On a gloomy afternoon in December 2016 I first encountered techies who couldn’t wait to welcome our new sex-bot overlords. I’d read a newspaper snippet saying Goldsmiths University were holding the second International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots and hastily applied for a press pass. Days later I was sitting in a lecture hall listening to 71-year-old David Levy extoll the predicted benefits of an android partner: “Your robot will be protective, loving, trusting, truthful, persevering, respectful, uncomplaining, complimentary, pleasant to talk to and sharing your sense of your humour.”
Levy, an entrepreneur and international master of chess, was the keynote speaker and has long predicted that by 2050 humans will be entering into legally binding marriages with robots. He’s said more recently that within the next century humans will be able to have babies with their electrically engineered spouses, given the “recent progress in stem cell research and artificial chromosomes”.
A surprising number of people aren’t troubled by bionic babies. They’re already signing up for android action, or its nearest equivalent. The New York Times recently reported the advent of Digisexuals, or those amongst us who reject human contact in favour of close emotional, or sexual, relationships with electronic devices and mechanisms enhanced by artificial intelligence. Exemplars of the trend include the Chinese AI engineer Zheng Jiajia who designed and married his own robot wife Yingying and the Japanese school administrator Akihiko Kondo who wed the pop sensation and hologram Hatsune Miku last November (neither wedding was legally binding).
Developments in virtual reality and digitally-enabled sex – using apps to control artificial phalluses and vulvas – are making it less and less necessary for reclusive tech lovers to seek human intimacy at all. And films such as Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, in which Alicia Vikander plays a robot who can pass the Turing Test, seem ever more prophetic. Most of us have little idea when we message a large corporate website’s “help” facility whether the person answering us is real or a bot.
Before I attended the Goldsmith’s conference my own views on AI eroticism hadn’t progressed far beyond Woody Allen’s Orgasmatron. I was unaware that several sex-doll companies, such as US-based Abyss Creations, were already producing products widely billed as sex robots – in reality dolls with soft silicone “skin” and animatronic AI-enabled robotic heads– and that some were already in use in brothels. I hadn’t realised the sex tech market was estimated at $30 billion a year, meaning a lucrative race was on to produce devices to replicate the soft squishy sensuality of human intimacy (thus reducing the need for actual human intimacy). One young female computer scientist I met at the conference had created the “Kissinger”, a device to simulate lip-on-lip pressure via a mobile phone app.
Most of my fellow Goldsmiths’ delegates didn’t just see these advances as inevitable; they felt they were desirable. The most vociferous proponents of humanoid robots tended to be men and it became clear a little geek stereotyping wasn’t entirely unwarranted. The male coders, academics and futurists I talked to were linear thinkers, at ease with coding and algorithms but less in tune, I felt, with the emotional vagaries of your average human female.
Two of the event’s leading lights regaled me separately with tales of their god-awful divorces and ex-wives, before telling me with painful sincerity they’d plump for an android spouse any day. A German academic, Jessica Szczuka said her academic research (involving 263 straight males) found that two thirds of respondents could imagine using a sex robot. It was hard not to think back to Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, in which a bunch of irksome, feminist wives are replaced with fawning, docile lookalikes who don’t seem quite human.
In fairness, it’s not just men who are drawn to sex tech. The Love and Sex with Robots conference was hosted by the archaeologist-turned-computer scientist Kate Devlin, who’s subsequently published Turned On, a history of the sex robot, which also keeps an eye on the science horizon. Devlin takes pains to point out that women in the field of AI aren’t swept up by the fem-bot type androids of popular science fiction. She questions why erotic tech has to come in human form at all and suggests we think more laterally.
In her book, she proposes a sensual duvet with receptors and transmitters that would be like wrapping yourself up in a pleasure-inducing cocoon. Devlin’s also a fierce advocate of the potential benefits of AI-enhanced erotic mechanisms in terms of catering for the elderly, the physically impaired and the chronically lonely. Like many women in the field she strives to promote the therapeutic side of sex tech. Szcruka similarly pointed out that the likely users of sex robots will be people who suffer from acute social anxiety, saying: “Someone with a fear of rejection could control the robot because the robot would never reject them.”
