The future of sex is designed, digitised, fetishised and controversial — and might not fit in your bedside table drawer.
The future, and the technology that goes with it, has always been readily embraced by the arts. Creators of literature and film, as well as sculptors and painters have long had a relationship with the future and what it may bring. Sex robots are no exception.
The arrival of a robot-led future is something that is on more minds than one might think. In 2014 the University of Middlesex conducted a poll to get an idea of where Britons stood in the wake of technological innovation, and, among a whole host of very interesting results, found that 17% of those surveyed would have sex with an android. Another study conducted by Tufts University found a strong gender disparity in attitudes towards using sex robots; two thirds of men were in favour, whereas two thirds of women were against it. The market is undeniably there, and it is beginning to grow.
One only needs to look at a myriad of science fiction movies to see the influence that the concept of sex robots has had on writers and directors, and how these have manifested into society as a whole. Becoming involved with sex robots, whether physically or emotionally, is an idea that has been mined many times. The movies Metropolis (1927), Blade Runner (1982), Cherry 2000 (1987), and Ex Machina (2015) all explore the idea to varying levels of perceived hotness, and they are certainly not the only films to do so. But of course when it comes to sex robots, it is not all about the sex. Rather they are often seen as the utmost triumph of a human being’s artistic innovation and creativity.
Not to everyone of course. Most of society tends to lag a bit behind those pesky creative types. If one were to follow most media themes about sex robots one would think there would only be two schools of thought around them. There is the first school of thought, which is loosely defined as people who think that having sex with a robot is very bad, and only incredibly awful people would think of such a thing. Then there is the other school of thought that mostly consists of males who get super excited about having a robot that looks like a woman kicking around their pad that they can have sex with whenever they want.
But there is more to the puzzle. What is a sex robot really, if not the perfect artistic creation? Art is thought of by many as works that are produced to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. Which is exactly what a sex robot done right would be.
It is not just the appearance of the creation that makes it so sexy, nor is it what it is programmed to do. Of course there is a certain erotic appeal to them, there has to be. It isn’t like a sex robot could look like an old sock, or a kitchen table (unless that’s your thing, of course). It has to look like the object of your desire, and the intriguing thing is that with enough time, in the future whatever your object of desire is could be made just for you.
You want something faster, more flexible, fatter, skinnier, and you want it to look just so. But what will make you believe in your own personal sex robot so much that you not only get aroused by them, but that you want them in a way that you can’t quite explain? What do they have that will make them your fetish, your desire and not just something you use here and there and wonder why the hell you spent nine grand on it in the first place?
A sex robot is built for your pleasure. Why else would one make a sex robot? But without the art of the robot, the design, the story it tells to you, would you care enough about it to keep coming back again and again? What of its color, its variation, its design? When you think of the toys you might have in your top drawer, how many just serve their sexual purpose and how many were bought for reasons that you can’t explain?
Yet, even to those of us who champion free expression, whether it be sexually or artistically, there is something disturbing about sex robots. They are meant as a sexual surrogate for a human being, or more specifically a woman. While there are a smattering of male sex robots made, almost all of them are purchased by gay men. Can something be art if it has something arguably so ugly at its core?
Whatever one might think about sex robots, they are coming. Whether we like it or not, people are going to be having sex with artificially intelligent robots in the very near future, and very likely falling in love with them. But will they love us back?
Patrick Quinlan, author of the novel Sexbot, told me this: “Unless there's some gigantic and sudden breakthrough, I think it will be quite some time before we have the technology to program machines that actually feel pleasure like we experience it. Machines, even the most advanced artificial intelligences, are still pretty mindless. But falling in love with robots or sex toys? I think that's pretty close. If you go on internet bulletin boards where people are talking about modern sex dolls like RealDoll and others, there are men who describe how the dolls are better than real women.”
'Better than real women,' of course, is precisely where a significant portion of the opposition to sex robots lies. A woman is a person, of course. She is not just an object, she is your lover, your friend, the person that laughs at your awful jokes, and listens to the inconsequential stories that you tell about your day. The implication of being able to turn the object of one’s sexual desire into a literal object is obvious and terrifying, and one that is fast becoming apparent.
