Robots Have Feelings Too: Designing for Companionship & Intimacy

Robots Have Feelings Too: Designing for Companionship & Intimacy

Ever since the iconic and erotic dance performed by the robotic Maria in the silent film Metropolis, humans have been fascinated with the functional, emotional, and sexual potential of human-robot relationships. Over the years, films continued to spike our curiosity and inspire the possibility of replacing real-life love with artificial intelligence - to the point of them becoming a reality in the not-so-distant future. 

We took a deep a dive and looked through some of our favorite moments in film to explore the potential of robots becoming part of our daily lives and found the trends that justify making robots potentially good partners. 

Keep It Simple, Stupid

Remember the brainwashed robotic women in The Stepford Wives novel and films, designed by their husbands to be submissive and mindless? Inventor Hiroshi Ishiguro believes that because ‘human sexual and romantic relationships are unavoidably messy, robots might become an alternative, easy solution, helping people to keep their lives simple.'

In the movie Her, Theodore’s relationship with his operating system, Samantha, initially begins because her presence is convenient, accessible, and responsive. While their connection grows more convoluted throughout the movie, it is the simplicity of these initial interactions that sets the stage for their relationship. Since relationships can dissolve when expectations are not met by a partner, is it possible to prevent or minimize heartbreak if actions and emotions are more predictable?

(L)  Stepford Wives  (1975) (R)  Her  (2013)

(L) Stepford Wives (1975) (R) Her (2013)

Exploration, Experimentation & Fantasy

At the other end of the spectrum, some films focus on an inventor’s fascination with experimentation. Weird Science (high school nerds attempting to create the perfect woman), Ex Machina (designing robots to mimic human qualities), Westworld (allowing users to indulge in violent and sexual fantasies involving life-like robots), and the real-life Samantha doll by Sergi Santos (an AI-based sex doll that gamifies sexual encounters) fall somewhat short of fulfilling our need for companionship and intimacy, and instead offer short-term desire, pleasure and instant gratification.  

(L)  Weird Science  (1985) (R)  Westworld  (HBO 2016)

(L) Weird Science (1985) (R) Westworld (HBO 2016)


One of the most powerful solutions that artificial intelligence can offer us is companionship. Whether creating an entirely new persona to combat loneliness (such as the holographic girlfriend Joi in Blade Runner 2049) or recalling memories of our own loved ones, the ability to manipulate human emotions through new ‘lifeforms’ is the compelling and delicate path that we tread. Some of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the 2017 movies Blade Runner 2049 and Marjorie Prime involve realistic holographic versions of deceased loved ones, who are brought back to ‘life’ to either mess with a character’s head (Blade Runner) or help reminisce about the past as she nears the end of life (Marjorie Prime).

We can program and optimize these incarnations to provide the types of interactions we need, when we need them – but can we really re-gain the intimacy we once had with our loved ones in this artificial form, and is it okay if we can’t?

(L)  Blade Runner 2049  (2017) (R)  Marjorie Prime  (2017)

(L) Blade Runner 2049 (2017) (R) Marjorie Prime (2017)


In December of this year, people will be able to buy “companion robots” ElliQ and Kuri, geared specifically towards functionality. Opposed to the types of AI partners above mentioned, these are designed solely to perform daily tasks, such as reminding the elderly to take medications and to keep them mentally engaged better and more efficient. The ElliQ developer Dor Skuler notes that “it is important that she helps you have meaningful relationships with your loved ones through her, but not with her,” implying that people’s love for the robot will forever remain platonic. 

(L) ElliQ robot, the active aging companion (R) Kuri, personal robot for your home

(L) ElliQ robot, the active aging companion (R) Kuri, personal robot for your home

Machinery vs Intimacy?

While Professor Oliver Bendel believes that one day we will have “perfect sex robots capable of reading every wish from our eyes,” can human intimacy truly be replaced by machines? If at its essence, sex is about both companionship and intimacy (companionship often provides the emotional support and sense of security that we need to survive, while intimacy implies a deeper physical and emotional connection), will AI ever get us there?

Let us know what you think! 

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