The week of February 8th, 2014

Sex and love in the age of robots

By Molly McHugh

In a world full of 3D-printed organs, Internet-connected homes, and cars that drive themselves, there’s one futuristic technological development that is sorely missing: the robot.

Sure, we have digital assistants like Siri and Google Now, but they’re anything but user-friendly. And if you want to hang out with an actual physical robot, they’re either only available at the highest level of the military or dumbed-down to the point of silliness (see: the Roomba circling your living room).

Naturally, something we’ve long wanted to task robots with is sex. From Austin Powers’ Fembots to Metropolis’s Maria, the idea of creating something out of wires and metal to become our companion continues to surface. Pop culture resurrects this idea repeatedly, sometimes portraying robots as mere sexual objects (Weird Science) but more often using them to comment on the transition of our digital devices from utilitarian to something more meaningful (Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction).

Maybe the reason why we don’t have mass-produced robots is because we’re still not certain what we’d want to do with them. Do we want a Jetsons-like maid to do our bidding? An assistant? A teacher? An assembly-line worker? Do we want robots to be our friends? Or do we want them to be friends with benefits?

Looks can be deceiving

Gone are the days of cartoonish-looking, crudely made blow-up dolls. Companies like RealDoll and Sinthetics (both links NSFW) make contemporary dolls that look—and, more importantly, feel—like shockingly accurate facsimiles of real women.

DS Doll, a popular producer of love dolls in Japan, says the process of humanizing its creations is ongoing. A representative told me that the company has developed a new blend of silicone called the Soft Touch (ST Skin), which has the same texture and feel as actual human skin. The dolls also have an Internal Metal Skeleton (IMS), which means a DS doll has the same flexibility and range of motion as a human.

Do we want robots to be our friends? Or do we want them to be friends with benefits?

But even though sex doll manufacturers are paying a great deal of attention to making their products look and feel human, the dolls are missing one thing: self-actualization. They’re missing a voice and the ability to lift a hand or to look at a partner. There’s a reason why many people view sex dolls as creepy: Even though they look human, they don’t have any human agency. That’s where the need for sex robots comes in.

The current pinnacle of sex robots is Roxxxy.

We first met Roxxxy in 2010, when creator True Companion began showing the sexbot off to the media. Since then, the lineup has grown to include a variety of options; Roxxxy can look nearly any way you want her to, with customizable hair length and texture. You can also choose her skin color, eyeliner, and pubic hair. 

There’s a male version of the bot as well, appropriately dubbed Rocky. The technology allows you to program the doll’s personality, “so she likes what you like, dislikes what you dislike, etc.,” True Companion’s website promises. “She also has moods during the day, just like real people! She can be sleepy, conversational, or she can be ‘in the mood’!”

Roxxxy comes with preprogrammed personalities, ranging from meek model “Frigid Farrah” to sexually inexperienced naïf “Young Yoko,” and “Mature Martha,” who can show you the ropes. You can customize these personalities or disregard them entirely and make one yourself. It’s almost like building your own character in a video game. Other features include the ability to swap girlfriends (or at least their personalities) with friends and forum members via the Internet.

“This is the same as wife or girlfriend swapping without any of the social issues or sexual disease related concerns!” the website declares.

As far as anatomy, Roxxxy has “a heartbeat and a circulatory system! The circulatory system helps heat the inside of her body.” A motor in her chest is constantly whirring, so that she’s warm to the touch. She can also have an orgasm, though “having an orgasm” for Roxxxy appears to be a shuddering sort of reaction the bot gives.

Reading all this, I sway wildly between amazement and confusion. It’s astounding that you can program a personality into an anatomically correct bot. But the descriptions of these personalities are horribly cliché and misogynistic, as is the language about “girlfriend swapping.” Maybe these dolls aren’t human, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be treated with respect.

Roxxxy can have an orgasm, though “having an orgasm” for Roxxxy appears to be a shuddering sort of reaction the bot gives.

In a paper titled “Gendering Humanoid Robots: Robo-sexism in Japan,” author Jennifer Robertson hits at the heart of this issue. “Whereas the relationship between human bodies and genders is a contingent one, I argue that gendered robots render that relationship a necessary one by conflating bodies and genders,” she writes. “Humanoid robots are the vanguard of posthuman sexism, and are being developed within a reactionary rhetorical climate.”

Adding artificial intelligence

Think about having sex with someone who just lies there. Not exactly scintillating, is it?

For all their advanced parts, molding, and realism, the missing element for sex robots like Roxxxy is what’s inside: There’s no programmed mind, willing itself to interact with its companion free of outside positioning and prodding.

More intelligent robots do exist in various forms. Technologists like Hanson Robotics are taking huge steps forward in creating realistic robots. Jules the robot, one of Hanson’s creations, can be seen here, saying goodbye to his maker. And then there is the variety of seemingly autonomous bots of Japan, including androids that deliver the news; Honda’s robot Asiimo accomplishes a new incredible feat every year. These enterprises, however, aren’t making sexbots—at least not yet.

