Human families settled down in the early agricultural period. Networked individuals triumphed in the information era. Revolutions in technology have always revolutionised human relationships. Today, three technological shifts are setting the stage for the next major overhaul. When technology will soon meet our emotional and social needs, it's time to prepare for the changes ahead, writes Elykaim Kislev.
We already feel very comfortable asking Amazon’s Alexa to play a song we like, to answer simple questions, or to remind us about important events. The Covid-19 pandemic taught us all how fast we can move our human-to-human interactions online and how quickly we can adapt to connecting with our loved ones using technological means. How far can it go from here? No longer playing the matchmaker, technology is now making the transition to a relationship partner and becoming an independent actor, no matter its creators’ intentions.
SUGGESTED READING The Good Life in the 21st Century: Living Single By Bella DePaulo In order to understand the changes we are experiencing now, it is helpful if we first examine the evolution of relationships from early prehistoric time until today. If we understand how technology impacted human beings in the past, we might get some insight into how other developments will influence us in the future. Moreover, awareness of the various forms of relationships from the past might open our eyes to the different meanings and variations they might carry in the future. Relationships need not be tied to the common models found in recent history and might evolve as technology develops.
Historic transformations of relationships [
For this reason, in my new book, Relationships 5.0, I survey four significant periods in human history, each of which signifies a fundamental technological development. The first is Hunter-gatherer society (Society 1.0), which was based on the basic technologies of hunting, gathering, fishing, and scavenging. The second is agricultural society (Society 2.0), which was based on the technology of farming. The third is industrial society (Society 3.0), which was based on innovations such as the steam engine, electricity, and manufacturing processes. The fourth and most recent is information society (Society 4.0), based on computers and the Internet.
Sequentially, these previous technological changes deeply influenced personal relationships. While the clan stood at the center of society in prehistoric times and relationships were more fluid (Relationships 1.0), the multigenerational family was dominant in the agricultural period (Relationships 2.0), the nuclear family rose to importance with industrialization (Relationships 3.0), and networked individualism was highly influential in the information age (Relationships 4.0).
Even the most radical researchers do not argue that all humans felt the same way and bonded with each other similarly across all cultures and societies living in the same era. The argument here is more modest: there is a tendency toward one relationship type that is more dominant in each era, and this tendency was greatly influenced by technology.
We are now entering the fifth evolution of society. The term “Society 5.0” was coined in 2016 by the Japanese government to describe the next stage of human development, in which significant advances in robotics, biotech, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, cyber-physical systems, and nanotech all combine to revolutionize the ways we live. The main difference in this transition can be described as moving from technologies used as tools controlling human surroundings and work to technologies that are our ecosystem in and of themselves.
The “Super Smart” society, or Society 5.0, makes technology embedded in human life and able to co-exist independently from us. In turn, we are expected to experience seismic shifts equal in magnitude to the previous greatest changes in civilization.
I argue that the manifestation of these technologies and their integration into our personal relationships signal the beginning of the fifth form of relationships and a new reality in which relationships are formed and maintained in radical new ways. I call this new reality “Relationships 5.0.”
“The vision of technology satiating our emotional, intellectual, and physical needs is no longer limited to science fiction.”
Even though we are unlikely to witness the widespread proliferation of human-tech relationships in the near future, I show through numerous studies and surveys others and I conducted that the answer to the question of whether these relationships are forthcoming is a resounding “yes.” The vision of technology satiating our emotional, intellectual, and physical needs is no longer limited to science fiction.
To make this argument, it is necessary to carefully define what has fundamentally changed because some of the technologies associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution cannot be considered transformative for relationships.
We must consider which technological advances might impact us so much that we will think differently about our family lives, love affairs, and emotional needs.
Three contemporary technological revolutions
I identify three technological changes—we can even call them revolutions—relevant to relationships. The first and perhaps the most important one is the cognitive revolution, which is happening through artificial intelligence (AI) applications and personal assistants. On the one hand, AI researchers have not yet created anything nearly as capable as a human brain: most AI bots are heavily dependent on an external database from which they get the information needed to accomplish their tasks. On the other hand, AI has achieved functionality that most experts thought until recently was decades away, if possible at all. The ability of today’s AI software to recognize objects, identify individual faces, understand spoken words, translate between languages, and complete many other useful tasks were all made possible through AI methods, and the pace of development is only getting faster. More sophisticated models are now being implemented to achieve responses based on massive amounts of human-to-human conversational data. These improvements come from better databases, models, and methods, and they are making human-to-machine conversations more satisfying and interesting. For example, researchers recently developed different tones for AI personal assistants that proved to increase the conviction that they are conversation-worthy.
