July 16, 2020

Most visions of the future fall into one of two tropes. It’s either perfect, because technology has solved everything, or it’s a hellish dystopia in which selfish, greedy, short-sighted humans have ruined everything. Neither of which I find either appealing or plausible.

Take food, for example. When we made a FutureProofing episode on the future of food, I drew the line at eating insects. Not because I’m squeamish: I eat pretty much anything except beetroot. My repugnance was not for the crunchy or squishy experience of invertebrate dining. It was the gleeful Schadenfreude of the “In future humans will all have to eat bugs because there will be too many of us and we won’t be able to eat meat or fish any more” brigade that made me sick.

Also, I simply didn’t believe it. We have defied repeated Malthusian warnings of human population outstripping the earth’s capacity to feed us, and are now feeding more people than ever, on less of the planet’s surface than before. Why are bug farms more likely than other improvements to the kind of agriculture that produces food people enjoy? Norman Borlaug didn’t try to persuade the population of India to switch to bugs, he engineered different forms of wheat.

But what about the meatless meat, the lab-grown animal cells, the Petri-Dish of The Day? Is that a dystopian punishment or a brilliant techno-solution that will put a steak on every plate with minimal impact on animals or planet?

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Jenny Kleeman’s book, Sex Robots & Vegan Meat, makes a refreshing change from the utopia/dystopia dyad. Steak-loving Kleeman is serially disappointed in her quest to taste the lab-grown meat of the future. Sometimes it’s a tiny snippet of ‘disgusting’ mush, sometimes it doesn’t exist at all except in the minds of potential investors. She brings her journalistic scepticism to San Francisco’s hipster Mission District, but she is sympathetic to the political or moral mission of veganism that underlies the vision of a world without factory farming.

I warmed to Mike, the scientist  and New York Communist, reluctantly relocated to the Bay Area, the vegan who doesn’t want to be associated with Vegans. He calls them “the most self-absorbed group of people… incredibly white… incredibly wealthy, incredibly privileged,” but he hopes “to make everybody vegan without changing their habits.”

Mike wants to replace the food we’re used to with something that looks, smells and tastes just as good, but comes from a lab, not the farm or the ocean. And, while lab-grown protein is some way off the industrial-scale production of appetising food, there’s nothing in principle to say we won’t get there.

So is Kleeman happy? Is she looking forward to technology squaring the circle — or the burger?

No. She thinks “the problem isn’t really animal agriculture, it’s human appetites”. And this is a recurring theme of the book: a deep ambivalence about technology rooted in ambivalence about human beings. Is the problem that technology promises to meet humans needs and desires, but doesn’t deliver — or is the problem that technology might, in fact, fulfil our desires?

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Kleeman’s book begins with sex robots, the pouty, silicon face of the hi-tech future, in a factory where the CEO gives his own face to male sex dolls, and his nephew enthusiastically demonstrates the superhuman flexibility of the RealDolls’ pelvic joints. But the ambitions of Abyss Creations go beyond “high-end masturbation” to a sex doll with integrated AI. Harmony is an artificial companion who will recognise your face, remember your sexual preferences, tell jokes and quote Shakespeare, be gloomy if you’re nasty to her, and simulate orgasm.

Kleeman raises many issues with sex robots, from the reinforcement of impossible, pornographic expectations of female anatomy to the data privacy implications of remotely-controlled sex tech. “Butt plugs gone rogue” is a phrase I will never forget. But a sex robot designed to give you the illusion of autonomy, of choosing to be with you and respond to your desires, opens a door to much bigger issues.

The market for sex robots is primarily male, and it’s about more than sexual curiosity, or frustration. It’s often driven by loneliness, and the perception that a relationship with a real human being is either unattainable, or too messy and complicated, or too risky emotionally. “It’s never just been about sex,” says DaveCat, an Abyss customer, of his sex doll companions: “70% of the relationship that I have with all the synthetic women in my life is about being able to come home to a non-empty home, to be able to share my life… It’s always been about companionship for me.”

I am reminded of my surreal encounter, at a robotics conference in Moscow, with the Russian roboticist who proudly announced that his robots were completely lifelike, with face, arms, legs and ‘wedding vegetables’ (the translators’ words, not his). He asserted that women would obviously prefer a robot husband to a real man who wanted to drink beer and watch football.

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I am baffled and dismayed by the idea that an object, however cleverly engineered, could replace a relationship with another human being. Yes, even one who wants to drink beer and watch football. We might want to drink beer and watch football together. Or I might be able to tolerate somebody who is not merely a mirror to myself, who has their own life, their own thoughts and desires and insecurities.

Of course, other humans have as many flaws as I do myself. That’s one of the ways we learn about ourselves, and change for the better, to see ourselves reflected in another’s eyes and feelings, to feel empathy and realise we need to extend the same compassion to others that we want from them.

And of course we risk emotional pain whenever we open up to another person emotionally. That is, in fact, my main objection to sex robots, not that they are too dangerous, but that they’re not dangerous enough.

We learn to live with people by living with people. A simulacrum of a relationship with a companion who is “just there for your pleasure”, is nothing like a relationship with a person who exists in their own right, as an end in themselves, not as a means to your getting your end away.

*

The other two elements of the human condition that Kleeman explores are birth and death, our entry into this world, and our departure. How much do we want technology to insulate us from biology, from the uncaring laws of Nature?

