It’s an open secret that the world we live in today is largely shaped by pornography. It popularised print and literature and later drove the adoption of video cameras, VCR players, cassettes, and CD players. The need to peddle and consume smut in better ways moved the internet from the military and scientific fringes to the hands of the common man. When you purchase something off Flipkart or stream a video on Netflix today, you are relishing the fruits of pornography’s unrelenting experimentation — online payment and streaming videos.
As they say, as goes the porn industry so goes the world. Well, no one says that but the evidence is clear.
Today, porn is driving the adoption of virtual reality (VR) (Useful info: Pornhub now has more than 2,600 VR videos generating nearly half-a-million views every day). Increasingly, people want to print out new sex toys using a 3D printer at home using designs from sites like Makerlove.
One emerging fascination, however, may prove to be the most impactful and disquieting experiment yet — sex robots.
The pioneering pleasure bots
Times are good if you are in the sex tech business.The $30 billion industry (by some accounts) is coming out of the shadows and is slowly shaking off its sleazy overtones. Pleasure is being millennial-branded as “individual empowerment”. Sex tech companies are making bolder, bigger investments.
And the boldest and biggest of it is in sex robots.
Harmony is pretty and just about life-like… The $15,000 high-end version, which will be available at the end of this year from Realbotix, will have computer vision, show facial expressions and talk to its owner, all powered by AI
Harmony is pretty and just about life-like. She can move her neck, smile, frown, blink and move her lips, but her limbs won’t move. Her skin feels soft and firm like yours, but there’s no warm blood coursing through her veins. Most importantly, she will be fully customisable, with 14 different styles of labia and 42 different nipple options to choose from.
It is perhaps humanity’s first serious attempt to create a robot fine-tuned for sex.
The $15,000 high-end version, which will be available at the end of this year from Realbotix, a project of Abyss Creations (makers of the RealDoll franchise), will have computer vision, show facial expressions and talk to its owner, all powered by artificial intelligence (AI). There’s even a Harmony AI app (already available) that is voice-controlled and learns “useful facts” about you that can be used to make conversations more authentic.
Abyss Creations isn’t the first. Roxxy from True Companion was there before (as early as 2010) and she’s had a bumpy ride. What the world saw in 2010 was an inert plastic mannequin, with a disembodied robotic voice that responded to certain actions. Roxxy was fooling no one and quickly devolved into a joke in mainstream media. Roxxy is still alive (the website continues to have a buy button) but there is little evidence since of the toy being used by anyone.
There’s more in the pleasure league. Eva is a fully functional human-like bot from Android Love Dolls priced between $8,000 to $10,000. Samantha is an interactive bot with a functional mouth and a vagina built by a creator from Barcelona. The Silicone Robot from the Chinese company Z-onedolls has a warm body and can hold conversation in Chinese. There are at least half-a-dozen other companies working on sex bots.
The technology behind these creations is getting increasingly complex and may be laying the groundwork for the rise of anthropomorphic cyborgs.
Dual density silicone with AI brains
The pleasure experiences of the future are being crafted by computer scientists, bio-mechanical engineers, app developers, data scientists and VR experts. Advances in AI, like voice and facial recognition, computer vision and animatronics, have provided an opportunity to add new levels of credibility to the clunky dolls from more than a decade ago.
Even as dolls have gotten authentic, the primary challenge for makers of sex dolls has been to make dolls authentic enough to enable them to cross the ‘Uncanny Valley’.
Doll makers are going the extra mile to create life-like forms, including moulding them from actual live models.The use of dual-density silicone is making it possible to craft flesh and skin that’s soft yet firm and feels real to touch.
Sensors in and on the skin enables dolls like Samantha to now interact to touch and even sport a G-spot. Soon, heating elements are expected to give warmth to the skin and genitals (hopefully they won’t overheat).
Don’t expect these companions to walk and move anytime soon though. They are expensive and consume large amounts of energy and the kind of investments required are beyond sex toy companies. Yet, if consumer feedback in doll forum is anything to go by, mobility may not even be the most important feature required.
Before moving limbs, doll lovers want better eye contact, voice recognition and simulated breathing — all tending towards making these as human-like as possible and more importantly, giving them a human-like personality.
That’s the hardest part.
Before moving limbs, doll lovers want better eye contact, voice recognition and simulated breathing — all tending towards making these as human-like as possible and more importantly, giving them a human-like personality
Voice recognition and synthetic voice generation have gotten really good in the last decade or so — a key reason for the rise of voice-controlled assistants like Siri and Alexa. Yet, anyone who has used them for a length of time knows that it’s futile to engage in a conversation.
Similarly, other advances in AI enables these companions to learn their owner’s likes and needs and, perhaps, mould their personality accordingly — the premise of Harmony. Exactly how much moulding will happen and how authentic Harmony’s personality will be needs to be seen. It would be fair to assume that at this point, these companions, while a huge step up from the plastic mannequins of the past, are likely to be simple, voice-controlled dolls that move a few facial muscles and “speak” within a small range.
But advances in AI and robotics mean that they will get increasingly good fast. The question is, will they get adopted?
A new future of companionship
It’s fair to say that robophilia is seen as a deviant behavior today that belongs to a small, dark niche. But that can change very rapidly.