Take Woebot as an AI system that already goes deeper and interacts with users on emotional levels. Launched in mid-2017 by a team of Stanford psychologists, Woebot is an app designed to chat with users and check in with them by asking open-ended questions such as “How are you feeling?” The app further monitors users’ moods and applies cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques to help them with day-to-day problems including stress, mental health ailments, and loneliness. Users can message the app and receive encouragement, advice, or replies to what its users have to say. It is programmed to respond in a very human-like way, although it acknowledges itself as an AI device and will occasionally remind users that it is a robot. Each week Woebot responds to around two million messages from users and already has proven results. My own study on Woebot found that it receives outstanding emotional reactions from users and I bring these results, along with many more examples of current developments in the field into the book.
The second is the sensorial revolution. The borders between the biological world and virtual realities are becoming thinner and more permeable. It is only a matter of time until we become part of a technological universe just as real as the non-virtual, non-augmented parts of our lives. The seamless blending of the biological with the technological will fundamentally affect our senses and perceptions, revolutionizing what we expect from reality.
Some examples of the sensorial revolution’s impacts on relationships are already available. For example, inhabitants of virtual worlds such as Avakin Life and Second Life develop emotional experiences and interactions. In the book, I show how users report on having real feelings in these unreal worlds, or, more accurately, in these extended reality worlds. After all, the feelings, experiences, and emotions developed in these offerings are real in many measures we can think of.
The third is the physical revolution. The global market for humanoid robots – that is, robots built to mimic human motion and interaction – is expected to grow significantly. This prediction is especially plausible in light of the many technologies and applications developed for the first time during the recent Covid-19 pandemic, which might be a watershed moment in the use of robots. Acknowledging the urgency to protect healthcare workers and cleaners, robots got a boost in their development, funding, and deployment. For the first time, a robot named TOMI developed with the U.S. Department of Defense was put into action to fight the pandemic by automatically applying UV disinfecting technology in critical places that require immediate decontamination. Another robot, named Tug, employed AI to diagnose people infected without risking others. Finally, Boston Dynamics, one of the leading robotics companies, open-sourced some of its technology to help healthcare workers dealing with the pandemic. Although this might sound like science fiction, robots already satisfy many human needs. Robo-psychologists and robo-nurses, for example, can motivate patients to be mentally and physically healthier, while also working with their physicians, dietitians, and other health professionals.
These three revolutions combine to imitate three central aspects of human dynamics that, if replaced by technology, can change our personal relationships in significant ways. The cognitive revolution is changing the way we converse with technology, the sensorial revolution is changing the limits of the sights and sounds we experience through technology, and the physical revolution is changing the ways in which we are assisted by technology, whether the tasks involve moving, touching, cleaning, or even receiving hugs and physical warmth.
“Although the social acceptance of related phenomena is still low, the implications of this shift are too revolutionaryto be ignored”
Without noticing, we are already chipping away at the fathomless complex of human-tech interactions. Engineers and software developers divide our emotional needs into tiny nuggets, each containing a different aspect or nuance of human communication. We are currently experiencing what could be considered the twilight of an era wherein humans and their technological approximations are still distinguishable, but with every coming day, new technologies, inventions, and developments are blurring the boundaries between the biological and the electric. In some ways that will be presented in this book, we have already crossed the elusive threshold that prevented human-technology relationships.
Although the social acceptance of related phenomena is still low, the implications of this shift are too revolutionary to be ignored. We ought to decipher how these revolutions affect the formation of our relationships, how they catalyze the movement into Relationships 5.0, and how we will react when they are truly capable of satisfying our emotional needs.
Robots might soon help with physical tasks such as taking care of us when we are sick, helping us move around when we are old or mobility-confined, or managing household tasks, particularly when we find ourselves alone. AI technologies might assist us mentally and emotionally by helping us to digest the passing day, offering a sympathetic ear to those who want to offload emotions, or by simply being a friend that we can share experiences and create memories with. How will we feel about these developments? How will we prepare for these changes? What risks and fears these developments might entail? No matter the extent and pace of the coming change, we must start discussing it openly.
This article is based on the author's book Relationships 5.0.