The Philosophical Case for Robot Friendship
By John Danaher, NUI Galway
(pre-publication draft of a paper that is forthcoming in Journal of Posthuman Studies)
Abstract: Friendship is an important part of the good life. While many roboticists are
eager to create friend-like robots, many philosophers and ethicists are concerned. They
argue that robots cannot really be our friends. Robots can only fake the emotional and
behavioural cues we associate with friendship. Consequently, we should resist the drive
to create robot friends. In this article, I argue that the philosophical critics are wrong.
Using the classic virtue-ideal of friendship, I argue that robots can plausibly be
considered our virtue friends - that to do so is philosophically reasonable. Furthermore, I
argue that even if you do not think that robots can be our virtue friends, they can fulfil
other important friendship roles, and can complement and enhance the virtue friendships
between human beings.
Star Wars was a formative influence on my philosophical imagination. One of the things I
liked most about it was its depiction of robots. I particularly liked R2D2, the quirky, high-
spirited, garbage-can-lookalike companion to several of the human characters in the film
series. I had no idea what R2D2 was saying — he/she/it spoke in a series of whistles and
beeps — but the humans seemed to know. To them, R2D2 had a personality. ‘He’ was a
valued companion and an invaluable assistant, always helping them out of close scrapes,
without being completely at their beck and call. He was their friend just as much as he was
Fictional representations like R2D2 can provide useful inspiration for future
technological developments. They can help us to imagine and plan for possibilities. But for
some reason R2D2 doesn’t seem to provide much inspiration to contemporary commentators
on robotics. Our cultural conversation about robots seems to have taken on a much darker
tone. Both the popular media and the academic literature is replete with people highlighting
the risks associated with killer robots (Bhuta et al 2016; Sparrow 2007), sex robots (Danaher
& McArthur 2017; Richardson 2015), care robots (Coeckelbergh 2015; Sharkey & Sharkey
2010; Sparrow & Sparrow 2006) and worker robots (Avent 2016; Ford 2016; Danaher 2017;
Loi 2015). Robots are repeatedly viewed as a threat to cherished human values, possibly even
an existential threat (Bostrom 2014).
This is not to say that everyone rejects the possibility of a more positive future with
robots. Some people do, with some caution, see a role for robots as companions and friends
(Gunkel 2018; Darling 2017; Elder 2015 & 2017; De Graaf 2016; Dumouchel and Damiano
2017). But the dystopian narrative tends to take precedence in popular conversations and thus
limits our imaginative horizons. In this paper, I want to push back against the dystopian
narrative and make a robust case for the view that robots can be — and perhaps should be —
our friends. In defending this more optimistic outlook, I will not try to refute every argument
presented by the doomsayers — the literature is far too vast to allow me to do so in the space
of one article. My aims are more modest. I will simply argue that robots can plausibly be our
friends (to conceive of them as such is within the bounds of philosophical reasonableness)
and that robotic friendship can be a valuable social good. Consequently, we should not try to
avoid creating robot friends — as some have argued (Bryson 2010; 2018) — we should
instead actively pursue the most valuable opportunities for robot friendship.
I defend this argument in three phases. First, I situate my argument within the current
literature, identifying the concerns one currently finds there and explaining exactly how my
argument pushes back against those concerns. Second, I look at the concept of friendship,
appealing to the classic virtue-model of friendship (which has its origins in the work of
Aristotle), and arguing that it is philosophically reasonable to believe that robots can be our
virtue friends. Admittedly, this is a strong thesis, so I follow this up by presenting an
additional argument, which is that robot friendships can complement and possibly enhance
2. Situating the Robot Friendship Thesis
I am defending what I call the ‘robot friendship thesis’. This thesis has two parts:
Robot Friendship Thesis: Robots1 can be considered our friends (to conceive of
them as such is philosophically reasonable) and robotic friendship could be a social
I do not pretend to any radicalism with this thesis. If you have spent time in the company
of roboticists and robot users, you will know that they can and do conceive of robots as their
friends and companions (De Graaf 2016, Darling 2017, Darling and Breazal 2015,
Dumouchel and Damiano 2017). This is true even when the robots themselves are not
designed or intended to be companions. One clear illustration of this, derived from the work
of Julie Carpenter (2016), is the emotional bond formed between soldiers and their bomb
disposal robots. These bonds have resulted in elaborate battlefield funerals for ‘fallen’ robot
comrades and a deep sense of loss among the soldiers when the robots are destroyed. On top
of this, many roboticists clearly design robots to be friends and companions.2 Look at the
functionality of robots like Pepper (designed by Softbank) or even the digital assistants
created by Apple, Google and Amazon. Their reassuring voices, playful tones, laughs and
giggles, and fluttering eyelashes (in the case of Pepper) are all clearly intended to foster
emotional attachment. So there is no shortage of people imagining and living with the idea of
