Why sex with robots is a complicated business

The bedroom is a new battleground for the looming struggle between robotics and humans as a sex robot industry raises important ethical, moral and behavioral dilemmas.

The rise of sex robots may cure sexual dysfunction and unlock new sexual possibilities. But there could be a dark side: an acceptance of sexual violence and even greater objectification of women as a result of robots as sexualized, subordinate, playthings.

The pursuit of connection, stimulation and pleasure in our increasingly disconnected society can be complicated. We’re in a civilization that has built the means for sexting, dating apps, online porn and sex dolls. Now, sex robots are predicted to be the future.

WikiTribune spoke to a range of experts with conflicting ideas on what this may look like. On one hand, sex robots can solve loneliness and lack of sexual intimacy in old age. On the other, they may exacerbate sexual violence and the objectification of women.

From sex dolls to robots

There are already at least seven major players in the manufacturing of sex robots: Z-onedoll, BodAISynthea AmatusDoll Sweet, TrueCompanion, and Realbotix.

Europe’s first sex doll brothel in Barcelona offered “realistic” sex dolls that it claimed would “fulfill all your fantasies without limits.” Open in early 2017, it blurred the lines between masturbation and sex work. At the time of announcement, the company that made the dolls, LumiDolls, received an avalanche of media attention, with stories everywhere from Forbes, to HuffPo, to The Sun. A brothel in Dublin was also reported by Metro.co.uk to have a sex doll available for rent.

Other companies, largely in the U.S., are attempting to morph their sex doll products into fully fledged sex robots. Currently out there are busty silicone dolls that are bendable into the user’s shape but are not animatronic. However, there are at least two companies – Synthea Amatus and Realbotix – developing AI for sex dolls. Realbotix has launched a digital companion app that offers a girlfriend in your pocket, much like Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, in the movie Her. There are some male sex dolls on the market, but to WikiTribune‘s current knowledge no signs of male sex robots yet.

Z-onedoll’s silicone robot is a hybrid of a robot and a doll, which can blink, move its eyes, and move its lips.

But in the running for the most advanced sex robot technologies is a “robotic head system” from California company Realbotix.

A robotic head in the RealBotix lab. Photo by: RealBotix. Used with permission from the Realbotix team.

The head moves and talks and can be combined with existing sex doll bodies for a more “lifelike” experience. The company is headed by the creator of RealDoll, Matt McMullen, who is also developing a life-size animated robotic body (link requires log-in). McMullen’s Abyss Creations sells around 400 of its realistic silicone sex dolls each year, and has done for 20 years, the company told WikiTribune in an email.

Developing a robot body that has sexual functionality and core body strength requires advanced technology, and according to a report on the BBC Future site there are not yet any sex robots that can stand up.

RealBotix users want humanoid robots that have “sexual functionality in bed” and can “walk in heels” and hug, according to a thread on Club RealDoll (link requires log-in), the company’s online forum. McMullen notified his followers on the thread that his team was developing a “working sensory system for the body [that] will be available much sooner than anticipated.”

The animated robotic head is currently available for pre-order, RealBotix’s Guile Lindroth told WikiTribune in an email. Several versions of the head, which is attachable by magnets to the company’s sex doll bodies, will set a buyer back $15,000 (£11,700) (The Guardian) when it goes on sale. “There may be more than one version with the more expensive ones having touch sensors, facial and object recognition and other features,” Lindroth said.

Can you call it a relationship?

“The success of dolls for sexual gratification has set a clear path for the role of robotics in the future of sex,” said Our Sexual Future With Robots, a report by the Foundation for Responsible Robotics (FRR), a think tank on ethical robotics, published in July 2017.

But human and robot relationships will not be real, but fictive, roboticist and co-founder of the FRR, Noel Sharkey, told WikiTribune.

“You can’t really call it a relationship if it’s one sided, so it’s a fantasy relationship.” Sharkey defines this as anthropomorphism, “a kind of a suspension of disbeliefs like you talk about with literature or a science fiction movie.”

Sharkey said that “most experts” think sexual intimacy with robots will lead to greater social isolation; “real” sexual relationships could become overwhelming compared to the ease of a relationship with a robot.

But robots can help those who are already socially isolated, like elderly and lesser-abled people. Sex dolls and robots can also help treat sexual trauma or act as a form of therapy for people suffering from erectile dysfunction or sex-related social anxiety, Sharkey explained. But he was unsure how big the sex robot market would become.

“It could be a small fetish niche market for lonely people, or it could be a very large market,” the roboticist said.

“Our bottom line is that we are going to have fully functioning affordable sex robots on the market soon and we should be prepared.”

A poster of robots
Scientists and sexologists predict a future where bedfellows are replaced with robots. Photo by: Michael Coghlan via Flickr used under Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 2.0

Can you call it love?

Many mainstream media headlines, such as one from the tabloid Express that cites “sex robot takeover,” would have it that robots are set to take over society, in our offices and bedrooms.

