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The Other News Round-up: Love and Robo-mance

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

In a weekly column, Daily Maverick takes a look at some of the stranger news from around South Africa and the world. This week: Hooters, robot-human marriage, and one of the stranger homework assignments we’ve seen.

Gender took a bit of a bender this week. Tales of the unexpected drifted towards romance, with love being blinder than usual.

If you were on social media much lately, you probably saw the (now not so secret) code photographed on the way to a women’s bathroom at Hooters – which made me kind of forgive Zola Budd for literally running off with the brand into the sunset. Presenting the Angel Shot, which women – or men, one would hope – can order at the bar if their date has taken a turn for the weird.

Are you on a date that isn’t going well? the ad reads. Is your Tinder or Plenty of Fish date not who they said they were on their profile? Do you feel unsafe or even just a bit weird?

We’re here to help: Just go to the bar and order an angel shot.

Neat: Your bartender will escort you to your vehicle.

With Ice: Your bartender will call an Uber or Lyft for you.

With Lime: Your bartender will call the police.

We’ll handle things discreetly, and without a lot of fuss. (We’ve been there and we want you to know that you’re in good hands.)

But,” a puzzled friend enquired, “isn’t your first warning sign that they wanted to take you to Hooters on your first date?”

Don’t knock it,” explained another. The cheesy fries, apparently, are a sin worthy of luring even the purest of heart.

Cheesy fries aside, I’m sure the restaurant and anyone it’s helped probably wants to smack whoever photographed the sign and spread it around. As Vodafone in Turkey recognised last year, secrecy is kind of important when you’re trying to protect people.

As it turns out, though, the world at large does still have a lot to learn about this dating business. So much so that a teacher at Highland High School in the US recently drew international outrage for giving the teens in her class a dating lesson for homework. Only problem is, she doesn’t seem to be ideally equipped for the job.

The assignment was to go on a date with a budget of $5, with the boys being obliged to pay. The object for the girls was not to “waste” a boy’s money by doing any number of objectionable things: not finishing all her food, not sitting next to him, fishing for compliments, not being feminine or ladylike, swearing, criticising his driving, not giving him a chance to be a gentleman by, for example, opening a door before he had a chance to do it for her, expecting love and commitment on a casual date, not dressing appropriately and in a ladylike fashion, and not having a good enough sense of humour – although how the poor girl is supposed to simultaneously stuff her face, dress for church while expecting a one-night stand, remember not to open any doors for herself, stay perfectly calm regardless of what happens behind the wheel (don’t forget, it’s a newly licensed teenage boy driving) and simultaneously be a stand-up comic, I do not know.

The boys’ paper, to be fair, was not significantly better in terms of implicit stereotyping, although their instructions were probably easier to follow. “No gross noises,” the assignment specified. “Wear a cologne. Nice breath. Don’t gripe about spending the money. Have her home on time.”

Have your date sign the bottom,” both papers instructed. “GOOD LUCK.” As though they were going to battle, which in some ways I suppose they were. The signature, the paper clarified, was to certify “that all of the above things were done to the best of my date’s ability”.

My dear, sweet, pale, waltzing Lord. Those poor kids. No wonder they’re all swiping left and right as soon as they get the option to take it all online. It seems inhumane to send them out into the real world where they have to talk with their mouths, somehow all the worse with those ghastly instructions thrown in (they’re not supposed to be on their devices at all during the date – ye gods). It’s not like that in real life, you poor lambs. One day you’ll meet someone you love – hopefully while having the option to leave if you don’t like it – and you’ll spend the rest of your lives demanding to know who ate the last pickle, throwing each other’s stinky socks in the laundry basket, and accusing each other of not knowing how to use a GPS. All of this is perfectly normal. And love, commitment, fair criticism and the right to make gross noises are all absolutely reasonable expectations.

Who knows, maybe you’ll even get to go to Hooters.