I am also not the fist person to argue that robotic friendship is at least a possibility (De
Graaf 2016, Darling 2017, Dumouchel and Damiano 2017, Elder 2015 & 2017; Emmeche
2014; Marti 2010). The radicalism of my thesis — such as it is — lies in my attempt to make
a strong and unapologetic case for robotic friendship, to argue that robotic friendship is
philosophically respectable, and to present it as a counterpoise to the philosophical and
cultural criticism of robots that seems to be in the ascendancy. The academic literature on the
social, legal and ethical implications of robots tends to highlight the ethical and social risks of
robots. People are concerned about ‘responsibility gaps’ that will open up as robotic weapons
systems and self-driving cars become widespread in society (Sparrow 2007; Matthias 2004;
Bhuta et al 2016). People are concerned about robots stealing their jobs and leaving them
destitute or disenhanced (Danaher 2017; Loi 2015). People are even concerned about
1 I am not going to offer a precise definition of ‘robot’ in this paper. As Gunkel (2018) notes, this may be
2 To take but one illustration of this, Huang and his colleagues (2014) set themselves the challenge of designing
‘friendliness’ into a museum guide robot. They did so by modifying certain behavioural cues such as response
time, approach speed, distance from user and attentiveness. There are many more examples of roboticists trying
to work out the behavioural cues indicative and friendship and trying to design robots that can perform those
cues e.g. Cañamero and Lewis 2016.
superintelligent robots using our bodies as resources to pursue their own, anti-humanistic,
ends (Bostrom 2014).
These concerns have extended into a deep suspicion of robots with friendlike
characteristics. This is most apparent in the literature on care robots (i.e. robots designed to
provide care and companionship to the sick or diseased). That literature raises many
important ethical issues, including the obvious safety and accountability issues that might
arise from the mass deployment of care robots. But it also clearly raises issues associated
with the nature and value of friendship (Elder 2015 & 2017). Several of the contributors to
that literature worry about what will happen if our primary interactions are with robots — if
we are starved of human contact — and if we are convinced that robot carers are our friends.
Sparrow and Sparrow (2006) painted a deeply dystopian picture:
“[Imagine] a future aged-care facility where robots reign supreme. In this facility
people are washed by robots, fed by robots, monitored by robots, cared for and
entertained by robots. Except for their family or community service workers, those
within this facility never need to deal or talk with a human being who is not also a
resident.” (2006, 152)
Others have followed suit. Their fears stem from the belief that any friendship or
companionship provided by robots will be illusory (Elder 2015 & 2017; Turkle 2011).
Robots will not be true friends (not philosophically proper or ethically valuable friends),
though they may, through fancy machine learning tricks and clever engineering, con us into
thinking they are. This will be terrible. We will view robotic contact as a substitute for human
contact and we will lose out on important human and social goods.
Some suggest that we should, consequently, take steps to prevent robots from becoming
thought of as our friends. Coeckelbergh, who otherwise adopts a social relational ontology
that allows for the possibility of accepting robot ‘others’ into our communities (Coeckelbergh
2012,2014 & 2016), is very concerned about the risks of such acceptance. He argues that
robots that ‘appear to us’ as human agents should be prohibited from the healthcare context
(Coeckelbergh 2015). Bryson (2010 & 2018) has a more extreme position, arguing that
roboticists should not design and market robots to function like human persons. To do so
would lead individual human beings to misallocate their cognitive resources (use up their
friendship budgets) and misassign important ethical concepts (to commit what Nyholm
(2015) calls ‘evaluative category mistakes’).
My goal here is to provide robust pushback against these fears. I want to argue that there
is nothing illusory or unreal about robotic friendships. Robots can be our ‘real’ friends, at
least under certain respectable and plausible conceptions of friendship, and that even if they
fail to meet some philosophical ideal of friendship, their companionship can complement and
enhance more ideal friendships with other human beings. This doesn’t address all the
dystopian fears one could have about robots — issues around responsibility, health and
safety, existential risk, unemployment and so forth will remain — but it does provide a
positive perspective that can be added to the mix when considering the future development of
3. Robots Can be Our Aristotelian Friends
I will defend the robot friendship thesis in two distinct ways. I start in this section by
arguing that robots can plausibly be our virtue friends — that to conceive of them as such is
philosophically reasonable, and that we should not condemn or discount the experiences of
those who believe themselves to be in virtue friendships with robots. This is, admittedly, a
strong claim, likely to get the backs up of many philosophers, so that’s why I present a
separate argument in the next section: even if they cannot be our virtue friends they can
complement and enhance the virtue friendships we have with human beings. The second
argument is, probably, more likely to win approval, at least in the short run, but I want to
make the case for the first argument as being more important in the long run.