Birth has already been changed. The introduction of IVF separated conception from sex, and genetic motherhood from carrying a foetus to birth as a baby. There is one stronghold of biology that resists replacement by machines, the womb in which a woman’s body gestates every human that has ever lived. But for how long?

The Biobag is one of several attempts to replace the uterus as a place of sustenance and protection for gestating lambs, now, and one day, human babies. Ectogenesis, as portrayed in Brave New World, is the separation of human reproduction from the female body.

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The hope it offers for very premature babies is one of the most emotional points in the book. And it’s already a lightning rod for some very strange reactions: from the angry men who see it as a chance to render women obsolete, or from the bioethicist Anna Smajdor who argues that ectogenesis is a moral imperative to achieve full sexual equality, but then opines “that to create another human being is the height of hubris”.

To do what all our forebears have done, deliberately or accidentally, fulfilling social expectation or consciously putting a stake in the future, is now “the height of hubris”. I’m not sure whether it’s the arrogance of imposing another person on the long-suffering planet, or of assuming that the hoped-for child will want to exist, that so offends Smajdor’s 21st-century sensibilities. Non-consensual conception may soon be added to a list of new crimes committed by parents against their offspring.

*

The fourth, and most disturbing, section of the book is about the desire to control death. Not by chasing immortality, but by planning and executing your own exit from the world, with some hi- or low-tech kit to remove another person from the consequences of killing you.

Kleeman meets people eager to use technology to this end, who are mostly, but not exclusively, suffering from degenerative or terminal conditions. Some regard it as an insurance policy that “takes away the fear of the future”. Others want to die because they are consuming resources, saying “I’ve come to my natural end of life, and I don’t want to be a burden on the planet.”

She is clearly saddened by many of the individual stories she hears, and troubled by the gap between shiny technology and its purpose. Kleeman doesn’t think we need a death machine and argues for a culture that accepts illness and death as part of life, for better palliative care, for support, dignity and reassurance, not death.

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But she also wants to legalise assisted dying. She never seeks out, or offers, a challenge to the desirability of hastening towards death. In earlier parts of the book, she finds critical voices, and does not flinch from the deeper social, philosophical and moral dimensions of birth, sex and even food. The anti-euthanasia group Care Not Killing, and Not Dead Yet, “a British alliance of disabled people opposed to the right to die”, get a single sentence between them.

After her eloquent defence of the human aspects of intimacy, of bearing children, of compassion for animals as we feed ourselves, I had hoped for a defence of human life as something with intrinsic value, right to the final breath.

Kleeman is right that technology is too often portrayed as a clean, simple solution to messy problems. Sex robots will not fix the atomisation of society, the growing avoidance of emotional pain, or the disruption of traditional gender roles that has left men, especially, feeling redundant, resentful and that whatever they do is wrong.

But a future that harnesses technology to meet human needs and, yes, desires, isn’t a dystopia. We already use contraception to sever the natural link between heterosexual sex and procreation. Without that, straight women would be forced to choose between active sex lives and careers. We use medicine and sanitation to prevent nature killing us in droves from infancy onwards. We use science and engineering to produce more food from less land, with side benefits for the natural environment.

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Who's afraid of the big, bad robots?

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And yet, somehow Kleeman blames these applications of technology for the problems in her book. Industrial agriculture for making meat unsustainable, medicines for making disease and death more terrifying and pregnancy more medicalised, and the contraceptive pill for female independence that has left men lonely and frustrated.

Kleeman’s epilogue is not fatalistic. “We can use the time we still have, before these inventions go on the market, to examine why we think we need them in the first place. Then we can make the changes and sacrifices necessary to solve fundamental human problems, instead of turning to technology to paper over them.” But there’s the ambivalence again. “We will have to make sacrifices… we can’t have everything we want without any consequences, no matter what scientists and entrepreneurs may say.”

Is this a recognition of the imperfection of the world, and the hard choices humans always face? Or is it a masochistic version of the same schadenfreude that wants us all to eat insects because we deserve to be punished?

In Kleeman’s analysis, humans are the problem, with our appetites, our selfishness, and our unwillingness to be content with things as they are. She’s right, of course, that technology can’t resolve social, emotional or moral problems. But technology is merely a tool, designed and used by humans.

It doesn’t have to dehumanise and isolate us. It can connect us, free us from the constant life-or-death struggle with nature, and bring the benefits of civilisation within the reach of everyone. It can widen our horizons and the aspiration to keep pushing those horizons ever wider is a very human trait, and one worth celebrating.

Join the discussion


  • July 20, 2020
    You might want to consider the methodological problems inherent in all research which depends on surveys, in which people tend to respond in ways that validate their choices. In other words, females who find themselves at 40 without a husband or kids are self-selected, therefore not a repr3sentative... Read more

  • July 19, 2020
    “ it is women in their late 30's and beyond who are discovering that without the ability to use sex to force men into marriage, a growing number of them end up unmarried, without a husband or children, facing a future with their cat, freezing their eggs in the hope that Mr. Right is just around... Read more

  • July 18, 2020
    It is true we can feed 10-12 billion people by developing a global food system that utilities precision farming techniques, gmo crops, synthetic fertilisers and lab food along with halving food waste. And even more so if humanity went vegan. (see figure 6... Read more

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