But with all this confusion floating about I’m not surprised there were a couple of stories around alternatives to human companionship; one of which I stumbled on via this peculiar tale of a fully clothed blow-up doll sparking a murder alert after it (she?) was spotted floating in a river. (Hey, don’t judge me – when you’re looking for odd news, odd things come up.) The witnesses noticed her because they thought she was pretty, with a “shapely figure and pouting lips”.

Personally I wasn’t so much intrigued that there was a blow-up doll floating in a river, but rather the little human touches: a) that the witnesses managed to take in a detailed description of her face before they noticed that she wasn’t an actual person; b) the fact that she was fully clothed (I cannot begin to imagine the scenario in which someone carefully dresses a blow-up doll before discarding it in a river – perhaps, I tell myself optimistically, they were simply in need of an emergency LiLo or life raft and it didn’t seem right to just sit down?; and c) the further research that the journalist included in the story. In flawless tabloid deadpan, said journalist explored various related topics, eventually sincerely speculating on robot marriage.

It’s posed as a serious question. But lo and behold, I opened my trusty Google bar and it turned out I owed the reporter an apology; there is serious speculation about this in some circles. Small circles. But circles. December last year saw the second international Love and Sex with Robots Congress, where some of the world’s foremost AI academics met to discuss the mechanics and ethics of human-robot relations. I’m speaking now not of whatever you might see at the next Sexpo. I’m referring specifically to the great human-robot love story, a Robo and Juliet for our time. I hadn’t really considered that before. (Well, not beyond the odd episode of Humans, anyway.)

Keynote speaker Dr David Levy, according to The Mirror, spoke of human-robot weddings as a basic rights issue. He likened it to the issues of interracial marriage and gay marriage, in a comparison not entirely unlike John Qwelane’s homosexuality-is-like-bestiality argument, which I’m pretty sure would get him a bank-breaking fine in South Africa. But for what it’s worth, he said: “A person with one artificial limb is still a person, as is someone with two, three or four. Nor is a person with an artificial heart any less human. So what about someone with a wholly artificial brain? Jurisprudence could establish some machines as having the rights of an autonomous person.” Except that your personhood doesn’t sit in your arm or your heart; and if you’re watching Westworld, sidestepping basic rights issues is as simple as not effing up the wiping of the hard drive.

Well, step back, Stepford. When did human bonding become so hard that we started talking about real and enduring love with machines? I don’t think, by the way, it’s a coincidence that we’re seeing so many films and series popping up that take an apocalyptic tone or speak of the human race being replaced by (insert monster here). But, first, we’re telling stories of institutionalised loneliness, and second, asking ourselves what it means to be human by asking what it means not to be human. It appears to be a question that’s plaguing us more as we become less connected. We misunderstand ourselves as we find ourselves more alone.

A few years ago, at the Design Indaba in Cape Town, trend forecaster Li Edelkoort predicted that design would lean towards fabrics, art and furniture that were more tactile, bolder and gave more sensory engagement, as human beings became less and less engaged with the world and each other and craved connection any way they could get it, wherever they could get it. She predicted this pattern everywhere, from technology to fashion: bright colours, fuzzy furs. People would crave growing their own food, artisanal cooking. Human-to-human connections, meanwhile, would increasingly be replaced. Sometimes effectively, as in the case of Robokind, the humanoid robot that engages with children on the autism spectrum; sometimes strangely, as in the speculative case of human-robot love; sometimes a little sadly, as in the case of “hugging” pillows: shaped like a human lap, a shoulder, or even the full length of a body, to provide comfort to those sleeping alone.

The human-robot wedding may be far-fetched, but the story it tells is not. Jeanette Winterson writes in Written on the Body: “I don’t want a pillow. I want you to hold my hand in the dark.” Hang in there, high school kids. Hang in there, Hooters ladies. It might be the hand tearing up your assignment. It might be the hand serving up the Angel Shot. But there’s a hand out there. And it’s not that dark. DM


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