Some clarification is needed at the outset. What do I mean when I say that robots can be
our virtue friends? The idea is widely debated and discussed, particularly in relation to the
impact of technology on friendship (Elder 2014, 2015 & 2017; Kaliarnta 2016; Froding and
Peterson 2012). It comes from books eight and nine of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
(Aristotle 2009; Costello 2015). There, Aristotle identifies three forms that friendship (philia)
Utility form: A friendship that is pursued for instrumental gains to one or both
Pleasure form: A friendship that is pursued because the interactions at the heart of
it are pleasurable to one or both parties.
Virtue form: A friendship that is premised on mutual good will and well-wishing,
and that is pursued out of mutual admiration and shared values on both sides.
Aristotle argues that the utility and pleasure forms of friendship are ‘imperfect’. Although
it is possible for them to be pursued on an egalitarian basis, they often involve asymmetries
of power (one party gets most of the utility/pleasure) and they are easily dissolved when
people stop deriving pleasure or utility from their interactions. Aristotle does not completely
discount the value of such interactions, but suggests they are of a lesser type. The virtue form
is different. It is much stronger, more meaningful, and an important part of the good life. For
this very reason it also entails greater risk: one could try to attain virtue friendship with
another and be betrayed or let down by the fact that they are only pursuing a pleasure/utility
friendship. The sense of betrayal and loss here would be greater than if you knew it was only
ever a pleasure/utility friendship (Margalit 2017).
There have been many interpretations and applications of this virtue model of friendship
over the years, including several attempts to identify the conditions that must (or likely
should) be satisfied in order for them to exist (Costello 2015; Kaliarnta 2016; McFall 2012;
Froding and Peterson 2012). Some of these accounts take us away from the original
Aristotelian conception of that ideal, which was very much grounded in Aristotle’s
metaphysics and associated ethics. Nevertheless, they are inspired by and build upon his
original conception and thus ought to understood as the direct descendants of his view.3
These accounts tend to agree on the following conditions as being central to a virtue
friendship: (a) mutuality (i.e. shared values, interests, admiration and well-wishing between
the friends); (b) honesty/authenticity (the friends must present themselves to each other as
they truly are and not be selective or manipulative in their self-presentation); (c) equality (i.e.
the parties must be on roughly equal footing, there cannot be a dominant or superior party)
3 I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer for encouraging me to make this clarification.
and (d) diversity of interactions (i.e. the parties must interact with one another in many
different ways/domains of life, not just one or two).
Given this understanding of friendship, and the conditions that need to be satisfied in
order to pursue a truly valuable friendship, it seems like a tough sell to say that robots can be
our virtue friends. Indeed, it seems like the virtue model can be used to argue that robots can
never be our true virtue friends. In fact, some people, who are otherwise open to the idea of
robotic friendship, have argued exactly that (e.g. Elder 2015 & 2017; and de Graaf 2016).
The argument appears to work like this:
(1) In order for someone to count as our virtue friend, certain conditions need to be
met, including: (i) mutuality; (ii) authenticity; (iii) equality and (iv) diversity of
(2) It is not possible for robots to satisfy conditions (i) - (iv).
(3) Therefore, robots cannot be our virtue friends.
The critical premise here, of course, is (2). Prima facie, it looks like a strong argument
can be made in its favour. First, it seems obvious that robots cannot meet the mutuality
condition. After all, robots cannot have values and interests of their own: they only have the
values with which they are programmed or that they acquire through, say, machine learning
techniques. They cannot engage in mutual well-wishing and admiration. They don’t (or won’t
for a very long time) have any inner mental life in which such states of mutuality are
possible. Second, it seems obvious that robots cannot meet the authenticity condition. After
all, the only way we could even begin to think of them as our virtue friends would be if they
engaged in all the performative and behavioural acts we associate with virtue friendship. But
this would entail a considerable act of deception: the robot would be going through the
motions; they would not have any of the internal mental states that should accompany such
outward performances in order for them to count as authentic. It would be like hiring an actor
to be your friend (Elder 2015; Nyholm and Frank 2017). Third, it seems obvious that robots
cannot meet the equality condition. After all, we are their masters and they are our creations.
Until they achieve some greater-than-human powers, they will always be subservient to us.
Fourth, and finally, it is difficult for robots to meet the diversity condition. For the time
being, robots will have narrow domains of competence. They will not be general
intelligences, capable of interacting across a range of environments and sharing a rich
panoply of experiences with us. They cannot really share a life with us.
