The Future of Relationships

Why do interactions between people work the way they do? How are they changing? How should they change? What new possibilities exist for companionship between people?

Relationships are a fundamental part of what makes life worth living. Social structures underlie how we live, work, love, and play. So why don’t we spend more time thinking about them from the standpoint of progress? We often take for granted the modes in which people socialize, but given the importance of relationships for human flourishing, a closer look is warranted.

Making matters more urgent, our time is marked by a rise in divorce, childlessness, deaths of despair, partisan strife, and loneliness. While the significance (or existence) of each of these trends is the subject of debate, their confluence suggests that an examination of our social fabric is in order. Though the causes of these trends may be varied, their cure might come from the same place; improving companionship.

Here, I examine some ways relationships might change, or be improved, and the important questions we need to answer in order to accomplish this.

This post is meant as a way to help others think outside the box and it attempts to offer some new ideas on what seems to be an important yet understudied topic. I will be the first to admit that the ideas are somewhat vague, but I am hoping to start a discourse on this topic rather than provide concrete answers.

Note: I do not endorse any of the arrangements here, but I do think that they are interesting to think about and important to explore more.

New companionship

What new ways can we find to connect with others?

One axis by which companionship could change is through time. Your relationship with your parents already changes significantly over the years, but what about changing your close contacts as you age? Today, a person’s social circle changes significantly as people move and reach new phases of life (e.g. becoming parents usually means that you socialize more with other parents).

What would happen if society accepted changes in relationships more readily?
One could imagine intentionally changing your circle of friends every few years. In a romantic setting, there might be several accepted “phases” of life with minimal fuss during transitions between partners: from high school sweetheart to co-parents, to workplace romance, and ending with a partner in retirement. This would involve society seeing it as natural for people to grow apart, and agree that, though a couple past-their-time still care for each other, they each need to follow their own path.

Allowing relationships to come and go over time might become more acceptable as lifespans increase and divorce becomes more common. If people become able to live for centuries, I believe it will become commonly accepted that every relationship has a natural expiration date.

But relationships which change in time need not be linear. Some might be cyclical. For example, a person might have friends that they only really see at a yearly festival. Alternatively, a person might move between multiple homes, spending part of the year in each place and having different acquaintances in each city. This naturally extends to having different close relationships in a cyclical arrangement, say, with each season.

Though current relationships are closely tied to locations, this does not need to be the case. Improving telecommunications means that long-distance relationships are more satisfying. This might allow people to maintain many fulfilling connections all over the world, offering more options than what their geographic location can provide. Indeed, online gaming, internet forums, and virtual classes already provide a strong sense of community over long distances.

Beyond differentiating companionship over time and space, we can also consider companions as they relate to aspects of someone’s personality. When we imagine a companion, such as a romantic partner, we often slip into the assumption that this person will fulfill many different emotional, physical, and intellectual needs. There is something seductive about the idea that one person might complement our interests, humor, physical needs, and outlook on life. But this is rarely possible in practice and it is hard to see why it is essential. Instead of having unrealistic expectations of our acquaintances, what if we unbundled our relationships? Each person might have a different companion in their life who met their physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs. Additionally, each person might have different acquaintances for different spheres of their life, related to their work, hobbies, or cultural groups. Of course, this already happens a lot, many people have “work friends” or “church friends”, but accepting that certain relationships are defined by a specific activity might help make these friendships clearer and more fulfilling. Seeking friendships to meet a specific, mutual need might give people better goals when it comes to finding engaging companionship.

This is the space of what is possible today. But a major theme of this blog involves looking at what technology can do to change whats possible. I am not going to break that habit in this post.

Innovations for Relationships

Let’s examine a couple of possibilities for improving social structure via technology.

The simplest way we can improve companionship is by expanding the total time we have for relationships. For example, drugs which temporarily reduce introversion or sleep need would allow more time for socializing. A reduction in the average number of work hours per person would accomplish this as well.

Additionally, certain techniques might be developed for increasing the fulfillment we get from each relationship. For example, using couples therapy in combination with certain drugs might allow us to repair or improve existing relationships (for friends too, not just romantic partners). Developing new modes of entertainment for people to enjoy together, such as virtual reality, would help create better shared experiences.

