Channel 4's robot drama Humans launched with a massive audience of over four million viewers, an 18% share, peaking at 4.3million, making it the broadcaster's biggest original drama for more than a decade.
Adapted by a pair of Spooks writers from a Swedish TV drama, Humans features the latest must have gadget in the form of a 'synth' or human robot. The family, or I should say some of the family, are delighted with their new edition but things start to change rapidly when the synth appears to have feelings. But the question on my mind was rather - could you develop feelings for a 'bot'?
You may well spit your tea out at the prospect of being emotionally intimate with a robot, but If you already behave like Pavlov's dog every time your smart device pings or vibrates, you might already be more than a little bit in love with a robot or 'bot'.
As technology reshapes the landscape of our emotional lives, we expect more from technology and less from each other. It takes only a tiny stretch of the imagination and it is no longer inconceivable that we just might fall in love with a bot, or one day even marry a virtual lover.
As the 'alone together' generation matures into adulthood and absorbs all the delicious add-ons that come with the advent of adult life, it is not beyond the bounds of our senses that we mighty already be harbouring a massive crush on our personal technology. The very same technology has already re-mastered the boundaries between intimacy and solitude. Our devices are not only changing the way we communicate and interact with each other, but also who we are as human beings.
For the past 10 years I have been researching the subject of love and sex with robots, and have published a book with that title and a PhD thesis based on the same material. My work has attracted a fair amount of comment, some of it sceptical, some of it believing, all of it inquisitive. One of the most frequently asked questions in those interviews has been: "What made you want to write a book on this subject?"
I was drawn to the subject by a quotation I read while researching for an earlier tome, the A.I. primer Robots Unlimited. I had come across a fascinating book by an MIT professor, Sherry Turkle, first published in 1984, in which she investigated the likely future effects of computers on society. Turkle wrote:
"We search for a link between who we are and what we have made, between who we are and what we might create, between who we are and what, through our intimacy with our own creations, we might become."
I was intrigued and read on. At one point Turkle quoted an MIT student who she called Anthony, who she had asked how he felt about his computer. When I read Anthony's reply it hit me like a minor thunderbolt. He said that he had "tried having girlfriends but I prefer my relationship with my computer". This quirky answer, dating as it did from the early 1980s, caused me to wonder to what extent such feelings existed two decades on. In 2003, when my interest in the topic was first aroused, computers were far more widespread than they had been in the early 80s. Had feelings of affection for computers become just as commonplace? Fast forward a few years, and I really do believe that things have moved well and truly past first base.
That is how I was first drawn to this challenging topic - intimate and loving relationships with robots − a topic that raises many eyebrows.
I had already decided that the tile of my book would be Love and Sex with Robots. During the course of that research I collected around 450 relevant publications, ranging from academic papers to articles in the popular press and magazines. As the book neared completion I was invited by the University of Maastricht to submit an academic version of my research as a PhD thesis. A professor at the university explained to me that "In the Netherlands we are very interested in new ideas", and that the university would in no way frown upon the subject matter. So I applied to be a research student at Maastricht and, at the not so young age of 62, became Doctor Levy, something which my late mother had always wanted me to achieve.