That seems like a pretty powerful case for the prosecution. How can it be resisted? First,
we need to clarify the nature of the impossibility claim that is being propounded in premise
(2). Is it that it is not currently, technically, possible for robots to satisfy these conditions? Or
is it that it is not metaphysically possible for robots to satisfy these conditions? If it is the
former, then the argument is weaker than it first appears — it is at least possible that one day
robots will become our virtue friends — though that day may be some distance off. If it is the
latter, then the argument is more robust, but it is correspondingly much more difficult to
prove. My suspicion is that many people in the debate favour the stronger, metaphysical
impossibility claim, or at least a strong form of the technical impossibility claim — one
which holds that while it may not be completely impossible for robots to satisfy all the
conditions, the technical possibility is so remote that it is not worth considering (see, for
example, Gunkel 2018 on the problem of ‘infinite deferral’ in debates about robot moral
Granting that there are these different ways of interpreting the impossibility claim, it then
becomes important to distinguish between the impossibilities at stake in the four different
conditions. For instance, it seems like conditions (iii) and (iv) (equality and diversity) could
only ever really be construed as technical impossibilities, whereas as conditions (i) and (ii)
(mutuality and authenticity) could more plausibly be construed as both technical and
metaphysical impossibilities. Why is that? Presumably, equality is a function of one’s powers
and capacities and whether a robot is equal to a human with respect to its powers and
capacities is going to be dependent on its physical and computational resources, both of
which are subject to technical innovation. The same would seem to go for diversity of
interaction. Whether a robot can interact with you across a diverse range of life experiences
depends on its physical and computational dexterity (can it respond dynamically to different
environments? can it move through them?) which is again subject to technical innovation.
Contrariwise, conditions (i) and (ii) could, plausibly, be said to depend on more mysterious
mental capacities (particularly the capacities for consciousness and self-consciousness) which
many will argue are either metaphysically impossible for purely computational objects, or are
so technically remote as to be not worth considering right now.
With these clarifications of premise (2) in place, we can build a case for the defence. It is,
first of all, possible to resist the claim that robots cannot engage with us as equals or across
diverse life experiences. We can do this by pointing out that the technical innovation needed
to achieve this (enhanced intelligence and mobility) is well within our grasp. Indeed, it is
possible to make a stronger claim: not only is it within our grasp, it is, in many instances,
already here. To appreciate this point, we first need to think about the equality and diversity
conditions in ordinary human friendships. The reality is that friends are rarely perfectly equal
and rarely engage with each other in all domains of life. I have very different capacities and
abilities when compared to some of my closest friends: some of them have far more physical
dexterity than I do, and most are more sociable and extroverted. I also rarely engage with,
meet, or interact with them across the full range of their lives. I meet with them in certain
contexts, and follow certain habits and routines. I still think it is possible for to see these
friendship as virtue friendships, despite the imperfect equality and diversity. But if this is
right, then it should also be possible to achieve such virtue friendships with robots who are
not our perfect equals or who do not engage with us across the full range of our lives.
Imperfect, but close enough, equality and diversity will suffice.4 Arguably, robots are already
our imperfect equals (they are clearly better than us in some respects and inferior in others)
and the degree of adaptability and mobility required for imperfect diversity is arguably
already upon us (e.g. a drone robot companion could accompany us across pretty much any
life experience) or not far away. Thus, it is not simply some technological dream to suggest
that robots can (or will soon) satisfy the equality and diversity conditions.
The mutuality and authenticity conditions are more difficult. But we can, again, ask: what
does it really mean to say that the mutuality and authenticity conditions are satisfied in
ordinary human friendships? I would argue that all it means is that people engage in certain
consistent performances (Goffmann 1959; de Graaf 2016) within the friendship. Thus, they
say and do things that suggest that they share our interests and values and they rarely5 do
things that suggest they have other, unexpected or ulterior, interests and values. All we ever
4 Aristotle himself may disagree and say that virtue friendship is incredibly rare and cannot exist without perfect
equality etc. I make no attempt to reconcile my view Aristotle’s. I would argue that longing for perfection is
forlorn and that if it necessary it is deeply counterintuitive because it denies the experiences most of us have of
our close friendships.
5 I say rarely because, again, human friendships are often imperfect. We can occasionally feel betrayed by
our friends or learn something about them that calls into question their honesty and authenticity. These
occasional lapses are not fatal to friendship provided that they are rectified.
have to go on are these performances. We have no way of getting inside our friends heads to
figure out their true interests and values. So the only grounds we have for believing that the
mutuality and authenticity conditions are met in the case of ordinary human friendships are
epistemically accessible grounds, in this case external behaviours and performances, not
some deeper epistemically inaccessible, metaphysical attributes. But if that’s all we have in
the case of human friendships, then why can’t these grounds provide similar justification for
our belief in robotic friendships? More formally:
(4) It is possible for the mutuality and authenticity conditions to be satisfied in our
friendships with our fellow human beings (assumption).
(5) The only grounds we have for thinking that the mutuality and authenticity
conditions are satisfied in our friendships with our fellow human beings are the
performative representations that they make to us, (i.e. these are the only epistemic
grounds we have for believing in human virtue friendships).