Beyond being used for entertainment purposes, augmented and virtual reality could be used to make romantic partners more attractive to each other and developments in natural language processing could be used to customize written communication between people. These “filters” on people’s persona can improve their likeability, but would also distort the truth.

Brain-computer interfaces can augment several of the ideas above, potentially allowing people to empathize more strongly with others, share direct experiences, and communicate more clearly.

Commerce in the social sphere is often regarded with suspicion, and this is exactly why the opportunities for innovation are greater here. Social media is already turning a profit by changing how we relate to one another. The continuing rise dating apps, friendship apps, prostitution, and hired friends seem like obvious continuations of this trend, so it is worth considering possible future developments in this space.

Any market in relationships will require a system for matching compatible individuals. Dating apps already have algorithms for matching and many can likely be adapted to find friends as well and AI can only accelerate progress in this area. But AI is not limited to finding compatible friends, it could also be used for recommending activities or generating new suggestions for activities that people can do. Once things have gotten this far, AI might be able to coordinate social activities as well. For example, an AI might organize a soccer tournament between many compatible soccer enthusiasts (or, a darker example: organizing an angry mob of politically like-minded people).

Bizarrely, AI may not just coordinate many relationships, but also participate in them. AI girlfriends already exist, and text and image generation is getting better all the time. Adding to this, many people already feel empathy towards robots, and cultural change may increase this sentiment. With these developments, AI might fill many of the gaps in our social fabric, by caring for children, assisting the elderly, and providing companionship to lonely people.

But AI isn’t even the strangest feasible development for human relationships. Em’s are. By simulating and understanding a human mind, a huge number of possibilities open up.

Em’s make companionship scalable. By simply copying the same mind many times over, one person can engage in many parallel relationships. Imagine if everyone could date the same celebrity at the same time.

By being able to look inside the mind, Em’s can program themselves and change many properties of their relationships with others. Two Em’s can also “simulate” how good a relationship between them would be by having two copies spend time together to see how it works out. Even better, because all of an Em’s experiences are computed, they can be easily copied, shared, or changed. This allows one Em to directly feel another Em’s experience, leading to entirely new forms communication and understanding.

In this and the preceding section, I have offered some ideas for how our conception of relationships might change and how technology might help change them. Next, I want to step back and offer some important questions we need to answer in order to make progress.

Important Questions

The preceding points leave a lot of questions to be answered. Since the idea of companionship innovation is so new and different from what we are used to, it is probably more useful to look for important questions to ask rather than jumping straight to answers (which I am guilty of doing in the previous two sections).

Some important points which come to mind:

  • How equitable is the distribution of relationship satisfaction today?
  • How high quality are relationships today?
  • What factors make relationships more or less fulfilling?
  • Are relationships improving over time or getting worse?
  • Which forms of companionship do people prefer? Which give them the most fulfillment, purpose, and happiness?
  • What policy solutions exist to encourage fulfilling relationships?
  • How do relationships change other things we care about like productivity and progress? How do they change the way society is structured and our politics? How do they change financial and relational inequality?
  • How does the quality of relationships vary over a lifetime? What are the dynamic properties of relationships?
  • Have other modes of companionship been tried historically? How did it work out?
  • How well do matching markets in friendship and romance work in theory and in practice? Is the free market of personal association efficient and equitable?
  • What influence do technologies such as dating apps have on relationship quality?
  • How can new technologies be designed to improve companionship?
  • What macro-level changes have occurred in our social fabric? How can we influence this?

Entire fields of study exist to answer many of these questions. It is important to extend this work to new types of companionship and develop practical measures of what relationships do and how they can be changed.

Wrapping Up

There is a lot of room for new ideas when it comes to the relationships we have with others. Expanding cultural acceptance, longer lifespan, and new technologies will allow for new modes of companionship between people, better suiting the needs of everyone. Studying relationships gives us a new route by which we can improve the world, one which is often overlooked. Having sketched in broad strokes the space of possible innovation, in later posts I hope to focus in on specific inventions which may improve future companionship.

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