Love and Intimacy in an AI/VR-Dominated World
By Robert Rivenbark, author of The Cloud
A key question I pose in my speculative fiction novel The Cloud: Can human love and intimacy survive in a world dominated by AI-driven virtual reality (VR)?
Every Cloud empire city, including L.A. (the initial locale), offers Class Is, IIs, and IIIs (the top three social tiers) access to total immersion VR fantasy series, plus a vast library of attractive male and female VR lovers—all available by monthly subscription to Mythoplex, the entertainment division of the Hong-Kong headquartered Cloud empire.
Sophisticated coding makes VR lovers very real, and many Cloud citizens never bother to form intimate relationships with real people except at work. Sound familiar? It should. In our age of Internet porn and social media driving addictive virtual relationships based on fake profiles, we’re only a few years away from The Cloud. AI is here; and Silicon Valley firms will make all movies and TV series total immersion within a couple of decades—no helmet needed; a neural implant will suffice.
Blaise Pascal VII, my tormented male protagonist, a former Cloud army lieutenant with PTSD, creates popular VR series to try to forget his violent past. Additionally, his paranoid Cloud overlords, who don’t quite trust VR to eliminate all human need for physical contact, also manufacture a new class of AI-driven pleasure androids with near-perfect human characteristics. The Cloud Board oligarchs want to keep Class Is through IIIs addicted to these pleasures to eliminate any chance for rebellion. They believe people are only animals, and animals only seek pleasure and avoid pain.
But despite the demand for total-immersion VR and sex androids, Blaise and female protagonist Kristina Sun, a rebel hacker, do find authentic love and intimacy with each other. Indeed, their love fuels the courage to risk everything in an attempt to destroy the corrupt Cloud empire—despite overwhelming odds against them.
Blaise and Kristina show us that VR lovers and sex androids can mimic intimacy, but neither can supply what makes authentic human love possible: the soul. As Martin Buber wrote in his I and Thou, most human interactions constitute “I-It” relationships. We have relationships with others because we want something from them: a job, money, sex, political or economic gain. But when we say “Thou” (the old English form of “you”) to another, that person becomes as real to us as we are to ourselves. An “I-Thou” relationship makes authentic love and intimacy possible. As Buber expresses it, “When we say Thou to each other, God is always present.”
In The Cloud, I take Buber’s position, and also Dostoyevsky’s in his first great novel, Notes from the Underground: No matter what kind of utopia—or dystopia—humanity creates or miscreates, someone will always say “No” to it. Why? Because the human soul is so constituted that some kernel of rebellion lies in the marrow of our souls. And so I predict that the soul will reassert its freedom to choose, and love will survive, no matter how powerful and pervasive VR and AI become.