(6) These epistemic grounds for believing that the mutuality and authenticity
conditions are satisfied in our virtue friendships with our fellow human beings can
also be satisfied by robots (they can consistently perform mutuality and authenticity).
(7) Therefore, it is (technically) possible for the mutuality and authenticity conditions
to be satisfied in our friendships with robots.
This is an argument from analogy. It is not logically watertight. It is only as persuasive as
we take the analogy to be. Some might challenge the analogy on the grounds that it is overly
behaviouristic in its reasoning, but this is not quite right. The argument makes no claims
about the ultimate metaphysical basis of the mind or intelligence. It only makes claims about
the grounds upon which we justify our belief in our friendships. To defeat the argument you
would need to argue that external performances are not all we have to go on when justifying
our belief in our human friendships — that there are other epistemic grounds for that belief.
There are some possibilities in this regard. You could argue that we justify our belief in
our human friendships because of our shared biological identity. In other words, we have first
hand knowledge of the fact that we are conscious and self aware and that this is what allows
us to satisfy the mutuality and authenticity conditions. We have reason to suspect that our
consciousness and awareness is linked to our biological properties (i.e our embodied nature
and our sophisticated nervous systems). So we have reason to suspect that any creature that
shares these biological properties will also be capable of satisfying the mutuality and
authenticity conditions. We don’t (and won’t) share biological properties with robots, so we
don’t (and won’t) have the same epistemic grounds for our belief in their capacity to satisfy
the mutuality and authenticity conditions. On top of that, we will know things about the
robots physical properties and ontological histories that will cast into doubt their ability to
satisfy the relevant conditions. We will know that they have been engineered and
programmed to be our friends — to perform in a certain way. This will undermine premise
(6) of the argument. In this sense, knowing that your friend is a robot is akin to knowing that
he/she is a hired actor (Elder 2015; Nyholm and Frank 2017).
This is an attractive line of thought — there is surely something about our shared
ontological properties and histories that features in our justification for believing in human
friendships — but it is less persuasive than it first appears. First of all, while the shared
biological properties might give us more grounds for believing in our human friends it is not
clear that these grounds are necessary or sufficient for believing in friendship. That they are
not sufficient is apparent from the actor counterexample (the actor shares biological identity
but is not a friend); that they are not necessary can be illustrated by another thought
experiment. Imagine an alien race that is identical to human beings in all its outward
appearances and behaviours, but has a different internal biology and evolutionary history.
Could we form friendships with such beings? I see no non-question-begging reason to think
not but in that case shared ontological properties and histories are not necessary for believing
someone is your friend. Their consistent behavioural performances would given reason to
discount the relevant of biology and ontology. On top of that, the claim that the programmed
and engineered history of a robot should undermine our confidence in their friendship does
not sit easily with the fact that many (including most philosophers) think that humans are
engineered by evolutionary and developmental forces, and programmed by their genetic
endowments and environmental histories. Engineering and programming does not
differentiate humans from robots, particularly when you consider that modern robots are not
programmed with specific top-down rules but with bottom-up learning algorithms. In this
sense they are quite different from actors hired to be our friends.
I think we can push the point even further. I think that when it comes to the ethical
foundation of our relationships with other beings, the only grounds we should rely upon are
their consistent and coherent external performances and presentations. That is to say, I think
we might be ethically obliged to normatively ground our relationships with others in how
they consistently and coherently present themselves to us, not in what we may or may not
know about their ontological histories or biological properties. Take a controversial example:
transgender identity claims. Many people now advocate (and many legal regimes are
beginning to recognise) the right for people to choose their gender identity. Accordingly, if a
person chooses to (consistently and coherently) present themselves as a woman despite
having the biological characteristics and ontological history of a man, we should respect that
and rely upon that presentation in our interactions with them. I think this is broadly correct
and that we are right to shift to this norm. This can be criticised. There are some reasons for
thinking that people who consistently and coherently present themselves with a particular
identity should not be treated in the same way as people who were raised with that identity.
For example, treating the two groups equivalently may disrespect or trivialise a particular
history of gender or racial oppression and inequality.6 But those reasons are usually
dependent on external political and social considerations, and about how people are
recognised within political and social regimes, not on the ethics of interactions with the
people themselves. When it comes to the intrinsic features of the interactions, the preferred
norm is, I would argue, to ground the relationship in the external performances and not
biological properties or ontological histories. If this is right, it gives us additional reason for
endorsing premise (6). If robots consistently and coherently present themselves as our friends
(appearing to satisfy the mutuality and authenticity grounds) then that is what we should base
our beliefs in their friendship on.
