The Supreme Court’s recent 5–4 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges legalizing same-sex marriage across the United States has already spawned speculation about “what will be next” in expanding marital rights. As the Supreme Court noted, “[t]he history of marriage is one of both continuity and change. That institution … has evolved over time.” Interracial marriage, equality between husband and wife, and same-sex marriage were all excluded for long periods of time under our Constitution but now have been sanctioned and protected by the courts. While these changes have come slowly, and courts are unlikely to take the next step in expanding marital rights for some time, the courts are probably not finished expanding the legal definition of marital rights.
A New York Times op-ed published shortly after the Supreme Court’s same-sex decision said that the court’s logic could eventually lead to recognition of polygamy or plural marriages, an argument also made by Chief Justice John Roberts in his dissenting opinion. This slippery-slope argument has also been used to contend that the court’s decision will open the door to legal recognition of bestiality or incest.
Robot-human marriages might be next on the list. Probably not soon, admittedly, but it nevertheless will be an inevitable part of our future. Indeed, some critics of same-sex marriage, including some conservative Christian opponents of gay marriage, have argued that the court’s recognition of same-sex marriage would inevitably lead to robotic-human marriages. There has recently been a burst of cogent accounts of human-robot sex and love in popular culture: Her and Ex Machina, the AMC drama series Humans, and the novel Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. These fictional accounts of human-robot romantic relationships follow David Levy’s compelling, even if reluctant, argument for the inevitability of human-robot love and sex in his 2007 work Love and Sex With Robots. If you don’t think human-robot sex and love will be a growing reality of the future, read Levy’s book, and you will be convinced.
Or just look at the marketplace. Sex “dolls” have become more and more realistic in appearance and touch, and one company recently announced that it was developing a sexbot with artificial intelligence that can talk back and express emotions. As Levy points out, the first to explore and benefit from robot-human sexual relationships may be individuals with physical or psychological impairments that limit their ability to have sex with other people.
The era of love and sex with robots has begun and will continue to accelerate going forward, even if it remains a minority choice for the next couple of decades. But with sex and love will come calls for the right to marry. Indeed, there are already examples of people (OK, men) who want or claim to be married to their robot (see here and here).
Will the recent Obergefell decision protecting same-sex marriage apply to open the door to robot-human marriage? The court’s majority decision upholding same-sex marriage was based on an analysis of four “principles and traditions.” These four factors are a mixed bag as applied to robot-human marriage. The first principle is individual autonomy, the right of each of us to decide our own private choices and intimate relationships. The “decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.” It is not too far of a stretch to extend this right of individual self-definition to choose to marry a robot—it is not a choice most of us would make (at least at this time), yet if that were someone’s preference, his or her right of personal autonomy would seem to weigh in favor of legal sanctioning of that choice (at least until robots achieve sufficient personhood to have the right to refuse consent). So that’s one point for human-robot marriage.
The second factor relied on by the court is the special relationship that marriages facilitates between “two persons.” The right to marriage “dignifies couples,” reinforces “bilateral loyalty,” and represents an “association for … [a] noble …purpose.” This reference to the coupling of two “persons” would seem to exclude robot-human marriage, at least until some point far in the future when robots might achieve the status of “person.” The rationale for this factor, according to the court, is to provide human companionship: “Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.” But many people are lonely today, and robots may increasingly fill that need for companionship for more and more people going forward. So whether this second factor weighs for or against validating robot-human marriage is ambiguous.
The remaining factors seem to clearly weigh against recognizing robot-human marriage. The third factor is that marriage safeguards children and families. Although not all marriages result in children, the institution of marriage provides stability and recognition to those married couples that do raise children. Thus, the court upheld same-sex marriage in part based on its finding that “many same-sex couples provide loving and nurturing homes to their children, whether biological or adopted.” Robots are not capable of producing children, and although it is conceivable they could eventually serve a parenting role for children conceived by others, that role and responsibility seems even further into the future than the role of lover or spouse.
Fourth and finally, the court relied on the fact that marriage was central to many practical and legal realities of modern life, such as taxation, inheritance, property rights, hospital access and insurance coverage. Most if not all of these factors are not relevant to robots, unless in some distant future they achieve personhood status. But this need to sanction the “rights, benefits, and responsibilities” of marriage applies much less persuasively to robot-human relationships than to human-human relationships.
From a strictly legal perspective, therefore, the court’s decision in Obergefell contains arguments and dicta that could be used to make the case for or against robot-human marriage. Of course, as a practical matter, the legal legitimacy of robot-human marriage is not going to be recognized anytime soon. Most people (including judges) presumably think robot-human relationships are absurd and twisted. But that was once also the case for interracial marriage and same-sex marriage. Of course those advances involved sanctioning the love and relationship of two human beings, regardless of their race or sexual preferences, which is arguably quite distinct from recognizing human-machine marriage. But as robots become more and more humanlike in their appearance and behavior, this distinction may eventually erode away.
The Supreme Court itself recounted the long, difficult road to get to the point where the law (and most of society) could now recognize same-sex marriage. First, advocates had to overcome the classification of same-sex relations as an illness. Then they had to declassify it as a crime. And then finally—after countless referenda, legislative debates, grass-roots campaigns, studies, popular and scholarly writings, and lawsuits—the right to marry people of the same sex was finally legally recognized.
The path to recognition of robot-human marriage is likely to be equally, if not more, lengthy, torturous, and contested. But as the court emphasized at the close of its opinion in Obergefell, the issue comes down to the “fundamental right” of a person in a free society to choose the nature of the relationships and lifestyle they choose to pursue, providing they do not unreasonably harm others in exercising their choices. Robot-human marriage is not about robot rights; it is about the right of a human to choose to marry a robot. While few people would understand or support robot-human intimacy today, as robots get more sophisticated and humanlike, more and more people will find love, happiness, and intimacy in the arms of a machine. Robot sex and love is coming, and robot-human marriage will likely not be far behind.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.