When Isaac Asimov wrote I Robot back in 1950, his idea that robots might someday become virtually interchangeable with humans seemed quite far-fetched. Likewise, the once popular science-fiction notion that people in the future might reject real contact with other human beings in favor of spending all their time with technology or media seemed unthinkable. But these days, plenty of evidence indicates that society might be hurtling toward that technology-insulated future at a rapid rate.
Take the proliferation of pornography on the internet as a case-in-point. Though porn may seem unrelated to robots and life without human contact, in fact, evidence indicates that men who use online porn can lose the desire for real-life sex. Because access to the wonderland of wild sex on screen is as easy as booting up the desktop and clicking a button or two, an astounding number of men do indulge, and the results are telling. A UK study found a 40 percent increase in men who no longer want to have sex with their partners -- and the study authors point to internet porn as a major factor. In a separate study, French researcher Serge Stoleru found that young men who overindulged in viewing porn had considerably diminished sexual responsiveness.
And then there are observational studies. In an article in New York Magazine entitled "He's Just Not That Into Anyone," author Davy Rothbart cites plenty of anecdotal evidence to back up his contention that men are literally "losing it" to their online escapades. He cites numerous interviews with men who can no longer get stimulated by real women. He mentions the fact that a recent University of Kansas study found that 25 percent of undergraduate men had faked orgasms with their live partners, which the researchers attribute mainly to excessive porn-viewing. Rothbart believes the porn-leading-to-loss-of-desire comes from confusion in the brain's reward centers -- a phenomenon that leads men to actually bond with porn.
While a Time Magazine article discredits Rothbart's theory about the brain and porn, plenty of experts contend that the constant variety and fast-paced image changes in porn do, in fact, confer a reward effect on the brain that real-life sex can't match. As Davy Rothbart says, "For a lot of guys, switching gears from porn's fireworks and whiz-bangs to the comparatively mundane calm of ordinary sex is like leaving halfway through an Imax 3-D movie to check out a flipbook."
It all adds up, according to some sources, to an "impotence pandemic," with an incredible 50 percent of men now unable to perform with their partners. Yes, 50 percent! That's half the men you work with or hang out with. Although porn may not be the only factor causing all that impotence, consider the fact that as of 2006, over 28,000 users every second, 24/7, were logging into porn sites. There are 68 million daily search term requests for porn -- 25 percent of all online searches. So now we know where Google gets all its money. Each month, there are 1.5 billion pornographic downloads. Between 2005 and 2006, searches for "adult sex" increased by 301 percent, and by 53 percent the previous year. Production of hardcore porn titles increased by 1000 percent in the seven years between 1998 and 2005. Incidentally, 72 percent of those accessing porn sites were male, as were 96 percent of those searching using the term "porn."
If the number of porn consumers and producers continues to escalate at the current rate, and if porn-viewing does indeed diminish desire and ability to perform in bed, we may well be heading for interesting times in the reproduction department. From the public health point of view, the bright side could be a dramatic decline in STDs and problematic pregnancies, but from the mental health point of view, the picture looks a little more skewed -- so many impotent men glued to their screens, day after day, not interacting with real partners, not having real sex.
The thing is, it isn't only in the area of sex that technology has moved into the territory of human intimacy. And we're not talking about all the social scientists who bemoan the replacement of real friends with Facebook contacts…although we will return to that issue in a moment. No, we're talking about the fact that robots, as Asimov foretold, actually are being developed to take the place of living beings. There already are pet robots in circulation as comfort toys in nursing homes. Scientists currently are working on creating mechanical nurses and recreational sex robots. According to a book called Alone Together by author Sherry Turkle, experiments in which people are given pet robots invariably end with the person forming a deep attachment bond with the robot, to the point where the subjects hate leaving the robots alone in the lab at night. And these are comparatively primitive robots, but far more sophisticated models are on the way, soon to go into mass production. Turkle says that people anthropomorphize robots as they do pets, attributing to them traits and reactions they may not have at all. It would seem that Lars Lindstrom was merely ahead of his time in his search for a "real girl."
Of course, the most obvious manifestation of technology-creep into the arena of human relations thus far comes in the form of social media. Already huge numbers of us spend hours daily "Facebooking," "Twittering," and "IMing" instead of sitting down with friends and having a conversation, face to face. Some, like Turkle, say social media is just the tip of an iceberg that looms large on the horizon, threatening to reduce us to individuals afraid to interact spontaneously and in the flesh with other humans.
Is the world of Surrogates fast approaching? Perhaps--science fiction historically has offered a glimpse of the future. If you don't like the prospect of that particular future, you might try unplugging for a day or a week to reorient yourself to life. In fact, you might try unplugging for even longer, and then spread the word -- face to face, or at least by phone.