Finally, I think there is another general argument for favouring the possibility of virtue
friendship with robots. It is an argument from epistemic humility and social tolerance. People
already form close emotional attachments to robots and other artifacts. To chastise or criticise
such bonds on the grounds that they are not true virtue friendships is a form of social
stigmatisation. Such individuals are treated as emotionally and socially defective. We should
avoid such stigmatisation. This is not to say that all forms of stigmatisation or intolerance are
imperssible. The stigmatisation of some alleged friendships can be justified (e.g. if your
6 I’m not endorsing these arguments — I’m trying to skirt the ethical and political controversies of
transgenderism and transracialism as much as possible.
teenage son has formed a close friendship with a group of Neo-Nazi white supremacists you
would probably be justified in condemning and de-legitimating that friendship) but the
epistemic standards that must be crossed before such stigmatisation is justified are high. If
there is reasonable doubt about the legitimacy of a claim to friendship, it should be tolerated
unless it is doing some clear and unambiguous harm. And so, if the performative account of
friendship that I have defended falls within the scope of reasonability — i.e. if people can
reasonably disagree about its ability to justify claims to virtue friendship — I think claims to
virtue friendship that are justified on that basis should be tolerated.
In conclusion then, I think that robots could, plausibly, be viewed as our virtue friends.
To do so is within the bounds of philosophical reasonableness, and entails no error sufficient
to warrant philosophical and social condemnation. Indeed, if my argument is correct, the
reasons for thinking that humans can be virtue friends can apply to robot friendships too.
Since virtue friendship is widely agreed to be an important element of the good life it follows
that robotic friendship can be an important element of the good life too.
4. Robots Can Complement and Enhance Human Friendships
Although I think the preceding argument is persuasive, I am aware that some people will
continue to insist that it is wrongheaded. Fortunately, to them I can issue another response: so
what? If robots cannot be our virtue friends, they can still be our utility or pleasure friends.
We can derive instrumental gains and intrinsic pleasures from our interactions with them and
so they can be, on net, a social benefit.
Very few people deny that robots can be our utility or pleasure friends. Even some of the
critics of the idea of robotic virtue friendship agree that robots can be our utility or pleasure
friends (e.g. Elder 2015 & 2017; De Graaf 2016). Nevertheless, there are concerns that
having robots as utility and pleasure friends will have negative consequences for human
virtue friendships. There seem to be at least two mechanisms that could be at play that lead to
Forced Replacement: As robot companions proliferate, we will be forced/compelled
to interact with them instead of with human beings. In other words, our opportunities
for human contact — and hence proper virtue friendship — will be curtailed.
Corrosion: As utility and pleasure friendships with robots become more widely
available they will corrode or undermine the value/attractiveness of virtue friendship
with human beings.
The forced replacement argument might be animating some of the arguments against the
rise of carebots. We see it, to some extent, in Sparrow and Sparrow’s (2006) dystopian
description of the future-aged care facility, in Mark Coeckelbergh’s (2015) concerns about
robots replacing humans in the performance of care-related tasks and in Turkle’s (2011)
concerns about the impact of digital technologies on human sociability. The ‘force’
implicated in this argument is not some crude form of coercion. Nobody thinks that someone
is going to put a gun to our heads and compel us to only interact with robots; the compulsion
will be more subtle. The fear is that we will be starved of human contact because of the
alleged efficiencies (economic and otherwise) of robots in workplaces and care facilities.7
There will be less opportunity for human friendship as a result.
I do not think this argument is worth taking seriously in and of itself. It is important to
bear in mind the more general effects of substituting humans for robots (outside of the
friendship context). The effects of replacing humans with robots in other contexts could cut
both ways when it comes to friendship. For example, the replacement of humans by robots in
the workplace could arguably be a boon to friendship. It will increase the amount of leisure
time available to the displaced human beings and they can use that leisure time to pursue
virtue friendships with humans. In other words, if no one is coercing us into solely robotic
friendships, and other human beings continue to exist and be available as potential virtue
friends, we will continue to have the opportunity of forming virtue friendships with them, and
possibly have more opportunities for this thanks to the proliferation of robots.
But what if we are not exercising those opportunities? What if we stop seeking out human
contact? That’s where the corrosion mechanism comes in. It suggests that we will stop
exercising the option of human friendship because robotic friendships will be addictive: their
benefits will be too immediate (too pleasurable and utilitarian) and this will make the hard
7 An extreme illustration of this possibility can be found in Isaac Asimov’s Robot series novel The Naked
Sun, which imagines a future society where humans live with teams of robot servants and rarely interact with
work of forming an virtue friendship with our fellow human beings less attractive. Is there
anything to be said in favour of this argument?
