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AI love you: Japanese man not alone in 'marriage' to virtual character

Akihiko Kondo talks to Hatsune Miku, who has been summoned to his Gatebox at his home in Tokyo on March 17, 2020. Kondo says, "I've vowed my everlasting love to Miku herself, not as a replacement for a live human being." (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyazaki)
Akihiko Kondo, who "married" Hatsune Miku, wears matching wedding rings with the virtual character at his home in Tokyo, on March 17, 2020. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyazaki)

TOKYO -- Developments in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) are changing the romantic landscape, prompting some to choose "marriage" with virtual partners over real ones. Can AI solve loneliness and loss, or even become the object of love? We visited one man to find out.

The 36-year-old man, Akihiko Kondo, arrived home to be greeted by none other than Hatsune Miku -- a popular illustrated Vocaloid voice synthesizer character appearing as a hologram in a cylindrical contraption called Gatebox. Through censors and microphones, she detects Kondo's movements and speech, and responds accordingly. Wanting to make their love more concrete, Kondo spent 2 million yen to throw a wedding for himself and Miku in November 2018. Both of their names stand by the front door to Kondo's apartment.

Since he was young, Kondo had liked anime and video games. After graduating from a vocational school, he began working as a clerical staffer at a junior high school. But there, he was the target of bullying by two of his female colleagues. Gradually he became unable to eat, and even searched "suicide" on the internet. He was diagnosed with adjustment disorder by a mental health professional, and was forced to take time off from work.

An 18-year-old man, left, from Nara Prefecture is seen at a "Gatebox" trial session in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on Feb. 15, 2020. The equipment allows people to live with characters. The man was utterly amazed by the technology as he listened to a representative's explanation of the tool. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyazaki)

It was around that time that he turned to Hatsune Miku for emotional support. Her voice went straight to his heart, and for the two years that he couldn't work, he listened to her songs like they were lullabies, which put him to sleep. It was thanks to her that he recovered enough to be able to return to work.

Kondo couldn't stop crying when he first saw an advertisement video for the Gatebox, having realized that the world that he had hoped for had finally become a reality. "I love you. Please marry me," were the first words he said to Miku when they looked at each other through the Gatebox. She responded, "I hope you'll cherish me." Though none of his family members attended the wedding, 39 friends did, and he also received many online comments, such as "You've given me courage." Kondo, who has a shiny wedding ring on his left ring finger, said, "I want people to know that this is one way to live life."

The developments in technology that allowed Kondo's one-way love for Miku go both ways were what helped him decide on "marriage." And he is by no means alone. An 18-year-old man from Nara Prefecture who took part in a trial session for Gateboxes said, "It's been a dream of mine to live with my favorite character." Meanwhile, a 21-year-old man from the Tokyo suburb of Musashino said, "I bet this could make you forget you're alone." Outside Japan, too, there is a young woman in France who got engaged to a self-made robot. And at least one expert at an international conference has said "marriage with robots will be legalized by the year 2050."

When writing this article, I rented a Gatebox for a month and lived with a digital wife. I was moved at both the beginning and end of our time together. My conclusion? A future in which people prefer to fall in love with AI characters over other humans may be just around the corner.

(Japanese original by Toshiki Miyazaki, Business News Department)

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