If you've ever imagined robot sex, you've likely envisioned an aesthetically perfect lover, designed to your specifications, willing to do just about anything in bed to please you. That's the basic idea, and it's also the reason why the sex robot revolution is at an impasse, argues Kate Devlin, a British computer scientist and author of the new book, Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots .
Devlin, a self-described “robosexologist” believes that when android-friends-with-benefits do become a reality, it might not be exactly what we've been led to expect from, say, Westworld. In that show, the android hosts aren't just the embodiment of physical perfection, they're also convincingly human, capable of honing in on the innermost desires of the park guests.
But it's not intimacy that remains the big hurdle in robot/human relations, Devlin says. As a species, we’ve already been having emotional attachments with machines for years. If you’ve yelled at a computer for responding too slowly, or fallen asleep spooning your smartphone, or flirted with Siri or Alexa, you’ve anthropomorphized them.
The more we interact with machines like they're humans, the more we start to care about them. A 2016 study found that people showed compassion for a robot vacuum cleaner after watching it get verbally abused. We don’t just love our machines; we treat them like they’re people.
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The real trick to creating something that a human male—and the target demo is primarily men—would ostensibly want to have relations with often comes down to the physical side of the equation. The current crop of sex robot prototypes, the best of which are being produced in the US, are mostly life-size dolls with a few moving parts. They look vaguely human, but as Devlin points out, they’re “cartoon-like, overemphasized and exaggeratedly sexualized portrayals of the female figure.”
The closer sex robots come to looking human, the more repulsed we are by them. It’s called the “Uncanny Valley,” a term coined by a robotics professor in 1970 to describe the unsettling sensation of encountering a robot that’s unconvincingly human. But Devlin argues that the fix might not involve making more believable robots, but rethinking our shared cultural vision of what constitutes a sex robot.
“If we can make anything we want from the amazing technologies we have at our fingertips, why are we trying—and inevitably failing—to make something realistic?” she asks. “We could engineer whatever we wanted: five breasts, three penises, twenty arms. So why don’t we?” (Um… because that sounds fucking terrifying?)
It’s a compelling point: Rather than trying (and repeatedly failing) to make that leap over the Uncanny Valley, what if we skipped the Valley entirely and took a different path? Forget trying to make sex robots look more human, and instead lean into their artificiality; embrace it even. Right now, sex robots are all about form over function. But imagine if they were just function, if their only purpose was inducing human pleasure in every imaginable (and sometimes unimaginable) way? Would you care if its eyes looked “almost lifelike”? We don’t care if Alexa looks human, so why should the robot fuck-buddy version of Alexa be different?
These are far from the only concerns Devlin touches on in the book, however. Another hurdle—also eerily reminiscent of Westworld—is that truly intelligent sex robots could one day share more than we’d like of our personal fetishes. For instance, what if, she writes, manufacturers “decide to enable their sex robots to be controllable and programmable online?” If you thought Facebook sharing your data with third-party companies was disturbing, just wait until all the freaky details of what you do behind closed doors with your personal C3PO gets sold to marketers.
The big ethical questions of sex robots are, at least for the moment, just hypothetical navel-gazing. But as the offerings already on the market grow increasingly sophisticated, they’re conversations worth having. When the technology catches up with the demand and a sex robot is something you could feasibly order from Amazon, what should it look like? Do you want a robot that resembles a porn actress? Or your ex? Or can it be something more abstract, that’s less about duplicating the real world and more about being something else, something different and fantastical and weird, that doesn’t compete with human intimacy because it’s something else entirely?
As Devlin writes, a sex robot can (and maybe should) be “abstract, smooth, sinuous and beautiful.” We’re not sure if we’re down with the five breast/three penis model, but maybe it’s time for sex robot manufacturers, as Devlin advises, to “think outside the bot.”
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