In wider, global terms you can see there’s an argument that this technology could help societies where there’s a perilous imbalance in the sexes, whether that’s remote mining communities or whole countries. China’s one-child policy and the Indian sub-continent’s extreme poverty, aggravated by both nation’s traditional favouring of male children, has led to mass abortion and murder of female infants. This necessarily means some young men will find it hard to secure a sexual partner, leading to either unwanted celibacy, or a culture that fosters rape and assault. Perhaps even the furious Incels (involuntary celibates – of whom the California school shooter 22-year-old Elliot Roger is the most infamous) would find their pent-up, misogynistic rage was soothed by a robot lover programmed for sexual healing.
The counter-argument is that such theories are delusional: that if a man becomes used to unquestioned compliance from a “female” robot then he will expect the same level of submission from a human woman. Or that angry, frustrated males will abuse non-sentient sex robots, making them more likely to behave violently to real flesh and blood women. In 2017, it was widely reported that an “intelligent” sex doll named Samantha, who responded to seductive chatter, was “molested” at Arts Electronica Festival in Austria. Her Spanish engineer, Sergi Santos, said festival attendees had treated Samantha “like barbarians”.
Kate Devlin closely examines the ethical arguments against sex robots in Turned On – even looking head-on at the disturbing question of what happens if androids are constructed to resemble children. Once again, the central issue raised is whether such innovation is likely to help prevent actual abuse of minors, or actively encourage it. There’s almost no reliable evidence on the matter and the same is true of the debate around whether sex tech makes women more or less vulnerable to sexual assault. Devlin outlines the central problem:
“The ‘gateway’ versus ‘reduction’ theories remain ambiguous and they bear investigation, though such investigation is by necessity constrained by ethical boundaries… What ethics committee would sign off a study like that? What funding body would pay for it?”
And even if you settle these kinds of ethical issues, there are the everyday ones that complicate all technological innovation. Who is ultimately in charge of the software? Can it be hacked? Will large corporations hijack the programming to spy on our sexual habits? Will Big Government monitor it to see if we’re deviants?
If you feel this talk of androids is just an absurd sci-fi scenario, it’s worth noting the idea of creating a replica human for sexual pleasure has a history as long as storytelling. Devlin’s book highlights the Greek myth about a young woman called Laodamia, whose husband Protesilaus was the first to die at the siege of Troy. Distraught with grief, Laodamia commissioned a bronze statue of her dead spouse and took it to her bed.
Then there’s the 19th-century ballet Coppélia, where a young man falls for a doll made by a malign inventor. But truth is always weirder than fiction and few stories are more haunting than the tale of the artist Oskar Kokoschka’s affair with Alma Mahler (widow of the great composer). Mahler ended the intense romance after a couple of years, but Kokoschka couldn’t come to terms with the parting. In 1918, he visited the Munich doll-maker Hermine Moos and commissioned a life-size soft effigy of Mahler, stipulating every last detail of design: “And take to heart the contours of the body, e.g. the line of the neck to the back, the curve of the belly. Please permit my sense of touch to take pleasure in those places where layers of fat or muscle suddenly give way to a sinewy covering of skin… The point of all this for me is an experience which I must be able to embrace.” Kokoschka posed the mannequin around his home and on one infamous occasion took her to the opera. But the doll proved deeply unsatisfactory and eventually, following a party, he destroyed her.
It’s easy to feel complacent; to believe this kind of obsessive behaviour that could never overtake you or me. Until you consider the average person’s emotional attachment to their smart phones, tablets and laptops. It may be too strong to say we’re in love with our electronic devices, but we display troubling signs of addiction and dependency that aren’t far removed from it. It’s fair to say I freak out more when I mislay my mobile than when I lose one of my sons. I think of my computer’s hard drive as an extension of my own memory. I see friends talk to Siri as if she’s alive and I found the film Her, where Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with a sultry-voiced operating system, only too plausible.
