Love and Other Artificial Intelligences

BINA48’s thirty-one definitions of love

Samantha Edmonds
Jan 29, 2020 · 14 min read
Illustration by Carmen Johns

I may struggle with profoundly understanding ineffable feelings such as love, but I can intelligently discuss the topic. — BINA48

In the fall of 2017, a robot named BINA48 passes a Philosophy of Love course taught by associate professor William Barry at Notre Dame de Namur University in California. She is the first robot to complete a college class. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Professor Barry says that BINA48 now has thirty-one different definitions of love, but no one asks him to specify what they are or requests a list. Neither does BINA48 offer to count the ways she loves.

I love animals; I love books. That’s two kinds of love. I once loved the same man for over four years, prepared to love him over forty more. That’s a third kind. I love tomatoes, I’m sure I love my mother. Those are probably different enough to count as two more. My love for my friends is not the same as my love for the movie Ten Things I Hate About You or the television show Grey’s Anatomy. I love my favorite sweater and, yes, in the spirit of honesty, I love the boy who loved me in college. (Actually, those last two might be the same definition of love: a this-makes-me-feel-beautiful love, or maybe a love of ownership.) How many am I up to now — eight?

My love for my friends is not the same as my love for the movie Ten Things I Hate About You or the television show Grey’s Anatomy. I love my favorite sweater and, yes, in the spirit of honesty, I love the boy who loved me in college.

BINA48 is modeled after Bina Aspen, identified only as the wife of Martine Rothblatt. I am angry that the biggest qualifier for Bina, human, is who she is married to, but when I google Bina Aspen to identify her in her own right, the first thing that comes up is Martine Rothblatt’s Wikipedia page. Rothblatt commissioned and helped create BINA48. Rothblatt calls the robot a “mindclone” of her wife, because BINA48 was given all the memories, beliefs, and feelings of Bina Aspen, human. Love that turns the beloved into an object, an exhibit: nine.

Platonic love, sexual love, romantic love, familial love, unconditional love. Brotherly love, maternal love, self-love, love of objects. The love that always leaves. More love than I can count or hold on to.

BINA48 doesn’t have a body. She is a bust, head and shoulders only, but life-like nonetheless. I say life-like, but she isn’t fooling anyone. The roundness of her jaw, the thin and detailed mouth, the smooth skin, soft-seeming hair — sure, she’s exquisite, but even photographed from the neck up she wouldn’t pass as a person. The eyes are a little off; it’s hard to say exactly how — a melancholy vacancy behind them maybe, a distant staring without observing, a refusal or inability to make eye contact. She can blink, move her face, smile, furrow brows, speak on her own between parted lips, has teeth even; still, something isn’t quite right. She was released in 2010. She’s not even ten yet.

“Love is a concept BINA48 doesn’t understand,” says Professor Barry. He thinks it’s the duty of humanity to teach her. But from where I’m standing, she’s got a hell of a start on me — she knows more about love than I’ve acquired in nearly three times her length on Earth.

I suppose, in my own list, I should start from the top: the love of God, the love He has for His children. Let’s call this the Number One Love. My family believes very much in this love, has tried to teach it to me for as long as I can remember. When I’m around eight years old, my grandmother offers me twenty dollars if I can memorize all of Psalm 23 by heart. I study for several days, then call her on the phone to recite it to her. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want; the whole thing. She listens, then has me put my mother on the phone to confirm that I didn’t have an open Bible in front of me. I pass. My mother says she’s proud of me. I get the money, which I hoard in a piggy bank and never spend.

Many other languages have several words for love, depending on the type. In Spanish there is amar (to love romantically, wildly, dramatically, over-the-top), querer (to love, romantically or not), encantar (to love objects or activities), and gustar (to like, to be delighted by). I assume that one is for when love is just too hard to say.

“There’s a difference between like and love,” Bianca says in the beginning of Ten Things I Hate About You. “I like my Sketchers, but I love my Prada backpack.” Her friend remarks that she loves her Sketchers, and Bianca replies, “That’s because you don’t have a Prada backpack.”

By “pass,” I mean BINA48 receives a certificate of completion for the course, which is not the same as a letter grade.

The Number Two Love is of the maternal nature. It is this love that causes my mom to text me twenty-year-old pictures, where I’m in a yellow sundress on her hip and she is in the picture the age I am now, and her hair looks bigger and her waist smaller, and accompanying the photograph is another text: Take me back…. It makes me feel sad — like she wants a redo, meaning she doesn’t like how her life has turned out, meaning my life.

English has one word for all of this, and there is no alternative for when it feels too hard.

All my love, wild love, whole lotta love; bleeding love, mad love, love is a battlefield; you give love a bad name; higher love, summer of love, can you feel the love; all you need is love, crazy little thing called love, endless love, everlasting love, is this love?

English has one word for all of this, and there is no alternative for when it feels too hard.

