Feb. 11, 2011 at 3:16 PM ET
In a case of life imitating "Futurama," Maryland's gay-marriage debate has somehow morphed into worries about robot-human marriages.
The rant against robosexuals came during Robert Broadus' testimony against the gay-marriage legislation currently before Maryland legislature. "If you pass this bill, you will set the groundwork, that one day when artificial intelligence is that advanced, we will be considering whether or not people can marry their androids. ... If you say that any two people who love each other can get married, then you set that precedent," said Broadus, who heads Protect Marriage Maryland.
To make his case, Broadus referred to Lieutenant Commander Data's ability to feel emotion and shed a tear in "Star Trek: Generations," a science-fiction movie. "You laugh, but it's true," Broadus said.
For better or worse, sex with robots is already a reality, although the robots in question are really just glorified blow-up dolls. Researchers have long discussed whether there might come a day (maybe 2050?) when true love could exist between humans and artificially intelligent machines. In recent years, however, the idea of building robots that look and think like humans isn't as, um, sexy as it once was.
"The robotics field is away from that approach and geared toward specific applications," said Anne Foerst, a computer science professor at St. Bonaventure University in New York who has been dubbed "the robot theologian." (And yes, she does hold a degree in theology as well as computer science and philosophy.)
In the old days, roboticists could build cute-eyed machines like Cog, Kismet and Leonardo to test the boundaries between biological and mechanical beings. MIT's Leonardo, an Ewok-like robot, could even pass some of the psychological tests aimed at studying social cognition in children.
That kind of research "is pretty much dead right now, which is very sad," Foerst told me.
"You basically get applications, and applications which in my opinion are much less interesting," she said. "Those machines do not raise any questions of personhood, because they don't have anywhere to go. ... The reason why is that the funding has changed."
For better or worse, it seems that the folks funding the research are more interested in real-world results rather than the prospects for robot romance. Who knows? Maybe the academic debate over sex and marriage with robots will be revived in 2050, or more likely 2150. But in any case, Broadus needn't worry about robosexuals anytime soon.
"Gay relationships obviously consist of mutual give and take," Foerst observed. "They're equal partners, and that's completely different from robotics. To apply human-android research to gay marriage is, in my opinion ridiculous."
Foerst is apparently not the only person who feels that way. Lezgetreal's Bridgette P. LaVictoire reports that Maryland state Sen. James Brochin changed his mind and decided to vote for the gay-marriage legislation after hearing the "appalling and disgusting" testimony against it.
Did Broadus' "Star Trek" maneuver backfire? Feel free to weigh in ... after you watch this "Futurama" video clip about Proposition Infinity on robosexual marriages.
More on robot-human relations:
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