“In my opinion, it’s partly because entrepreneurs have not yet caught on to the immense potential rewards that will come from the sexbot industry,” reasons David Levy, an expert in artificial intelligence and the author of Love + Sex with Robots. “As soon as someone launches a primitive sex robot that combines the technical capabilities of silicone dolls, à la RealDoll, with some vibration, some high-quality speech synthesis, and a few other technologies that already exist, then we will see the market starting to grow.”

Maybe these dolls aren’t human, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be treated with respect.

Levy believes that once sexbots are out there, the market will follow. There’ll be more people investing in research and development, and sexbots will “become better and have more features.”

When I ask Levy about the expectations for mainstream robot sex, he admits he’s surprised it’s taken so long for them to show up on the market. One estimate from Levy himself said we’d be having sex with robots by 2013, another said 2025, and now he’s pushed back to 2050.

“It is taking longer than I originally expected for the first primitive ones to come onto the market,” he says. “But surely it cannot be long before entrepreneurs begin to take serious interest. After all, those who were making bucket loads of money from adult movies have seen the bottom fall out of that market because so much sex is available free of charge on YouTube and elsewhere. 

“So these people need some other way to make their living from sex, and robots are the most obvious choice.” 

DS Doll says it’s already putting research and development into a project, though that’s as much as I could get out of the representative.

The consensus is that sexbots are coming—and soon—but we still aren’t sure how we feel about them. Are we scared? Excited? Entirely uncertain? Seeing as there are still so many unknowns here, probably all of the above.

“Human-looking robots, more than others, provide humans with a chance to project their fears and desires.”

But those issues—and larger concerns about replacing human intimacy with technology—haven’t stopped the development of teledildonics, the Internet-connected sex toys popular with long-distance couples. Once fringe products stuffed into dark corners of adult stores, teledildonics are becoming increasingly sophisticated, with social elements connecting couples and strangers alike. They’ve been found to be a wonderful tool for adults who struggle with real-life intimacy (including people with Asperger’s syndrome or similar social disorders). 

These specific benefits could easily apply to sexbots. Isolation is a serious issues for many adults, whether it’s brought on by emotional limitations or even geographic ones. It’s not a huge stretch to imagine we all know someone a little like Ryan Gosling’s character in Lars and the Real Girl.

As with teledildonics, bots are being used in a variety of ways, not just for easy sex. DS Doll says there are many different types of customers using its products; while it’s positioned for a straight male as a sex toy, fashion designs, photographers, and cosplay/manga fans are also buying the dolls. Sometimes, married couples tell the company that the dolls enhance their sex lives.

Sexbots aren’t only an aid for the lonely. There’s been a significant amount of conversation about how they could be used for prostitution and solve most of the issues that have long plagued the world’s oldest profession.

The final frontier

Perhaps some of the hesitation isn’t overly judgmental but introspective. Mark Coeckelbergh is the author of a paper titled “Humans, Animals, and Robots: A Phenomenological Approach to Human-Robot Relations.” He suggests it’s what the most advanced robots say about us that could be holding us back.

“I think any human-looking robot will always create more controversy,” he told me via email. “And sex robots will meet an extra hurdle. … The point is that human-looking robots, more than others, provide humans with a chance to project their fears and desires, for instance, the fear of being ruled by others or the desire for sex and relationships.”

Still, he can picture a future where we surmount these issues. “If (but this is a big IF) robots were to become more human-like, then it is likely to happen that some humans will have relationships with robots. Maybe some already do, at least if we define ‘relationship’ in a very broad sense.”

The consensus is that sexbots are coming—and soon.

If you get broad enough, maybe we’re already there. It’s possible that the great sexbot revolution won’t look like what we thought it would. Instead of Her-minded, moldable mannequins walking and talking and pleasuring us, maybe we need to look elsewhere. Virtual reality is ahead of the game, with Oculus Rift and other platforms combining VR porn with real-life robotics. Tenga, for instance, has one of the least sexy-looking devices in the world, but when it teams up with Oculus headgear and some steamy VR scenes, it all gets far more interesting.

Will VR porn and a robotic element ultimately pull the plug on the market for sexbots? VirtualRealPorn rep Linda Wells doesn’t think so. “We don’t think that we compete with sexbots,” she told me. “Just the opposite. We can mutually cooperate to achieve the best immersion possible.”

Still, there’s something about a real-life partner, human or not, that we keep coming back to. There’s a reason so many of us watch porn or use vibrators in addition to having significant others, and we’ll still continue to stick with the real thing when VR becomes a reality. But will sexbots be different? Will they become advanced enough that we move beyond pleasure and into partnership, like a sexual version of Robot and Frank?

Clearly, we are on the cusp of an enormous shift in robotic capabilities, as well as in sex tech. And the more comfortable we are with this change, the more likely it seems that we’ll be comfortable with sharing the most intimate of human acts with a non-human partner. Who knows? Maybe we could even find something deeper in the process. As Levy predicts: “Many people will be falling in love with [robots] and marrying them by 2050, or thereabouts.” 

DS Doll is a little more cautious, though only slightly. “It’s hard to make such a prediction right now, but one thing is for certain: When A.I. and robotic technology become more mature, it will certainly reshape the relationships between human and robot, and hence reshape our society as a whole.”

GIF via J. Longo