The debate about the corrosive impact of the internet on virtue friendship is instructive in
this regard. A number of people have criticised online friendships (e.g the friendships you
acquire through social media, vlogging, blogging and chatrooms) for their shallow, utilitarian
and pleasure-seeking nature (Froding and Peterson 2012; McFall 2012). They argue that the
‘friends’ we gain from our online interactions are not true virtue friends because we can only
interact with them in a shallow way (text messages, emoticons, likes and retweets), and
because the style of interaction encouraged by social media platforms is deliberately
utilitarian and pleasure-seeking, and hijacks other motivations for friendship.
There is undoubtedly something to this. Online friendships can be addictive. I have felt
this myself. I have lost countless hours to amassing several thousand twitter followers and
facebook friends. I have lost countless hours to the desire to see my social media posts
retweeted and shared. I get a nice feeling every time my numbers go up. I want to experience
that momentary ‘high’ over and over again. And so I go on doing it, constantly growing my
social network well beyond its alleged evolutionary limits (Dunbar’s number of 150).
The same concern could apply to robotic friendships. Perhaps the immediate rewards of
robotic interactions will prove to be addictive and will monopolise our attention. Perhaps we
will spend all our time getting our robot friends to laugh at our jokes, promote our profiles,
cook our meals, play games with us and so on. The robots will never get jealous of our
successes, laugh at our misfortunes, gossip about us behind our back, or fail to turn up for an
appointment. Who would want to bother with the messy complexities of human friendships
This is a speculative argument. We don’t yet know whether robotic friendships will prove
corrosive of human friendship. We don’t have a sufficiently large sample yet to prove it one
way or the other. There is some plausibility to the speculations just outlined — and there are
groups of people who claim to prefer non-human companions (Beck 2013) — but there are
also some counterbalancing speculations that I think should be factored into the debate. In
particular, I think the addictive and monopolising potential of robotic friendships should be
counterbalanced against their potential to complement and enhance human friendships.
What do I mean by this? Again, the debate about internet friendship is helpful. The claim
that the internet corrodes friendship by causing us to become addicted to shallow, utilitarian
and pleasure-seeking interactions has been challenged. As both Sofia Kaliarnta (2016) and
Alexis Elder (2014) have argued, the number and style of interactions that we have online are
not limited in the ways that critics allege. Thanks to immersive online environments (such
role-playing video games or Second Life) and the possibility of haptic, video, text, and audio-
based communication, we can have rich and diverse interactions with our online companions.
And while it is true that certain social media platforms encourage shallow forms of
interaction, evidence suggests that people appreciate these interactions for what they are and
do not view them as substitutes for richer bonds with ‘offline’ friends. This is encouraging
for the defender of robotic friendships. It suggests that people will be able to have rewarding
experiences with robot friends while at the same time retaining richer bonds with human
More important than that, however, is what Kaliarnta has to say about the ways in which
web-based communications can actually complement and facilitate virtue friendships. One
thing that often prevents people from forming virtue friendships in their offline interactions is
the interference of various biases and prejudices with the satisfaction of the virtue conditions.
Virtue friendship requires rough equality between the friends, but in real life people often
interact with presumptions of inequality. Aristotle himself was notoriously guilty of this,
arguing that slaves and women were necessarily inferior to propertied men, and hence
friendship was impossible between these groups. Such prejudices (perhaps in less extreme
forms) still impact upon friendship to this day. We see people through the prism of their
gender, skin-colour, disability, mental illness, social class, accent and so on. All of these
things can form a barrier to full virtue friendship. One of the advantages of internet-based
interactions is that they can filter out some of these biasing factors, enabling us to move
beyond our own prejudices (Bulow and Felix 2014). When our interactions are forced
through a narrow channel (e.g. text only), they are, in some ways, purified. Thus, when I
interact with someone via a chatroom, my interpretation of them can be based solely on the
quality and content of what they say, and not contaminated by irrelevant factors such as their
race, accent and social class.8 This filtering effect of web-based communication can be a
great boon to virtue friendship.
Now, I don’t imagine that robots will play a similar filtering role. But I do think they can
complement and enhance virtue friendships in broadly analogous ways. In particular, I think
that robotic friendships could help ensure greater equality between human friends, thereby
complementing and enhancing the bond between them. We often think of friendships as two-
way interactions (there’s you and your friend), even though we accept that one individual can
have many friends. For the purposes of this argument, we need to imagine some friendships
as three-way interactions: you, your robot friend and your human friend. Once we have that
model in mind, we can start to see how certain interactions with the robot friend could
complement and enhance the interactions between the human friend. Two modes of
interaction are of particular importance:
Avatar interactions: This arises where one of the human friends interacts with the
other human friend via a robotic intermediary.
Outsourcing interactions: This is where one of the human friends outsources some of
their emotional, cognitive, physical or other friendship needs to the robot.
