The Rise of Sex Robots: Till malfunction do us part

A sex robot is an adult-sized, robotically-charged sex doll with anatomical parts that owners can use for their own sexual stimulation. They come in many sizes, ethnicities and styles – whatever takes the buyer’s fancy – and can be fitted with artificial intelligence to perform human-like interactions. Companies such as Shenzhen All Intelligent Technology and Realbotix are just a few of the manufacturers creating sex robots with advanced artificial intelligence and more realistic bodies, with features including body heating, self-lubrication, flexibility and even the ability to converse with their owners.

Using inanimate objects to satisfy our sexual cravings is no novel concept. Humanity has had a long history of intimate relations with them. Ovid tells the myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who was so enamoured with his statue of a beautiful woman named Galatea, that the Gods gave her life. As for a direct ancestor to the sex doll, look no further than the seventeenth-century Dames De Voyage: sex dolls made crudely from cloth or old clothes that were used by French and Spanish sailors on long naval voyages to curb their loneliness and sexual frustration.

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels
Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

Technological advances, however, mean that we no longer have to violate unwilling statues. Realbotix, for example, have created a highly customisable sex robot: you can alter her clothes, voice, face, body type and, more startlingly, her personality. Not only does Harmony have a life-like body for the user’s sexual pleasure, it can also cope with sophisticated social interactions, achieved by its artificially intelligent robotic head. You can even decide on your robot’s personality traits, which in turn affect how she responds to you. Harmony can have intelligent conversations and remember facts from previous exchanges, thus preventing interactions from being repetitive but becoming much more realistic.

However, such developments are not viewed favourably by everyone,. Both experts and members of the public fear the psychological and social damage that these silicone playmates could inflict. Kathleen Richardson, Professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI at De Montfort University founded The Campaign Against Sex Robots. This non-profit movement opposes the normalisation of sex robots, which they believe promote gender inequalities. In an interview with Conatus News, Richardson emphasised how sex robots contribute to the viewing of women as property, arguing that ‘sex dolls and mechanical dolls in the form of women and girls play on the idea that women are orifices to be penetrated.’

Yet there may be some benefits to sex robots. Humans crave intimacy as it leads to increased health and happiness. Insufficient intimacy can lead to unhappiness and depression. It is no wonder, then, that people use alternative means to satisfy their loneliness and lust. Sex robots can be seen as advanced sex toys, another tool to satisfy our romantic cravings. Although nothing can replace the authentic touch of a human being, this has not prevented us from choosing artificial companions to fill the void of loneliness. From virtual boyfriend/girlfriend games to sex toys and pornography, we have always looked for alternatives to the real thing.

The Rise of Sex Robots

With television shows like Westworld and Humans, and movies such as Blade Runner and Ex Machina, there is no denying fiction’s impact on the public’s perception of robot-human relationships. The award-winning television series Westworld tells the story of a futuristic theme park built like the Wild West, with robots playing the parts of cowboys, Indians, innocent bystanders and beautiful prostitutes who you can fight, befriend, rape and murder to your heart’s content. The female robots are almost godlike in appearance, with flawless skin and statuesque bodies, but they also look like real people, so you could not tell them apart from an actual person. Male park guests could use them in any way they desired – however horrifically that may be. The show’s plot follows human William falling in love with robot Delores, knowing full well he was besotted with artificial intelligence.

Blade Runner 2049 also explores robot-human relations. Protagonist Ryan Gosling’s K has a romantic relationship with a holographic, artificially-intelligent robot named Joi, who is sold to consumers as a romantic partner that you can customise to your preference. At one point, she is eager to have a physical relationship with K and convinces a prostitute to have sex with K while synched up to Joi’s hologram, thus creating the illusion that K is sleeping with Joi.

These fictional human-robot romances are not portrayed as ideal, however. In Westworld William becomes separated from Dolores and fights his way back to her, but when they are reunited he devastatingly discovers her flirting with another male guest, just as she is programmed to. Meanwhile, Blade Runner 2049’s K could only have intercourse with his holographic girlfriend Joi using a human substitute. On her own, Joi is unable to fulfil K’s every need.

These works of fiction illustrate the dystopian future psychologists and academics warn us about: a world in which people refuse to embrace the effort, unexpectedness and satisfaction of human relationships and instead substitute them for seemingly perfect partnerships with robots. A sex robot is used by its owner for sexual satisfaction and does not require any courtship by the owner beforehand, leading experts to warn that humans will develop a lack of empathy by not engaging in mutual relationships. Much like Westworld, we could end up living in a society where humans abuse robots for pleasure and eventually act in the same way towards real people.

The Rise of Sex Robots

It will nevertheless take decades – if not more – for robots and artificial intelligence to look and function like the stunning beauties of Westworld. As impressive as Realbotix’s Harmony is, her facial expressions and body movements are still stiff.

The depiction of artificially intelligent robots in films and on TV may explain the fear held by a substantial part of the general public that AI could potentially escape human control. An antidote to this concern is careful supervision – much like a child who is taught to develop free-thought, yet is still discouraged from rebelling against its parents. Similar to how parents discipline and monitor their children, AI developers have their own control measures. Some methods are inspired by behavioural psychology, including reinforcement learning in which AI is rewarded for completing certain tasks. If a human stops the machine from carrying out a task, then the AI will find an alternative route to complete the action, as opposed to rebelling against its obstacle. Another method is inserting ‘forgetting’ mechanisms which essentially delete parts of AI memories, thus allowing humans to interfere with the AI learning sequence to maintain control while still allowing the learning process to continue.

Although we may be alarmed by sex robots, are we not already intimate with machines? From obsessively checking our phones, to cultivating the perfect image on social media, technology constantly satisfies our cravings for validation, entertainment and companionship. The next step is inevitably artificial intelligence, and having already plugged itself into household devices like Amazon’s Alexa to Tesla vehicles, the sex industry can hardly be expected to ignore this innovation.

Sex robots continue to divide opinion. Many academics, psychologists and members of the public are opposed to them. Will sex robots promote the decline of intimate human relationships, in which the touch of silicone replaces the touch of flesh? Or is the rise of sex robots simply the next inevitable step for a society already attached to technology? No matter how sleek and operationally fluid sex robots become, what long-term pleasure can they bring us? When it comes to bearing children or growing old with someone, can a machine truly substitute this human experience? AI in the sex robot industry could be revolutionary, but we should be weary of using them to replace intimate human relationships.