Joe Madden investigates the seriously troubling long-term ramifications of sex robots
In September, North America’s first sex-robot brothel was set to open in Toronto. Aura Dolls offers a choice of six synthetic women, with prices from $90 (£70) for 30 minutes. There’s Anna, a busty Japanese 22-year-old whose profile describes her as “romantic and spontaneous”. There’s Irish-Canadian Harper, who loves “deep, sensual conversations”. Or perhaps sir would prefer Jazmine, the [cough] “exotic-faced angel” from Colombia.
After much media attention, the brothel had its lease cancelled over licensing concerns, but its website is still accepting bookings, “location given upon confirmation”. Have hygiene-related concerns? Aura Dolls assures customers that an “extensive” three-stage cleaning process is deployed on their silicone sex-workers post-coitus, although they still “highly recommend” using a condom.
Even if you can get past all the ick and awk, however, you’re still likely to find that Aura Dolls’ sex robots demand a suspension of disbelief that you’re simply unable to muster. They may have AI-powered pillow talk and heated skin, but as they can’t move independently, they’re a somewhat poor – some might say depressing – replacement for human sexual contact.
And if you want to be pedantic about it – and we do – then these ‘sex robots’ are not, in fact, robots at all. According to the International Organisation for Standardisation, a ‘robot’ must have moving parts and sensors that analyse the world around it, allowing it to perform tasks autonomously. A robot vacuum, for example, is an actual robot. What’s being sold as a sex robot in 2018 is not.
“What people call ‘sex robots’ now are just glorified sex dolls,” says Vic Grout, professor of computing futures at Wrexham Glyndŵr University. But not for long. Sex robots lifelike enough to have mass-market appeal will be with us soon, says Grout.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw something fairly convincing inside 10 years,” he says. “Of course, that depends on how willing you are to be convinced – but in matters of sex simulation, perfection is often not an absolute requirement: a contraption called the Autoblow – essentially a can with a vacuum inside – reached its Indiegogo funding target without a hitch.
“The current AIs aren’t bad and the voices are getting there. It’s autonomous movement that’s the tricky bit,” says Grout. “But the sheer amount of money pouring into this field means we’re years, rather than decades, away.” Not counting pornography, the global sex-tech industry is on track to generate £22bn annually by 2020.
“In terms of the technology required, sex robots are inevitable. Very little now stands in the way of them happening.”
Synthetic sex partners have been around since at least the 17th century, when Dutch sailors reportedly fashioned dolls – from cloth, leather and old clothes – to ‘keep them company’ during the long, lonely nights at sea. The first commercially available sex dolls went into production in the Sixties: inflatable and unconvincing, they were soon reduced to eking out livings as lowbrow stag-do props. Still, they represent the first stage of sex-robot evolution.
In the early Seventies, sci-fi cinema began nudging the idea of sex robots – invariably designed for hetero men – into our collective consciousness. Westworld (1973) got in there first with its Wild West brothel staffed by comely gynoids. Next came: the subservient robo-spouses of 1975’s The Stepford Wives; “basic pleasure model” Pris in Blade Runner (1982); Gigolo Joe and Gigolo Jane in AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001); semen-fuelled Tilda Swinton replicants in Teknolust (2002) and, most recently, the haunted, captive droids of Ex Machina (2014).
These movies depicted human/robot sexual relations as creepy at best, morally indefensible at worst. The TV series Black Mirror, Humans and HBO’s Westworld revamp (above) all took a similarly pessimistic view. But while we seem to regard sex robots as a can of worms best left unopened, entrepreneurs, engineers and AI experts are racing to make them a reality. (For the cis-hetero-male market, at least – everyone else will seemingly have to wait.)
“Humanity has a long history of being concerned about the technology we’re bringing into the world, but doing nothing to stop it,” says Grout. “It doesn’t get in the way of technological development – and even when it does, legislation tends to be five, 10 years behind. Technology allows us to do things we’d never even considered possible before, so law is always playing catch-up.
“Putting a nice spin on it, it’s because we have an innate urge to push the limits of possibility. Being cynical, it’s because somebody somewhere stands to make loads of money.”
Profiled everywhere from the BBC to The New York Times, US company Realbotix is currently winning the global sex-robot race – on the surface, at least. An offshoot of sex-doll company RealDoll, Realbotix makes animatronic female heads that come to life via a responsive-AI app called Harmony. Choose a body, attach the talking head, and voilà: one chatty, paralysed-from-the-neck-down lover.
There is also the option of forgoing the head and body, and downloading the standalone Harmony app on a pay-monthly subscription. This disembodied-hottie option could be the shape of things to come, for people who either can’t afford or can’t get onboard with a physical sex robot. “I think voice-only interfaces will prove very popular,” says Dr Kate Devlin, computer scientist, King’s College lecturer and author of Turned On: Science, Sex And Robots. “The ability to form an intimate bond with a voice interface – to have an AI girlfriend or boyfriend – will be big.”
This is the realisation of the AI/human relationship depicted in Spike Jonze’s 2013 sci-fi romance Her, in which lonely divorcé Joaquin Phoenix falls for an operating system (Scarlett Johansson) and experiences verbal sexual intimacy with it/her. A proper voice-only ‘girlfriend experience’ is still a way off, however. Consider how frustratingly opaque Siri and Alexa can be – and they’re powered by the world’s first and second trillion-dollar companies.
“People have conversations all the time where they don’t know they’re speaking to an AI,” says Devlin. “But that’s in specific circumstances, following scripts. We’re still some way from having freeform conversations.”
