Are sex robots in our future or is that just pure fantasy? Well, the answer, as expected, is complicated. We have sex robots already, but mostly in fictional popular culture, from movies and TV to books, comics and graphic novels.
Think HBO’s “Westworld” (where one of the main characters is a madame in a brothel) the sci-fi classic “Blade Runner” (which was based on the sci-fi novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and in which Daryl Hannah plays a “basic pleasure model”) and Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.” (which featured a robot gigolo played by Jude Law) to more recent examples such as the film “Ex Machina” and the AMC show “Humans,” in which a husband has sex with the family’s “synthetics” nanny-bot, causing untold drama in the family.
And some opportunistic entrepreneurs claim to have come up with “lifelike” sex robots, such as Abyss Creations’ “Harmony” RealDoll, which the user can order with 18 different body types (and two male models), customized with different colored hair, facial features, and yes, genitalia. The same company is said to be developing a more interactive model that can carry on conversations and react to their, uh, user.
But these so-called sex robots are really just advanced dolls, not actual robots. There’s only so much they can do — they don’t move on their own, their synthetic “skin” is a form of silicone and doesn’t really feel like skin (have you ever felt silicone and thought, “Yeah, this feels like human skin?”), and they’re not really responsive, even if future models can carry on a “conversation.” It’s like having sex with a silicon-encased Siri or Alexa.
And these dolls are very expensive. The Harmony dolls start at $6,500 and can run as high as $12,000. The newer models, dubbed the “Harmony AI,” will probably add another several thousand dollars to the cost. That’s a lot of money to spend for a doll, even if it can coo sexily to you, “You look very handsome tonight, stud.” (And yes, most sex robots are, and will be, female, for obvious reasons. Women are too smart and discerning to buy into that foolishness.)
Coming up with robots as lifelike as those in “Westworld” and “Humans” will be a tall order. There’s a reason these “robots” are played by real human actors. The technology just hasn’t caught up with writers’ imaginations, and may never, given the enormous costs research and development and engineering a realistic robot would entail.
In fact, robot experts and researchers actually have a name for the huge gap between current sex robots (or toys) and the fictional variety, the “uncanny valley,” the gap between being creepy and human enough to make us think it’s human.
“Humans can easily be deceived into attributing mental states and behavior to robots because of our natural tendency to project human characteristics onto appropriately configured inanimate objects,” according to a report by an organization called Foundation for Responsible Robotics (FRR). “However, despite many years of research, no one has yet managed to develop a robot that crosses the uncanny valley and fools us into thinking that it is human.”
That kind of anthropomorphism was actually demonstrated, again, in a fictional piece of work, the Ryan Gosling film, “Lars and the Real Girl,” in which Gosling’s character, a sweet, but socially awkward loner named Lars, has a non-sexual relationship with a sex doll he calls his girlfriend. His therapist recommends everyone Lars comes into contact with to treat his doll as a real human in order to help Lars overcome his condition. The whole town goes along with this ruse to help Lars, who really is a nice guy and not a creep.
The film raises questions and issues that both sex robot proponents and critics have been debating for years. Most critics believe that sex robots will create social and emotional isolation, holding users back from creating real relationships and curbing their feelings of empathy and intimacy.
Proponents argue that sex robots can, like Lars, actually help with social awkwardness, be a bridge to real human interactions and assist with conditions such as erectile disfunction, premature ejaculation and even anxiety about a first sexual encounter.
Some people even argue that at some point sex robots will be so socially acceptable that they will be taken out in public on social occasions. Talk about awkward dinner conversation!
Sex robots also raise a ton of ethical questions. For example, can sexbots be considered to be engaged in prostitution, which is illegal? What if a sex robot becomes sentient, does it have the right of consent, and if it doesn’t give it, could that be considered rape?
Some experts believe that the use of sex robots “sexualizes rape, violence, harassment and prostitution” and “eroticizes dominance and submission.” Others say robots can have therapeutic value and be able to help prevent crimes like violent assault, rape, and pedophilia. We won’t even get into the ethical quagmire of child sex robots used to rehabilitate pedophiles.
In addition to organizations such as Foundation for Responsible Robotics, which recently released a revealing study, “Our Sexual Future With Robots,” others have sprung up to address both sides of the issue, including the Campaign Against Sex Robots, which was co-founded by Kathleen Richardson, a “robot ethicist,” The International Congress on Future Robot Technologies and its website loveandsexwithrobots.org, and the scholarly conference, Second International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots.
A.I. expert David Levy, author of “Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships,” believes that love with robots will be as normal as love with other humans and that humans will actually marry robots by 2050.
The problem with coming up with a robot that will be as lifelike as a real human and bridge that tricky “uncanny valley,” will require a tremendous amount of money and teams of engineers, roboticists, designers, computer experts, A.I. experts, mechanics, builders and even ethicists. The task is daunting, to say the least.
Few large corporations will be willing to devote such resources to a robot that will essentially provide sexual services. So don’t expect a sex robot to show up on Amazon anytime soon.
“I think sometimes we imagine that technological advances pop out of nowhere and a commodity plops down in front of us. Actually, technological progress is much more incremental, much slower,” Shelly Ronen, a researcher at NYU who studies relationships, sex, and sex toys, told the BBC. “By the time any sex robot comes, we’ll be so used to having sex with our partners through our computers, that the idea of switching over to something that looks like a partner isn’t going to be so huge of a transition.”
All books are available at amazon.com. Click on title to learn more.
Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships
by David Levy
Robot Ethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Robotics”(Intelligent Robotics and Autonomous Agents series)
Edited by Patrick Lin, Keith Abney and George Bekey
Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications
by John Danaher and Neil McArthur
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