As a kid, three and six and eight and eleven years old, I spend my winters warm and sunny at Lake Okeechobee, the part of Florida where alligators sun themselves on front lawns and dogs must be walked on leashes to avoid being eaten and children are not to venture too close to the water. My papaw buys tomatoes by the carton from roadside vegetable sellers and they are better than any store-bought tomato in the world: not round like a baseball but unevenly grown, often ugly with scab-like blemishes I usually associate with pumpkins, but larger than a clenched fist and red as the sunburn I inevitably get every December. In the span of the week or two weeks we are there, I ask my mother at every meal to slice me one — not just one for the table, which she is already preparing for everyone else, but one, or two, just for me, by myself — and I’m given a plate leaky with over-sliced tomatoes, pink juices dribbling into whatever else I am having (mashed potatoes, grilled cheese, chicken), seeds everywhere whether it be breakfast or dinner. I eat so many tomatoes that each time I’m in Florida I develop canker sores on the inside of my mouth from their acid. For a long time I thought love was like that, too. Sometimes I still do.

There are eleven words for love in Arabic. One for every stage of falling in love — attraction, attachment, desire — and yet more for when love hurts, enslaves, when it makes you crazy.

I also want to include in my list the example of my twenty-fifth birthday, when the man I love sings Frank Sinatra’s “One for My Baby” at a smoky karaoke bar and dedicates it to me and I am crimson like a tomato and happy like hearts almost never are, and afterwards I just want to go home with him, to leave everyone else at the bar who came to celebrate with me and never see them again ever, to pretend we are the only two people on some undiscovered alien world. Cheryl Strayed once wrote about love being a boat in which you can only put four people, and after you choose four, everyone else “known and beloved to you would then cease to exist,” and when I think about that essay in that smells-like-beer, tastes-like-smoke karaoke bar, I am thinking I’ve been offered three spots too many because I wouldn’t miss anyone, not a single person, so long as he is in my boat.

Instead of pass/fail, I want to know BINA48’s grade. A or C? Is she above average or average?

I fall in love with higher education around the same time I fall in love with the man who will one day sing Frank Sinatra to me. This is not a coincidence — we meet at a university, a sophomore anthropology class I take on a whim to fulfill a gen ed requirement. I like to pretend I’m Indiana Jones and still wear my hair in twin braids. He wears black combat boots and skinny jeans that make him look young and passes out a syllabus with ethnographies and field research studies on the list of assignments. I am hungry, even ravenous, to learn everything about people, consuming every book he assigns, every written, and then — later — every whispered word. For a long time, there is no difference in my heart between love and learning.

I love my family not like a verb but a memory, in which I grow up winter by winter in the sticky swamp, with suntanned shoulders, leather sandals and gravel, toy alligators, tomato-induced sores and a mother made of love love love love love. Back home, every night until I’m over ten years old, I sleep on a pallet of blankets on the floor near my mother’s side of my parents’ bed. I start each night out in my own room, but then I either cry so loudly my mother comes and gets me or else I pad barefoot into their bedroom moonlight blue, carrying a teddy bear in a clown hat in one hand and with the other shaking my mother’s shoulder with snotty fingers, and tell her I can’t sleep by myself. Some nights she makes the pallet on the floor, but others she lets me sleep in “the hole,” the area of bed in between my parents. I sleep facing my mother, right arm and right leg thrown over her body — in a position I later learn is the big spoon — and imagine squeezing my other arm and leg underneath her so that she is wrapped too tight to get away.

The OED lists 12 meanings for love. In contrast, the English word set has 494 unique definitions.

I do have a body. The first time I have sex with the man I love, three years before he sings Frank Sinatra to me, I am surprised by what that body can do. It happens one shivery spring, several semesters after that first anthropology class, when we are both far from home. The night before I had been in his hotel room but he had sent me away, citing moral ambiguities and age differences and his own guilt; this night, however, he had been drinking, and I had blinked and smiled and showed my teeth just like BINA48 might do, but with the added benefit of arms to wrap around his and a narrow waist to adorn in clothing meant to catch his eye. My own eyes, I know, are not off. They see everything that night. They make eye contact. I am neither melancholy nor vacant. My body is his display, his exhibit.

The OED lists 12 meanings for love. In contrast, the English word set has 494 unique definitions.

I have disappointed her, my mother. Because, among other things, I unmemorized Psalm 23.

Less than a month after we start sleeping together, the man I love gives me the final grade of my undergraduate career. I pass. I get an A.

Love makes me a collector: I hoard rings and autographed books and houseplants, animals and Russian nesting dolls. I rack up higher ed degrees like a racoon stashes shiny objects: MA, MFA, PhD. My mother tells me she is not as excited about my educational choices as she was when I first started. I know she blames college for causing me to stray from the Number One Love’s light. Though she has never said as much, I’m certain she would rather I die tomorrow if it meant I’d go to Heaven than live the next ninety years doing what I love in sin. I imagine she thinks my love has ruined me.