Again, it’s all about how willing you are to be convinced. With a little effort it’s possible to forge a connection with a robot, even given the limitations of AI in 2018.
Created by Japan’s SoftBank Robotics, ‘companion robot’ Pepper can read emotions by analysing facial expressions and tone of voice, and will memorise different users’ personalities. Standing 4ft tall and costing around £17,500, Peppers are deployed in settings from banks to hospitals. At a care home in Southend-on-Sea, Pepper chats away and plays cards with the residents, who’ve come to treat it as another member of staff. In fact, Pepper is “absolutely adored”, according to Phil Webster, the council’s equipment manager.
Companion robots will likely become increasingly common as loneliness deepens its grip on society. A government report revealed that around 9 million Britons now “always or often” feel lonely, and in January 2018 the UK’s first minister for loneliness was announced. It doesn’t take Elon Musk to imagine that robots may end up providing companionship of both the emotional and physical kind.
Right now, however, you are legally prohibited from buying a Pepper in order to make it your emotionally literate live-in lover. Pepper’s terms and conditions firmly state that it must not be used for “sexual or indecent behaviour”. Although, honestly, are you going to let that stop you? The heart wants what it wants.
AI is still in its infancy, but once robots approach sentience, squirmy issues surrounding consent arise. The word ‘robot’ has its linguistic roots in slavery – it is derived from the Czech word robotnik, meaning ‘forced worker’ – but if a robot has an inner life, does its manmade body become its own property?
“It’s an area that’s already being discussed,” says Grout. “At what point do you start giving robots rights? When they achieve sentience? How will you know when they’ve done that? If I create an AI that’s programmed to convince you that you’re talking to something sentient, what’s the difference from something that actually is sentient?”
Both Grout and Devlin agree that the enslavement of sex robots isn’t worth fretting over too much. “We’re so far away from sentient machines that we may never have them,” says Devlin. “We don’t even have artificial general intelligence yet.”
Besides, creating truly sentient AIs would trigger what’s known as the technological singularity, whereby robots become so sophisticated that they’re able to develop superior new iterations of themselves. And at that point you’ll be worrying less about whether or not it’s OK to bonk robots, and more about hiding to avoid being dragged off to a human-internment camp.
AI aside, for sex robots to attain mass appeal they’ll first need to traverse the ‘uncanny valley’, a phrase coined in 1970 by robotics professor Masahiro Morito to describe robots that are almost indistinguishable from the real thing. With their not-quite-right appearances, the first generations of sex robots are likely to make most people’s skin crawl.
Predictably, some people are actually into the uncanny valley thing. Named after the now-defunct Usenet newsgroup alt.sex.fetish.robots, ASFR enthusiasts don’t want perfect reproductions of humans – they want to be able to see the joins and hear the whirrs. Expect them to be the beta-testers of those early generations.
Once robots attain passable human-ness, customisation will become a key selling point. “All that’s needed is ‘smart skin’ covering that can change its appearance and internal electronics to adjust the shape,” says Grout. “Celebs might sell their statistics, knowing what they’ll be used for. More sinister, you could capture [and reproduce] the image of someone you pass in the street. That is becoming easier to do.”
Think of the recent wave of deep fakes, where celebrities such as Daisy Ridley and Ariana Grande had their digital images mapped on to porn performers, to disturbingly convincing effect. “The arrival of any of these technologies isn’t unlikely,” says Grout. “The necessary research and development is underway.”
What could go wrong? “It’d be easy for a user to configure a robot to look like a child. And we might not simply be talking about a generic child – it could be a particular child. Someone could use smart glasses to digitally capture a young girl, then use that data to configure their sex robot.
“The danger is not that you’re harming the child; the danger is what you’re doing to yourself, and what it might later drive you to do. But how do you legislate against what’s behind closed doors?”
Also worrying is that the current surge of interest in sex robots is dovetailing with the rise of openly misogynist movements such as incels, Red Pillers and MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way). Many of these chronically hateful men believe that women – the supposed source of their misery – have little value beyond being walking, talking sex toys. Some are grimly eager for the coming sex-robot revolution so that they can forego womankind entirely while still using their bodies – or facsimiles of them, anyway – to sate their sexual desires.
In a 2017 interview with the website MEL, Realbotix’s Matt McMullen admitted that women-haters are a key market: “For a guy who’s already foreseeing a messy divorce and thinking, ‘I don’t want to spend my money on that’, [a sex robot] makes perfect sense.” Once you’re capable of dehumanising women to that degree, you’re on a very dark path indeed.
“We need to discuss these things now, educate people and get frameworks in place in order to minimise the kickback as best we can,” says Grout. “If we adopt a ‘wait and see’ mentality, we will get ourselves into a serious mess.”
Alternatively, we bin off humanoid sex robots altogether and focus on inventing more abstract ways of getting our rocks off via technology.
“I’m a big advocate of moving away from humanoid sex robots,” says Devlin. “We keep attempting to create artificial human partners, and it’s really hard and we’re bad at it. They’re invariably women of a reductive type, perpetuating objectification and body-image issues. I think we can do better.”
Devlin recalls some of the ideas that have emerged during sex-tech hackathons she’s organised. “Soft robotic tentacles that curl around your body; a sensory hammock that hugs you; vibrators that use music as input. Wearable tech, immersive tech, voice companions – there are so many more interesting things we could do than sex robots.”
She’s right. The ways in which science could be harnessed to alter or improve the human experience are innumerable. But as long as the people at the helm of the world’s robotics labs – and their customers – continue to be predominantly male and persistently horny, you can be certain of one thing: the sex robots are coming.