But the mainstream media has completely overreacted about the take-over of sex robots, Devlin said. “Yes [sex robots have been hyperbolized by the press]. Complete overreaction,” she told WikiTribune. “But everyone loves a story about sex, robots, and a threat to human existence … Clickbait!”

Sex robot manufacturer McMullen doesn’t think robots can and will totally replace human connections. “No matter how advanced we’re able to make both the robot and AI itself, you can never replace a real, human connection,” he said in a podcast on the future of sex.

But he believes they will become more normalized in the future.

“It’s inevitable that sex dolls and sex robots will be no longer looked at as different,” McMullen remarked in an interview. “We just have to come to terms with each other and say, ‘Okay that’s for you and this is for me.’”

“If the doll makes you happy, that’s all there is.”

A Real Doll sex doll. Before founding Realbotix, Matt McMullen founded and created the Real Doll company. Photo by: Real Doll. Used with permission from the Real Doll team.
A Real Doll sex doll. Before founding Realbotix, Matt McMullen founded and created the Real Doll company. Photo by: Real Doll. Used with permission from the Real Doll team.

But men are more likely to take the plunge with sex-bots. Men were “consistently” at least twice more likely than females to want intimacy with robots, according to an FRR poll of men and women in the UK, U.S., the Netherlands and Germany. Why this is, the FRR didn’t determine. So the likelihood of a sex robot “takeover” is slim.

Women could be less interested in sex with robots because of the heteronormativity of the doll and robot industry, said Devlin. She said that the sex robotics industry hasn’t caught up with advances made by sex toys, apps and digital sexual content.

“What we’re seeing with sex robots is simply an evolution of sex dolls,” Devlin told WikiTribune. “From a design and innovation point of view, that’s pretty rubbish.” She said the technology is there to play with and there is no need for robots to look human, but the sex robots that are being produced are ultra-real and humanoid. She sees the future of sex robots being best if they looked more like robots, perhaps without skin color or fake hair.

“The vast majority of current sex ‘robots’ are made by men, for men. But if we imagine sex robots as embodied, interactive sex toys, maybe we can change the market?”

Emily Witt, the author of Future Sex, told WikiTribune she wouldn’t want “a giant doll in my house.” Witt does imagine a world where sex robots are used for masturbation, but not love. “Could you manufacture the person that you fall in love with?” she asks. She said she doesn’t think she could have “thought up” her boyfriend.

RealDoll on Twitter

You’d be amazed how having a hunk like combined with our robotics and artificial intelligence might change your life.

Violence against robots

The last few months have been a watershed moment for violence against women, as accusations of sexual misconduct, harassment and rape across multiple industries dominated headlines. Some critics of sex robotics argue that the same notions of power and vulnerability between the perpetrator and victim of sexual abuse could intensify if it becomes normal for people to use lifelike objects as sexual playthings.

One such skeptic is ethicist Dr Kathleen Richardson, founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots, who believes sex robots will cultivate gender inequality and encourage men to think of women as objects. She is one of many campaigners who want robots for sex banned (The Guardian).

The Campaign Against Sex Robots states: “We believe in the benefits of robots and technologies to our society and human cultures, but want to ensure that robotics develops ethically and that we do not reproduce inequalities with their development that could further reinforce disturbing human lived experiences.”

In a research paper on the parallels between prostitution and sex robots, Richardson argued against AI expert David Levy’s views in his book Sex, Love and Robots. She refuted Levy’s argument that the future of human-robot relations will be based on exchanges that take place in the sex work industry. “Levy shows that the sellers of sex are seen by the buyers of sex as things and not recognized as human subjects,” Richardson wrote. But this is neither ethical or safe, she said.

The FRR’s Sharkey said that there was no question that “creating a pornographic representation of women’s bodies in a moving sex machine, would objectify and commodify women’s bodies.”

The fear of a future where women are increasingly objectified as a result of robots is understandable, given sex doll company TrueCompanion’s sex robots. Names for TrueCompanion’s dolls range from ‘Young Yoko’, who is “barely 18,” to ‘Frigid Farrah,’ a play on a pop-culture trope of women uninterested in sex.

Sharkey told WikiTribune that many people, including therapists, have said violence against sex robots, “will change the level of acceptance and maybe change our norms and actually make people want the violence more.” Acting it out might encourage violent people further, he added. “I think it’s a very dangerous route to go down altogether and I’m not sure what can be done about it.” But sex robot machinery “cannot grant consent or be raped any more than a soap dish can be raped,” Sharkey’s report quipped.

Levy predicted in his book that humans would have sex with, fall in love with and marry robots by 2050, and that if “natural human desire can be satisfied for everyone who is capable of loving, surely the world would be a much happier place.”

Perhaps the truth is that we can only contemplate, not be certain about, our future with sex robots. That in itself is stimulating.

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