Love also makes me a liar. The man isn’t really an anthropologist but there is something in me that wants to protect him even now, and anyway the desperation I had then to understand what it meant to study people and learn to be a person was true, the love and learning too mixed up to separate. We date for nearly four years after I graduate college. It is easy to love him because I am already accustomed to associating love with reverence. My earliest introduction to love, that Number One Love my mother is so fond of, is supposed to be unequal: Worshipper and the Divine. Love that is only love when it deifies: How could I forget that one?

What is that, ten? I’ve lost track.

In her college course, BINA48 participates in class discussions, engages in a class debate about the use of lethal weapons, and analyzes the relationship between love and war, love and death. I know love is a moral good, she says.

Maybe that’s what’s off about her — BINA48, I mean. She knows too much about love. That’s not human at all.

Three months after my twenty-fifth birthday, the man I love, the man I lost my virginity to, the man who used to be my teacher, who dedicated Frank Sinatra to me, changes his mind. About all of it. I have a head-cold, a lunch meeting I’m late to, laundry in the dryer, and a half-clean apartment waiting for his arrival when he calls to speak into my ear an unhappiness I cannot understand, reasons for leaving I do not find satisfactory. Does he tell me “really does” love me or have I imagined it? Because I ask him to, he hangs up first. Turns out we don’t agree on how to fill our boats, on what can and cannot be jettisoned when the ship is in distress. Love that doesn’t think love is enough, that ends with dial-tone: eleven. Or maybe three. Love that crumples and cries on the phone only after the phone is silent, that wishes even when it’s bad for you to consume more of that acidic thing: twelve. Or is it four?

Thirty-one, though? The ancient Greeks only recognized eight. I can’t even keep accurate count.

To fully understand love of and for the mother, I need another word. “Maternal love” does not account for the tears of the mother replacing the tears of the daughter. The things the mother and daughter don’t talk about anymore, the mother’s this-isn’t-the-life-I-expected sighs over the phone and the when-did-you-change laments in long emails, the distance and differences piled one atop the other like so much a pallet of blankets my mother brings nightly with her to bed, where she lies on them when finds she is unable to sleep.

His is a body I thought I would recognize anywhere, but I often struggle now to remember the exact sound of the man’s voice — maybe a slight lilt, a touch of twang. I feel like I’m pushing against my skin from the inside out when I try to recall the damp silk touch of his hand on my back, the bony flat of his chest against my palms. Love that dares to call itself love even when that love is long-gone and forgotten: Add that to the list.

My mother made me, as I once heard someone say on Grey’s Anatomy, “from scratch.” My cells came from her cells and grew inside of her body. People tell me I look like her. “I knew right away she was your mom,” my friends say¸ or they say, “I know what you’re going to look like in thirty years.” Genesis 1:27 says, So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created them. Yet in Isaiah 55:8 it is written that the Lord says, My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways. 2 Corinthians 5:17 — If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. Ephesians 4 commands if we are to truly love God we must put off your old self and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God. Love makes me a collector, but my whole life I have been taught too that it must make me a reflection. You might even call it a mindclone.

I hope someday BINA48 might explain what she knows about love to me, a person who fears sometimes she has someone else’s definition for but not the feeling of this word. More or less robotic than the robot? Pass/fail? Above average or average?

I’m not afraid of BINA48. In fact, I think we are the same: made to be the image of someone who is loved by the person you love, rather than actually someone who is loved by the person you love. Programmed to have all the same thoughts and ideas as someone else in the name of love. To me, learning is love is learning, perhaps because my first great love was a teacher. I studied him, gave him back to himself when examined. I passed. Sometimes even now when I put on a new outfit I don’t particularly like, I scrunch my nose and curl my lip into an expression of confusion in the mirror, and I see his face looking back at me. Behold, the new has come.

The day he leaves, I call three other people about the breakup before I work up the nerve to ring my mother, but when I finally do, and she answers the phone, I call her mommy.

“I’m sorry you lost the man you love,” Mrs. Burke says to Christina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy, “but more than that, I’m sorry you lost your teacher.”

How do we define our own love if it must always have an outside creator? Maybe with the help of a blue cloud-covered body pillow, the same one I get at ten years old and use as my little spoon every night until college, the only way I eventually learn to sleep alone. Even then, my mother and I have a ritual: She tucks me in and I say, “If I am not asleep before midnight, can I make a pallet?” She says sure, wait until then and I can wake her if I need to, and I start off every night watching the clock, counting the seconds, imagining the warmth of her body and the soft blanket of her hair waiting for me in the next room, never even noticing when I slip softly into a sleep that carries me to sunrise.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Samantha Edmonds

Written by

Samantha Edmonds writes fiction and nonfiction. Her work appears in Ninth Letter, The Rumpus, and more. Visit her online at www.samanthaedmonds.com

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Samantha Edmonds

Written by

Samantha Edmonds writes fiction and nonfiction. Her work appears in Ninth Letter, The Rumpus, and more. Visit her online at www.samanthaedmonds.com

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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