal assistant.

Video: - Gatebox AI

If this already has your skin crawling, it gets better (or maybe worse). Your new assistant is named Azuma Hikari, and every single one of her is “always doing their best to aid their master”. This includes recognising when you wake or return from work – at which point she will “welcome you warmly like a companion” – and even sending you text messages throughout the day when you’re out of home.

If you’re thinking that’s just plain creepy and who’d bother? Well, Gatebox says it beat its early estimate of 300 orders.

What’s more, Gatebox promises it “will continue to strive to break the dimensional wall.”

Would that imply they’re trying to create an android-type assistant that could do a whole lot more than just tell their “master” what the weather’s like?

Well, actually, those kinds of robots are already on the market. And while that might gross you out, there may be decent arguments in their favour.

The merits of a robot ‘companion’

A number of companies have already brought sex robots to market – both male and female.

It’s obviously not been without controversy – which led the Foundation for Responsible Robotics (FRR) to release a consultation report in July entitled ‘Our Sexual Future With Robots’.

The paper addressed such issues as “Could sexual intimacy with robots lead to greater social isolation?”, “Could robots help with sexual healing and therapy?” and “Would sex robots help to reduce sex crimes?”

The aim was not to give answers to these questions, per se, but to explore the “significant issues that we may have to deal with in the foreseeable future over the next 5 to 10 years.”

As FRR co-founder Noel Sharkey ¬– who is Emeritus Professor of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence at the University of Sheffield – said at the launch of the paper, “… robots are certainly coming.

“The concern is that this is going on [and] nobody is talking about it. People snigger about them, but they are actually shipping quite a lot and we are going to see them a lot more,” Professor Sharkey said.

“We need to think about as a society what we want to do about it.”

How far would you be willing to go with a robot? We took to the streets and asked the public.

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