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The emergence of ‘fictosexuals’ and its reverberations

The existence of people forming intimate bonds with fictional folks could give the AI industry a big opportunity

Photo: iStockPremium
Photo: iStock

Recent media reports about the wedding of a Japanese man named Akihiko Kondo with a virtual pop singer named Hatsune Miku raised many an eyebrow. According to The New York Times, Kondo is one of thousands of people in Japan who married fictional characters in recent decades. Tens of thousands more around the globe have joined online groups where they discuss their commitment to characters from anime, manga and video games. There are even hotels in Tokyo that have special rates for people who want to spend a night with their beloved character.

Kondo, who only recently opened up about his marriage, describes himself as a “fictosexual" individual. ‘Fictosexual’ is an umbrella term that refers to a someone who is sexually attracted to a fictional character. A paper published recently in Frontiers In Psychology, titled ‘Fictosexuality, Fictoromance, and Fictophilia: A Qualitative Study of Love and Desire for Fictional Characters’, by Veli-Matti Karhulahti and Tanja Välisalo has said that fictosexuals are part of the LGBTQIA+ community, as most of them would also consider themselves asexual. What could be some of the possible reverberations of this new development?

One of the most pertinent questions for the artificial intelligence (AI) industry is whether AI can ever take the place of humans in various intense human-human interactions. Can a human psychologist be replaced by an AI version? Can AI bots replace humans in end-of-life care services? Now with the emergence of fictosexuals, the answer to whether humans will ever be able to develop a deeply emotional relationship with a machine has moved from ‘impossible’ to ‘maybe’. This is a significant moment for the future of AI. The rise of a group of people who choose to wed virtual individuals might open many untapped opportunities for AI.

For an answer to whether AI can ever replace humans in intense human-human interactions, one needs to better understand why fictosexuals prefer to have a relationship with a fictional character. According to Kondo, his virtual wife Miku will always be there for him, never betray him, and he’ll never have to see her get ill or die. The fact that fictional characters are one-sided and incapable of rejection is an appealing option to many individuals. For individuals who are scared of being rejected by others, having a partner who can’t reject them may make them feel more confident and secure in their relationships.

Humans display several deficiencies in a typical human-human relationship. Many people would love to have a relationship bereft of these deficiencies. A relationship with a fictional character seems to make up for the deficiencies of human relationships. Most of these gaps filled by fictional characters are emotional in nature. This is a clear indication that AI-backed machines could also fill several deep emotional voids in human relationships. But this development is not going to come easily. For that, the AI industry would have to learn a lot more about emotions and how these actually impact a human’s day-to-day decisions.

Although news about Kodo’s marriage to a fictional character is very recent, and the term ‘fictosexual’ seems relatively new, the idea behind it is quite old. Humans have been having intense relationships with ‘fictional’ characters for thousands of years. Religion has been a part of people’s shared identity for a long time. It has shaped our lives, and in a way, also given us a sense of who we are, thus helping shape communities and even nations. At the core of every religion are concepts that are intangible, existing only in the realm of its followers’ beliefs. The concept of God, for example, is built on belief and not based on tangible evidence. But various religions have helped their followers construct a strong image of divinity in their minds . But more than that, religions have helped create a deep emotional relationship between their followers and God.

Joseph Campbell’s classic 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, talks about the universal motif of adventure and transformation that runs through virtually all of the world’s mystic traditions. All religions have used amazingly constant statements of the basic truths of life and have created various symbols and rituals. The AI industry has plenty to learn from religions. If the industry can learn the grammar of these religious symbols and rituals and incorporate them into the design of various AI products, it could move into a different orbit of engagement that features a far stronger emotional relationship with its end users.

It was once believed that if the end user realizes that the voice on the side of any interaction is not human, but an AI-backed machine, the emotional intensity of that interaction will dwindle. The emergence of fictosexual individuals is a reminder that human-AI interaction can be as emotional as a human-human one. But for AI products to achieve deep emotional connections with end users, the development of AI products can never be left to engineers and technologists alone. AI development teams would have to include human behaviour experts and designers. The time is not far when the intensity of the emotional connection an AI product creates with its end user will play a bigger role in its success than the technology behind it. All in all, the emergence on the planet of a fictosexual population is yet another step in the direction of making AI less artificial and more human.

Biju Dominic is the chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics and chairman, FinalMile Consulting

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Updated: 19 May 2022, 06:40 AM IST
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