Increasingly, sexual satisfaction is being sought through the digital veils of sexting. We are getting intimate with virtual characters and falling in love with voice assistants. A fairly high percentage of men already feel that buying a sex robot wouldn’t be so unnatural.
We already have Europe’s first sex dolls brothel in Barcelona where for a little more than $120 an hour, you can spend time with super-friendly androids. It isn’t inconceivable that destinations for pleasure androids will become more common as technology improves before they begin to pervade into homes.
Many sex doll makers contend that sex itself is just a hook and that companionship is the ultimate aspiration.
It isn’t far fetched. In a study, people felt empathy for robot pain almost as much as human pain knowing fully well that it was just a robot. Another study found that humans get aroused when touching the intimate parts of robots.
Most importantly, changes in our culture and society will nudge us towards these non-sentient partners. Increasingly, marriages are falling out of favour in many countries, often due to reasons of career, time and and increasing lack of belief. People are lonely and increasingly seek company through virtual means and bots provide an illusion of companionship. David Levy, author of ‘Love and Sex with Robots’, predicts that human-robot marriages will be legal by 2050.
They also offer therapeutic benefits like helping individuals get back to sex after injuries, or providing comfort to the old. Japanese and dutch nursing homes already use companion robots to give comfort to people with dementia.
Perhaps, sex robots are just the first step in the rise of robots in consumer homes as pets, companions or domestic service workers.
Do androids dream of consent?
Predictably, some are worried. Dr Kathleen Richardson, who researches ethics of Robotics, has even launched a campaign against the rise of sex bots. The many dangers that she articulates include objectification of women, erosion of empathy and reinforcement of existing power dynamics.
The common argument is that these bots will actually help the society in reducing violence and exploitation against sex workers by replacing them. Some go so far as to say that these dolls could be prescription medication for deviant men, like child molesters, to express their urges on a lifeless bot and integrate harmlessly with the society.
The sexbots of today, mostly built for men (less than 5% are women customers), are a reflection of the male fantasy of anatomical idealism with pouting lips, tiny waists and large breasts… These companions are always willing and available 24×7
But Kathleen and others point to how technology has only exacerbated the issues. The proliferation of pornography has served to strengthen unrealistic views about women and normalised industries like prostitution and sex trade.
The sexbots of today, mostly built for men (less than 5% are women customers), are a reflection of the male fantasy of anatomical idealism with pouting lips, tiny waists and large breasts. Request for dolls with horns, fangs and strange body hair aren’t uncommon. These companions are always willing and available 24×7 (the last one is literally the marketing promise of Eva).
This raises some worrying questions. Will submissive female robots dilute the need for consent? Imagine a future where sexbots get so realistic that interactions with them become social training. Could widely shared videos of people abusing robots normalise a culture of rape and violence?
There’re also robot rights to think about. Given a chance, humanity will go the Westworld way — a wild west where robots have no consent and get raped constantly. Shouldn’t we attribute personhood to these creations if they have self-awareness and agency?
Will human-robot couples be fighting for legal right to marry at some point in the future? What constitutes a legal marriage anyway?
These are the questions that lead some to suggest that it may be imperative to start designing sex robots that demand consent in order to train people into the right behaviour.
Honeypot of intimate information
As sexbots get smart, they get to know a bit too much about us and this brings up issues of privacy.
We-Vibe, a Canadian sex-toy manufacturer, recently lost a lawsuit and had to to pay C$3.7 million to its users for collecting private usage data. You know, silly private stuff, like intensity levels, usage frequency, etc. It’s creepy to think that someone’s sex toy usage is being stored in a server across the world. Downright scary to think that it could be stolen.
Imagine someone within the bluetooth range being able to hack into an AI sexbot to steal all of its personal, intimate information. This could be rich fodder for ruining lives, blackmail and fraud
The new sexbots on the market will be honeypots of deep personal information. Do these companies spend effort and money in making them secure? Imagine someone within the bluetooth range being able to hack into an AI sexbot to steal all of its personal, intimate information. This could be rich fodder for ruining lives, blackmail and fraud.
Here’s an even more insidious thought experiment. What if someone can hack into a sexbot in order to control it and perhaps even sexually assault someone?
There are other issues too. A Hong Kong man recently built a Scarlett Johansson look-alike bot. While the bot’s no Black Widow, the fact that an individual can create a decent replica bot of real individuals ought to raise more questions. Doll makers frequently receive photographs from customers of what they’d want. Do individuals like rights on their form and looks?
It’s unlikely that market forces will lead the industry towards formulating clear ethical and moral guidelines.
Yet, governments are struggling against this exponential technology growth and often take comfort in status quo. In 2015, Malaysian police cancelled a ‘Love and Sex with Robots’ conference as being illegal and “not our culture”. In the coming years, technology in the form of self-driving cars, smart robots and immersive virtual reality will bombard underprepared governments with shocking and radical cultural, legal and ethical conflicts.
Humanoid robots, beyond being a technological breakthrough, also represent a tectonic shift in our cultural and social mores. It will likely shift the way we perceive and interact as a species in ways we may not be able to predict. Only thing we’re sure of is that when it comes to relationship status, “It’s complicated” is here to stay.
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Lead visual: Angela Anthony Pereira Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.