Illustration: Fuchsia Macaree (click for larger version)
Futurology isn’t a term we use every day. As an intellectual pursuit, it seems to amount to nothing more than systematic educated guessing about what science, technology, culture, economics, or whatever is going to look like decades down the line. In fact, one of my only experiences with futurism was an art competition I entered when I was 7. Tasked with drawing the far-off world in which the Luas was up and running, I was awarded a sweet baseball cap with a cheerful cartoon tram on the front for my efforts.
Recently some serious futurologists, more serious than my 7-year-old self, caused a bit of a stir in the journal Futures at the start of this year. Ian Yeoman and Michelle Mars open their article Robots, men and sex tourism with the question “would you pay to have sex with a robot?” The premise of their article is that, by 2050, Amsterdam’s sex trade will be entirely staffed by robot prostitutes – without the danger of infection, the problem of human trafficking, or the social stigma that currently attaches to availing of the services of a lady of the night. This isn’t going to turn into a review of their work, but I will take issue with one part of their argument before we move on. Yeoman and Mars imagine a market in which people are happy paying “€10,000 for an all-inclusive service” – it’s hard to imagine every dope on a stag weekend spending several grand on some robo-passion and not looking for a cheaper alternative in the form of some trafficked real person. Even with Amsterdam’s current legalisation of prostitution there’s a rampant, underground, black market in cheaper, unregistered, untested and (even more) mistreated prostitutes. So it’s not clear why replacing the high-class prostitutes with expensive androids wouldn’t breed the same market for budget alternatives, continuing the present problems.
Yeoman and Mars see the advent of widespread human-robot sex as imminent, and they’re not alone. David Levy’s book Love and Sex with Robots sees the inexorable march of progress leading us to “artificial-emotion technologies” and “cyberskin” so advanced that robotic partners could soon be preferable to their human counterparts. Any trepidation or feelings of ickiness are temporary, and tied to the same cultural inertia that made things as socially acceptable as masturbation or oral sex once taboo, Levy assures us. Even 1998′s episode of Sex and the City dealing with Charlotte’s introduction to a vibrator portrayed itself as racy at the time – how far we’ve come!
Sex toys are becoming more and more sophisticated. We can chart their advancement from prehistoric dildos – a 30,000-year-old siltstone wang was unearthed in Germany a few years ago – to all manner of wiggling, jiggling, skin-mimicking, self-lubricating oddities available today. One imagines that the market has only exploded with the ease of ordering online doing away with the potential embarrassment of entering sex shops. A big push seems to have been made in the last decade to make sex shops more socially palatable, too. Ann Summers, tame as it may be in comparison to some of its competitors, would once have been unthinkable to have on O’Connell Street.
What level of technical sophistication can we reach and still be happy classing them as toys, and not something stranger? Present-day artificial intelligence may seem clunky, but its main commercial use is for sexy chat, with premium adult text services not connecting you with “sxc gurlz in ur area” but to a somewhat rudimentary AI system. It’s probably not the sort of test that Alan Turing had in mind when he imagined a computer-brain indistinguishable from a real person, but in the provision of smutty messages AI might just be convincing enough to pass for the real deal. The more advanced AI becomes, the closer we come to the possibility of people forming relationships with these programs, moving us out of the territory of toys and into something else entirely.
Would these AI systems, especially if housed in life-like androids, pose a threat to human-human relationships? Although usually unproblematic, even masturbation, pornography and “conventional” sex toys can be a source of strife if they encroach too much on everyday life or are perceived as replacing intimacy with a significant other. With a robot, the sole purpose of which is to be as human as possible, the danger of obsession and envy is surely heightened. These robots would be designed to be perfect, too, both in appearance and behaviour. It’s difficult imagine people not minding their partners having sex with a Stepford wife-type cyborg or a robo-hunk with unimaginable stamina.
For now, anyway, the robot-sex options available are fairly limited. One attempt is the Real Touch, a disconcertingly motorised tube to put a penis into. A self-lubricating and self-heating device with whirring and rolling belts, this might seem like just a vibrator for boys. Real Touch’s innovation is that it syncs its various pleasure-giving methods with specially coded pornography, so that what happens inside it simulates what’s happening on screen. As far as having sex with a robot goes, it’s not quite in Blade Runner territory, as Real Touch is basically a disembodied, mechanical multi-orifice. I suppose it does look a bit like EVE from Wall-E, so if that’s the type of robot you’re into then it could be a great choice.
Blow-up sex dolls have long been a staple of joke shops, and it’s hard to imagine people approaching them with sincere lust, but what do you expect for a few quid? Those serious about a synthetic companion are paying upwards of €5,000 for a Real Doll, a silicone sex-doll that is built to your specifications – modelled on a range on pornstars, copying a photograph you supply, or even with elf ears and Avatar-like blue skin. But maybe you’re not happy with a passive, if eerily life-like, lump of silicone – maybe you want to get this mannequin on the move.
True Companion claim to have produced “the world’s first sex robots”, Roxxxy. Unlike the Real Doll, Roxxxy moves, senses touch, talks, and listens. Hooked up to a computer, she is controlled by an AI that answers back, talks about your favourite sport, and has six pre-programmed personalities. Her Wild Wendy personality is up for anything, Young Yoko is inexperienced – apparently barely 18 – and Frigid Farrah needs to be seduced. You can even create your own personalities for Roxxxy and “wife-swap” them online with other users. Creator Douglas Hines said he came up with the idea after one of his friends died in the September 11th attacks: “I promised myself I would create a program to store his personality, and that became the foundation for Roxxxy True Companion.” It might seem like an ambitious task, but Hines is aiming for full relationship simulation, not just robotic rumpy-pumpy, but the few “tech demo” videos that exist don’t fill the viewer with confidence for these androids’ ability to be anything other than terrifying or sad.
Roxxxy is a far cry from Yeoman and Mars’s envisioned future of sex-robots so advanced that they are “the gateway to the kind of mind-blowing sex few people currently experience”. Maybe with android lovers identical to humans, their use will become mainstream, and so too will discussions surrounding the morality of their use. But, for the moment, the customers for the closest approximations of sex robots seem to be less high-flying playboys and more lonely nerds.
So, would you pay to have sex with a robot? Probably not any time soon, as most people aren’t going to be thrilled about essentially shagging a shop dummy with a few weird and expensive features. However, the sex-toy industry is obviously one that thrives on technical innovation and there are enough pioneers exploring the human-machine frontier that someone’s got to strike gold sooner or later. It might be a while before you can get that Raunchy R2-D2 or Sultry Cylon that you’ve always wanted, but you can rest easy knowing that someone, somewhere is tirelessly making progress in their direction.
In the mean time, there are still plenty of technologically advanced toys – mostly for her but also, increasingly, for him – that can give people their futuristic fix. There just don’t seem to be any at the level that would make one feel the need to say dōmo arigatō to Mr Roboto afterwards.