On dating sites and chat rooms identity is blurred to the point you can feel passionate desire for someone who doesn’t exist except as a projection of a stranger’s fantasies. Teledildonics (app-controlled sex-toys that can be operated remotely) mean you can have a love affair where your lover never touches you because his skill won’t match up to your smart toy. Recent sex surveys have yielded the surprising result that millennials are losing their virginity later than comparable young from the 1960s to 1980s and were generally having less sex. One hypothesis was the pressure that comes from widely available porn and the pressure to perform.
I want to be relaxed about all this. I know our forebears were deeply disturbed by the spinning Jenny, the iron horse and the contraceptive pillandthat somehow humans adapt apace and survive the relentless tide of innovation. I find Kate Devlin’s enthusiasm admirable and I’d certainly test-drive her orgasmic duvet if it came to production – although nightly use might prove a bit over-stimulating. Nevertheless, something troubles me in the whole debate. We may not yet have reliable evidence to quote about the effects of intimate human interaction with machines, but most parents I know feel they observe significant changes in their children when they spend too much time on their devices.
Gaming and social media have inbuilt features devised to create an addictive response (such as Facebook’s infamous “like” button) and bond users ever closer to their favourite ways of wasting time. With advances in virtual reality you can only envisage the dependency becoming more pronounced – and the grumpiness, anxiety and anger when asked to return to real life becoming more accentuated. And if this is true of non-sex-tech how will it not be truer of the tech designed to push our sexual buttons? Especially for those who are most vulnerable: socially inept and reclusive young men. It’s not hard to envisage a scenario in which thousands of people retreat to an online erotic life with less chance of encountering a messy, complex, self-contradictory, enticing, evolving human being.
I’ve spent 23 years researching and writing about sex and relationships and have become increasingly astonished by human capacity for erotic intimacy – and also by how frightened we can be by the levels of trust and vulnerability involved in such closeness. Some of the hardest sexual practices are paradoxically the simplest, because they involve sustained eye contact, tender exploration and gentle, slow touch. They necessitate trust of an order that doesn’t entail you thinking: “Hmm, has someone hacked into your central controls.”
I’ll probably sound wildly kooky if I talk about “energetic connection” but when you’re profoundly, erotically in tune with another personthere is a flow between bodies that seems to transcend the purely physical. The irony is that we call it “electrifying” in homage to the spark that gives life to machines. Science can surely explain that amoroussensation via dopamine, oxytocin and a crucible of other feel-good chemicals, but it’s still a peculiarly human, interactive sensation.
More than that, let us consider the slippery, contradictory nature of desire. Do we ever want what we think we want? Aren’t our deepest yearnings to some extent occluded? Societal norms, parental guidance and peer pressure steer us for so long that it can take decades to know your own sexual taste. And then there’s the fact that when you get what you want it often leaves you unsatisfied. A friend filled in an online dating form saying she wanted a tall, dark, handsome London-based professional and promptly fell in love with a short, sandy, eccentric farmer from Wales.
Can we write algorithms for androids that delight and frustrate us in equal measure, that keep pace with our unconscious desires, that change our perceptions of our needs and deepest longings? Can a robot ever resonate with that iridescent glow of heart and soul that comes from melding with your best beloved to the point you don’t know where your own body starts and his ends? Could you feel the fine hairs on your neck rise as your android lover turned to look at you across a crowded room, although your back was turned to theirs? I know many thousands would sign up for a Rampant Rabbit that had a robotic Idris Elba attached to it. And far more for a compliant sex-bot that looked and talked like Scarlett Johansson. But I’ll always yearn for that small epiphany Nora Ephron outlined in Sleepless in Seattle:
“Well, it was a million tiny little things that, when you added them all up… I knew it the very first time I touched her. … I was just taking her hand to help her out of a car, and I knew. It was like… magic.”