Avatar interactions can complement human friendships where one of the human partners
is physically (or otherwise) incapable of engaging in certain activities with their human
friends. Perhaps they are bedridden or otherwise physically disabled. This prevents them
from sharing the rich diversity of interactions that the virtue mode of friendship envisages
(i.e. prevents them from truly sharing a life with another). But if they could interact with their
friends via a robotic intermediary (one that has the physical dexterity they lack) at least some
of those interactions could be opened up to them.
This is could be a practically significant case, but it is not philosophically significant. As
described, the robotic avatar sounds like it would not really be an independent, autonomous
agent in its own right. Also, if we wanted to facilitate more diverse interactions between
human friends, advances in human body-prosthetics seem like a more fruitful avenue to go
8 The removal of such biasing factors was the motivation for the original set-up of the Turing Test.
down. That said, there are similar cases where an independent, semi-autonomous, robotic
companion could make up for a deficit or disability that prevents one of the humans from
engaging more fully in the activities of friendship. Guide dogs are companions to blind
people that enable them to engage more fully with life. We could easily imagine the robotic
equivalent of the guide dog providing assistance to one of the human partners (Sullins 2006).
The more interesting case is that of outsourcing interactions. There, the robot is not
simply a tool used to facilitate an interaction with another human being; the robot is a distinct
entity that fulfils certain friendship roles that would be too demanding or exhausting for the
other human partner to fulfil and which are proving to be an impediment to virtue friendship.
Perhaps your human friend likes almost everything about you except your constant demand
to play tennis. Your demands to play it become so incessant that they end up avoiding you as
a result, knowing that if you bump into them you will invariably demand a tennis match.
Here, one of your utility/pleasure seeking demands is proving to be a barrier to virtue
friendship. If you could outsource that demand to another companion, you could remove that
barrier. We undoubtedly engage in this kind of demand outsourcing all the time with our
human friends, but humans have their limitations in patience, kindness and enthusiasm. The
attractive thing about robots is that the same basic logic can apply to our interactions with
them — we can outsource some of our friendship demands to them — and they can satisfy
those demands in an endlessly patient and enthusiastic manner.
This is not a purely hypothetical example. There is already some evidence to suggest that
robot friends can perform this outsourcing function. Consider, the journalist Judith
Newman’s (2014) story of the friendship between her autistic son and Apple’s Siri. As she
recounts in her article ‘To Siri, With Love’, her son was obsessed with different sets of facts,
e.g. weather formations, and had a tendency to repeatedly ask questions about them. She was
unable to answer them all and sometimes grew weary with the incessant barrage of questions.
Siri proved to be a godsend. She9 was able to answer all her son’s questions in a predictably
kind and courteous manner, and encourage him to engage in some conversational back-and-
forth in the process. This, in turn, seemed to have benefits for the interactions between
mother and son:
9 Siri’s voice can be either male or female but was set to be female by Newman and her son.
“For most of us, Siri is merely a momentary diversion. But for some, it’s more. My
son’s practice conversation with Siri is translating into more facility with actual
humans. Yesterday I had the longest conversation with him that I’ve ever had.
Admittedly, it was about different species of turtles and whether I preferred the red-
eared slider to the diamond-backed terrapin. This might not have been my choice of
topic, but it was back and forth, and it followed a logical trajectory. I can promise you
that for most of my beautiful son’s 13 years of existence, that has not been the case.”
This is admittedly just one illustration, but it is an important proof of concept that is
backed up by other initial studies (Elder 2017). Robots can perform the outsourcing function
and this must be weighed against the allegedly corrosive effects that they might have. And if
they can perform this outsourcing function, two things follow. The first is that robot
friendship could be an important social good because it could enable more people to
approach the ideal of virtue friendship in their interactions with human beings; the second is
that we should encourage the development of robots that can fulfil this outsourcing role.
Doing so does not mean that we have to be blind to the darker side of social robots; it just
means we can be more open to their lighter side.
And so we return to R2D2. I noted at the outset how he provided fuel for my early
philosophical imagination, pointing to the possibility of a future filled with robot friends.
What I hope to have provided in this article is some reason to think that the model
represented by R2D2 is much stronger and more respectable than is often supposed. Virtue
friendships with robots are technically possible. To suppose that we could form such a bond
with a robotic agent is not philosophical unreasonable. The same grounds we have for
believing in virtue friendships with other human beings carry over to robots. On top of this,
even if robots cannot be our virtue friends, we can still form other valuable friendships with
them. Doing so need not corrode or undermine our friendships with other human beings.
Indeed, there is every reason to think that robots could complement and enhance the
friendships between human beings by removing some of the barriers to the ideal of virtue
friendships that are present in human-human interactions.
Conflicts of interest: None.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank David Gunkel and Alexis Elder for
conversations on human-robot relations that inspired some of the content of this paper. I
would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers for feedback on an earlier draft of this
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