With the evolution of technology, artificial intelligence has found its way into our homes. As such, virtual assistants like Google Home and Amazon Echo have taken over households by storm. The engineers in Japan, being the hub of technology, have taken this idea to the next level, with one company integrating holograms and programs to simulate ‘companionship’. In addition to this, major gaming companies have developed games which provide users the ability to simulate relationships through portable consoles.
Dating simulation apps first appeared in Japan in the 1980s. Japan has the second largest mobile gaming market in the world, generating sales of around $6.5 billion in 2016, according to the Global Games Market Report. These apps were predominantly only catered towards men, until 1994, when a team of female coders at Japanese gaming company Koei launched the first romance game for women, “Angelique”. In recent times, Konami’s Love Plus game and Vinclue’s Virtual Home Assistant, Gatebox, have garnered the most interest from the Japanese public. The main audience for these companies tend to be those whom are living alone, with the objective being to make their lives more fulfilling.
However, the question remains: Can you replace human love with virtual companionships? Let’s take a look at how such technologies affect the Japanese people and its society, and whether we should move towards this direction of simulated relationships.
After the war, Japan invested enormous efforts in instilling the nuclear family model of a man who is a lifetime employee of a company, a woman who is a wife, mother and housekeeper; and a place they can call home. However, after the turn of the 21st century and due to internationalism, job security is becoming a thing of the past and more stress is present on men to be the breadwinners of the family. This is further echoed in a recent study which shows that the average number of people in a Tokyo household has dropped below two for the first time, as the men are more concerned about securing a job rather than finding a partner.
In a recent social experiment conducted by Asian Boss, Japanese people regard loneliness as a serious problem. This has led to the rise of relationship simulations to assist these affected individuals in their struggle against loneliness. For a female gamer who is affected by Asperger’s syndrome, a three year relationship with Manaka (a character from the game Love Plus) has yielded therapeutic benefits. It also gave her opportunities to hone her social skills and develop more confidence in social interactions.
For similar reasons, Vinclue has developed a virtual home assistant which also doubles as a companion for the user. To quote Vinclue, “We want the characters be naturally in our daily lives and spend time with us”. Hence, it can be said that the main driver for Gatebox to integrate a holographic function is to provide a more immersive experience with higher levels of interaction. To accomplish this, virtual companions could make use of artificial intelligence to help ease their “master’s” lives. Assistance can range from simple everyday chores to a more advanced level of aid. Mundane activities such as checking the weather, paying the bills and switching on the heater could be done with the presence of a virtual companion at home. This helps the user have less worries, allowing them to focus while in the office or during their commute.
More sophisticated features would be for the user to be able to receive instant medical advice and prescriptions through the sensors and cameras mounted on the device. This could also be extended to alerting the emergency services when the user has suffered an unfortunate accident. As the Japanese culture is known for overworking, this level of assistance can promote better mental health of the users through the relief of stress.
From the perspective of virtue ethics, these companies’ initial intentions are not of bad nature and therefore should not be condemned for their products. As loneliness is regarded a serious issue in Japan, this would help people who feel isolated. Thus, this agrees with the utilitarian approach as a greater number of people will achieve happiness. Also, as long as this activity does not hinder others, the usage of such products are within the rights of everyone according to the freedom principle.
Having a virtual partner could have a negative impact towards the Japanese population. With the Japanese National Institute of Population and Social Security Research voicing their concerns of the current declining growth rate, having a virtual relationship will further compound this situation. In addition to that, surveys have shown that a significant proportion of Japanese people have little interest in having physical relationships, and having a virtual partner will only serve to further discourage them. Further studies have shown that the percentage of Japanese males between ages 16 to 19 portraying no interest in sex have doubled to 36% in the last two years. In correlation to the decrease in growth rates, there will be an increase in the overall population age resulting in a demographic imbalance. The virtual relationship industry has targeted a society which has a significant percentage of people yearning for simulated intimacy.
One of the major aspects which contributes to these issues is the societal mindset of certain individuals. Some Japanese men are unenthusiastic about their futures as they are uncertain that they will reach their career and relationship goals. Through these virtual relationships, they have an avenue to receive instant gratification without the commitments of a real relationship. Furthermore, the leading female character of Gatebox, Hikari Azuma, caters to the tastes of the Japanese otaku, which have seen a rise in numbers over the recent years. The owners are seen as “masters”, which also feeds the stereotype of the submissive nature of Asian women.
Moreover, there is a concern that the privacy of the user might be compromised. For example, Gatebox’s virtual companion integrates a variety of sensors, cameras, and microphones to function. These provide the ideal tools for a hacker to obtain sensitive information of a certain individual.
In addition to that, Hikari has an integrated messaging app, which sends periodic messages to its “master” with reminders that “she” misses him, and prompts for him to come home early from work. This can be a distraction to the user, especially when driving, having meetings, and walking on public roads.
This virtual substitute for happiness also comes at a price. Virtual romance games utilise in-game purchases, which forces the players to part with their cash to unlock more features or storylines. Furthermore, the inclusion of the “relationship” feature by Gatebox significantly increases its price over other home assistants.
Finally, although this may primarily be a bigger concern for Japan, the virtual gaming phenomenon is slowly trickling out to a global audience as well. Voltage, a global leader in female romance simulation apps, have released English versions of their games to cater to the American and European market. They claim that their games have been played by 50 million users globally. Therefore, it is only a matter of time before products like Gatebox enter the international market as well.
From an ethical framework point of view, Kant’s theory states that the action taken must respect the goals of the general population rather than merely for the individual’s own advantage. Considering this, we believe that this technology should not be focused purely as a substitute for companionship as it will severely disrupt the status quo of the Japanese society. This judgement is also backed by the utilitarian approach as it would benefit the majority at the expense of a minority group.
In conclusion, while simulated relationships have certain benefits, the overall effect it has on the society can be detrimental. Hence, we believe that advancements in artificial intelligence technology should focus purely on providing assistance rather than companionships.
Group 18: Nicolas Lum, Royce Hii, Seng Tan & Tyen Woon