But Quinlain insists. “Somehow there are men that find this preferable to real women. They say things like, “No more head games. No more cold shoulder. No more lies. No more manipulation. No more having to buy stuff just to get sex. I love my RealDoll.” This is what some men are already experiencing. Now imagine increasingly advanced sex robots. They seem alive. They are alert. They move, they speak. They look at you. They are incredibly sensual. And they are essentially slaves. All they do is what you tell them to do. All they say is how wonderful you are. People will fall in love with these things very quickly.”
So where are we currently when it comes to the development of sex robots? For the purposes of this piece, a sex robot is a humanoid that is built for pleasure, and not any mechanical device that is used to get off.
Other than Real Doll the other big dog in the business is True Companion, a company that has been designing Roxxxy, which it says is the world's first sex robot. She goes for around AUS$10,000, but can be much more expensive for custom designs, just in case you want to make one that looks and acts like your boss, your ex, or something of that nature. According to their website Roxxxy "knows your likes and dislikes, carries on a discussion and expresses her love to you and (can) be your loving friend. She can talk to you, listen to you and feel your touch. She can even have an orgasm."
When it comes right down to it though, what we are really talking about now are sex dolls that can move around a bit, have functioning orifices, and not much more. The current technological progression in this field is just the tip of the iceberg. At some point we will not be dealing with sex dolls sitting in a chair, ready to be used at our disposal. We will have robots that are specifically designed to suit our every desire of size, race, age, gender — a walking, talking, thinking, feeling (maybe), artificial representation of our sexuality. We will have robots that look exactly like women, or men, or even children that will do anything that we say.
And that brings up some rather disturbing ethical questions. If the robot doesn't feel pleasure then what does that say about us, creating something purely for our own pleasure? Worse, what are the ramifications for society when the term “objectifying” really starts to mean something different? Are sex robots something that not only women, but society in general should fear?
I asked Dr Kathleen Richardson, who represents what is possibly the coolest named organisation in the world, The Campaign Against Sex Robots, what she thought. She said “Sex dolls and robots come primarily in the form of women — because in our society, women are sexually exploited in prostitution, pornography and the child abuse culture. The actual object is not experiencing any pain, we don’t have to worry about dolls or robots. But these robots are a proxy for a woman and child. So in the mind of the male acting out fantasies, it is a woman.”
So what does this mean to women in our society? Richardson argues that the the future of sex robots could have far reaching implications, ones that go far beyond the artistic and pleasurable qualities that one might ascribe to them. “This is why there is so much violence in the sex trade,” she says. “It is integral to it because people, actually living human beings, with sensuous bodies are treated like things/commodities. The male dominated industries of the sex trade produce a version of [women] that does not exist. It is founded on a delusion. Women are not born to gratify men, nor is female sexuality about pleasing males. I would even go so far as to say male sexuality is not what is the sex trade either. This kind of presentation of women is cutting off men from actual feelings and empathy. The consequences for us all is terrifying.”
He told me that he thinks “all kinds of things can be art if we decide they are. The one I designed was art of course, because it didn't consider seriously any mechanical system on it. It was designed to be visually interesting, with a minimum of credibility, a bit of humour and some aberrations, like the small basic console displayed inside the head and the wash signs on the leg”.
Currently, the Soubrobotte is comfortably labeled as art, and is certainly generating the conversation that art aims for. However, while he waves away credibility, Vonc has created an anatomically correct replication of a female human and as such, well, an anatomy lesson. This brings yet another layer to the debate, for if what we create is such a perfect replication of the human body, then one could argue that the element of artistic licence is removed, and instead we are creating a replacement.
So what will your sex robot be? Will it be your beautiful piece of art that exists for you and only you, will it be a tool that you use to oppress women across the land, or is it simply something you will use to get off? One thing for sure is that sooner or later we will all find out.
Edited by Sara Nyhuis