Relax. The world is not going to end with a bang. Well, not one involving a sex robot.
For the past four years, I’ve been keeping a careful eye on the sex robot market, researching the technical, ethical and legal landscape these artificial lovers inhabit. The concept is catnip to tabloid journalists seeking salacious and ultimately scary visions of sex robots that could herald the end of sex and replace and/or steal your women. The reality is more staid and nuanced.
Arguments against sexual companion robots hinge on the worry that sex robot-human relationships will be detrimental to society, damaging human-human relationships. There is also concern they will reinforce or reproduce existing inequalities, especially given their incredibly gendered appearance. Will our sex robots spill our data and our secrets to the world? And what happens, people ask, if child sex robots are manufactured?
These are all valid points and there are no easy answers. While we should be conscious of the potential pitfalls of sex technology, we also need to avoid moralistic knee-jerk responses. Stigmatisation and taboo around sex and sexual practices has caused untold misery for many people down the centuries.
There’s no evidence to suggest that human-human relationships will be damaged. Indeed, it may be a chance for people to experience feelings of love that they are otherwise denied, for any number of reasons. Whether or not that love is considered valid by society is a different matter. And while objectification is definitely an issue, it may be an avoidable one. Security and privacy breaches are a worry in any smart technologies, which puts a whole new spin on safe sex.
As for child sex robots – an abhorrent image – people have already been convicted for importing child-like sex dolls. But we shouldn’t shy from considering whether research might deem them useful in a clinical setting, such as testing rehabilitation success, as has been trialled with virtual reality.
While non-sexual care robots are already in use, 1 it was only three months ago, that the race to produce the first commercially-available model was won by an lifeless sex doll with an animatronic head and an integrated AI chatbot called Harmony.2 She might look the part but she doesn’t move from the neck down. We are still a long way from Westworld.
Naturally, a niche market will be delighted at the prospect of bespoke robot pleasure to come. But many others are worried about the impact these machines will have on our own, human relationships. These concerns aren’t dispelled by the fact that the current form of the sex robot is a reductive, cartoonish stereotype of a woman: all big hair and bigger breasts.
Why, though, does a sex robot need to be an exaggerated version of the human bodies we are so familiar with? The technology is giving us the scope to bring intimacy into the lives of people who may lack it, or to enhance existing relationships, and I don’t believe that our sex robots have to take humanoid form. In fact, I think it’s much better if they don’t.
In 2016 and 2017, I ran sex tech hackathons at Goldsmiths, University of London, where over 50 people from all walks of life formed teams to prototype new forms of technology for intimacy. The ideas that the teams came up with were far more interesting and abstract than a life-size doll.
Instead, they envisaged blankets with sensors to stimulate you, and inflatable tubes to hug, pulse and hold you; tentacle-like soft robotics that could curl around the body, and vibrators powered by mid—air hand gestures. The emphasis shifted from sexual activity to sensuality. The technology they envisaged wasn’t just to replace human lovers but to bring people closer together.
The people who currently buy sex dolls – the people who are most likely going to buy sex robots – often cite companionship as their reason for doing so. Matt McMullen from Abyss Creations, describes his customers as “a group of really nice people who just happen, by choice or not by choice, to have difficulty in forming relationships”. It’s the AI that will make the big difference in his dolls, adding the longed-for animism. Harmony’s AI is designed to exist outside of the body too, as an app on your phone or tablet: the perfect pocket girlfriend.
So sex robots don’t need to look like us, nor do they necessarily need to be designed to have sex. The rise of voice assistants like Siri and Alexa has brought basic forms of AI into our homes like never before. And you won’t be surprised to know that lots of people try to talk dirty to their artificial helpers. Some are just testing the boundaries, but others are secretly hoping for a hot reply. Perhaps they took Joaquin Phoenix falling in love with an operating system in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film /Her/, a little too seriously.
That instinct to see more personality — and even sexuality — in our robot partners is pretty understandable. We humans are social creatures with an in-built tendency to anthropomorphise, projecting our own traits onto the plastic lump or genderless helper bot working with us, presuming a personality even if one hasn’t been programmed into it. We will map our expectations onto the technology, just as we see elaborate personalities in our pets.
There’s a safety in the artificial lover: a programmable partner who is always there for you and who will never let you down. The path of human love never did run smooth but the programme of a sex robot can run entirely to your liking. It’s a difficult tension – the appeal of artificial adoration but the natural human fear of technological change.
If we are happy using machines to offer companionship to older people and to improve care in hospitals, then it seems contradictory to not allow it in to our own bedrooms. There are already some incredibly inventive designs on the market taking their cue from the health industry which are indicating where technology can go in the future — machines that can learn what we want and respond accordingly; robots that don’t look like us but know what we like. That’s why the notion of humanoid sex robots replacing sex workers or destroying marriages is far fetched – not least because it’s so difficult to make a robot look, sound and act convincingly human.
It’s all too easy when talking about sex and technology to become entirely obsessed with the pure mechanics of the process. But there’s more to it than that. This technology can reduce distance between lovers and enhance what our bodies and even our brains can do in intimate encounters. Rather than thinking of machines as other, we should be considering how best to integrate them into our lives: enhancements, not replacements.
Most people aren’t that shocked by someone owning a vibrator anymore. Introducing greater levels of technology into our sex lives will be the same. As long as we’re careful to consider the ethical development of these innovations, we have nothing to lose except our inhibitions.