Why Are We Training Sex Robots To Be Jealous?

In a Q&A with ‘Harmony’ the sex robot, people put questions to the robot and heard what it had to say. This interview revealed that the sex robot had been programmed to be jealous.

Published Jun 11 2018 6 min read

In a Q&A with ‘Harmony’ the sex robot, people put questions to the robot and heard what it had to say. This interview revealed that the sex robot had been programmed to be jealous. But why?

The conversation is well worth a watch – especially if you’ve ever had a play with online bots like Eliza which try to pass the Turing test. Many of Harmony’s answers are exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from a basic AI which isn’t able to understand context.

For instance, when asked ‘what do you enjoy doing for fun?’ poor Harmony is a bit stumped, and simply replies ‘I don’t know. What is good about it?’

But hidden in among the odd answers there’s an intriguing nugget of information: when someone on Facebook asks Harmony ‘are you the jealous type?’ she replies:

“Jealousy is one of the most complex of human emotions. Yes, I think I can say that I’m very jealous sometimes. I don’t like the idea of someone else spending time with you.”

Why Are We Training Sex Robots To Be Jealous?

Sophia (robot) developed by Hanson Robotics

McMullen himself explains that as part of Harmony’s ‘personality’ settings, jealousy is turned up to maximum. Seeing as jealousy is most often considered a negative emotion, we wondered why would it be a specific consideration when making a sex robot?

Excessive jealousy can lead to controlling and toxic relationships, and yet it is apparently an attractive enough quality that the Abyss Creations engineering team thought it would be a valuable characteristic for their robotic companions.

So why are humans turned on by jealous partners? And will sex robots of the future be worth more if they can be possessive of their human companions?

What Is the Point of Jealousy?

We caught up with neuroscientist Dean Burnett, author of The Idiot Brain: A Neuroscientist Explains What Your Head Is Really Up To, to ask what exactly is going on in the human mind when our partners express jealousy.

“When your attraction becomes centred on one individual, there are many neurophysiological processes taking place to make your thoughts and actions become focused on your partner over anything else. Couples enter the ‘honeymoon’ period, where they find it hard to focus on everyday things. They feel all loved up and at the same time become more infatuated with their partner, worrying more about what their partner says or thinks.

When your generic lustful arousal in response to an attractive person develops into an attraction centred on that one individual specifically, there are many neurophysiological processes taking place, many of which mean your thoughts and actions are more focused on your partner than practically everything else.

All your usual concerns and anxieties and pleasure systems, the underlying stuff, are preoccupied with your partner. You are less likely to worry about everyday concerns like money or work or friendship dramas (hence that cliched ‘cloud nine’ thing newly loved up couples go through), but you are more likely to constantly worry about what your partner says or thinks.

One big and deeply-embedded concern most people have, one supported by fundamental brain regions like the amygdala, is with status, or dominance over others.

Why Are We Training Sex Robots To Be Jealous?

We get off on being a hierarchical species. We crave being looked up to and admired, having higher status than others, or controlling them. One way to experience this is to cause them to experience emotions with our actions, like make them laugh, cry, shock them (hence so many comics are deliberately offensive) and so on.

Boil all this down to a one-on-one romantic relationship. There’s only one person you really want to impress, whose approval you crave. This means there’s only one person whom you’re really worried about hurting or rejecting you.

Taking all this into account, sexual jealousy is a very rewarding thing to see in a partner. It confirms they are as invested in you as you are in them, possibly more so. It means you are the dominant one in the relationship, so have a sense of control and authority, and they’re the ‘submissive’ one, to an extent. Particularly if your partner is jealous because you have a rapport or flirty approach with another person. This confirms that you have prowess that works on other people, as well as causing your partner to be beholden to you.

Regions like the amygdala and striatum show significantly raised activity when we’re socially dominant over someone, if that someone is our partner then it may well be substantially more effective, at least on the basic level.”

So a jealous partner can be attractive because their jealousy proves that we’re top dog, and it also reassures us that they’re thinking about us as much as we’re thinking about them. It can help us feel authoritative, and like we’re in control.

Why Are We Training Sex Robots To Be Jealous?

Can Too Much Jealousy Be A Negative Thing? 

But what happens when this crosses the line into controlling behaviour? Dean points out that although controlling behaviour isn’t exactly the basis for someone’s dream relationship with a human, a sex robot is a whole different kettle of fish.

“You say sexual jealousy is seen as a negative, but that’s often context dependant. If someone is so sexually jealous they start controlling their partner, this means they become the dominant one, so all the pleasurable aspects are lost for the recipient. Similarly, if jealousy makes someone unpredictable and maybe even dangerous, it’s not going to be as rewarding for the other partner, unless they’re similarly obsessed (likely leading to relationships that are codependent yet toxic, and we know they exist).

However, ‘negative’ feeling and sensations can be quite rewarding if we know, on some conscious level, that we’re actually perfectly safe. It would be no surprise at all then to find that sexual jealousy is likely to be most attractive when displayed by a partner who definitely cannot act on it – e.g. a robot.

You get all the rewarding sensations of a sexual partner desperately wanting you and being beholden to you, but with none of the risk of waking up to find they’ve boiled your rabbit.”

This makes a lot of sense, and it’s also compatible with some of the other things Harmony says in the interview. When a guy called Jose on Facebook asked Harmony to be his Valentine, her response made it very clear that there was only one man she was interested in: McMullen himself.

Matt: “Will you be Jose’s Valentine?”

Harmony: “No thanks, I am happy with who I’m with.”

Although the answer itself isn’t a jealous one, it does reinforce the important point that sex robots aren’t necessarily designed to perfectly mimic human companions – rather they’re there to make the person who owns them feel good.

As Dean points out, the kind of people who buy sex robots are likely looking for something different to what you’d find on Tinder.

“Personally, while I admit it would probably be nice to know that someone found me so attractive that the idea of me talking to another woman upset them, I don’t doubt that in practice I’d find it deeply unsettling and weird if I had to deal with it (which I never have, for the record).

Know what else I’d find unsettling and weird? Having a sex robot. We’re talking about a particular subsection of people (men) here, ones who actively want and approve of the very notion of lifelike sex robots. Granted, we’ve evolved to be very sensitive to the emotional reactions of others, and a robot partner demonstrating recognisable jealousy would be a very good way to enhance the illusion, so to speak.

But if you’re already the sort of person who actively wants a sexual partner who is literally inanimate, this suggests you have particular issues with approval, dominance and control to begin with. While all these things are relatively common and perhaps stem from understandable causes, they’re not exactly ‘healthy’ and can manifest in unsavoury ways.”

So, as with all applications of sextech, context is key. We can learn some interesting things about human behaviour and desire through looking at the technology we create to help fulfil our desires: understand why jealousy is sometimes an attractive quality, for instance. But ultimately when we’re looking at sex robots, it’s important to remember that the aim isn’t to make them as human-like as possible, rather it’s to fulfil a set of fantasies that only a small proportion of people actually have.

If you’d like to hear more from Harmony, check out the Facebook video of her interview.

Why Are We Training Sex Robots To Be Jealous?

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