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Hot Robots Won't End Sex

A number of futurists assume the inevitability of sex bots replacing humans—even if that future is highly unlikely to ever actually unfold.
Sex dolls are on display at the Guangzhou Sex Culture Festival in 2013. Image: SFP/Getty

This month, a new class of robots designed to be almost indistinguishable from actual humans will be introduced to a select group of remote markets worldwide. Their services will be employed in a variety of ways, including, yes, providing sex to those interested in getting it on with a robot.

At least that will happen this month for those who exist in the world of Blade Runner, anyway: according to the timeline of the sci-fi classic, January 2016 sees the introduction of the Nexus 6 replicant to off-world settlements. For those of us residing in the world of science fact, it's likely to be quite some time before pleasure models like Pris become readily available. But that hasn't stopped a number of futurists from fearing, fantasizing about, and generally assuming the inevitability of a future where human lovers are abandoned in favor of mechanical replacements—even if that future is highly unlikely to ever actually unfold.


For those who see the arrival of sex robots as a question of when, not if, the harbingers of its arrival are already here. Men who abandon real life girlfriends in favor of internet porn and cam girls. An "invisible girlfriend" app—initially intended to provided "proof" of a nonexistent relationship—that ends up attracting users in search of an actual relationship with the app itself. If you're determined enough, you could even see sexting as an indication that all we're looking for in a relationship is of few lines of code capable of spitting out dirty pictures and a series of ever filthier remarks. (And let's not forget Real Doll enthusiast and media darling Davecat, who gets trotted out every few years as one part freak show, one part warning to anyone who dares to dream that they'd never be replaced by a shapely lump of silicone.)

Because even super-advanced bots don't develop emotions, Blade Runner's Rachael was created with implanted human memories. Even then, something's not quite right.

The more technically enhanced our sex lives become, the easier it is to argue that eventually, the tech itself will be the only part we're interested in.

But missing from this analysis are a few key points. Yes, it's true that advances in technology have led many of us to increase digital presence in our sex lives and relationships. It's now considered normal to use our smartphones to find someone to spend our lives (or just a night) with, to flirt, to kick off foreplay, and even to have full-on, albeit virtual, sexual experiences. But most of the time, we use technology as a bridge to seek out intimacy with another person—not as an end unto itself.


The content of a sext loses some of its heat when examined in isolation: removed from the moment, from the context of the relationship that generated it, a sext is rarely more than a series of forgettable, often interchangeable, lines about wet pussies and hard dicks and how much we'd like to put some body part into some other orifice.

What makes sexting hot isn't so much the dirty scenarios themselves, it's the knowledge that there's another person on the other end of the exchange, a person choosing to spend the time crafting those filthy scenarios for your pleasure. A person who, one hopes, will one day engage in those scenarios with you IRL as well.

Even with sexual encounters that are entirely virtual—for instance, a cam girl who will never meet any of her clients—that human presence is still essential. Fans are drawn in by the knowledge that they're witnessing a someone actively choosing to be present and share their body; an aspect of the experience that would disappear if cam girls were to be replaced by, say, sexy CGI bots–no matter how lifelike and "real" those bots may seem. (And if you have any doubts about that, consider this: if the realness of cam girls weren't an essential part of the attraction, we probably wouldn't be seeing fans tying themselves in knots over allegations of faked orgasms and cam girl trickery.)

Look too hard at any of the signs of an impending robot sex revolution, and they all start to fall apart. That Invisible Girlfriend app? Turns out that it's powered by actual people—albeit an interchangeable team of thousands of crowdsourced workers—and that human touch makes all the difference for users.


It's the presence of another person—a person who is choosing us, not just responding to programming—that creates a sense of intimacy

Sex robots may one day manage to be convincingly human in almost every way, but that ultimate lack of a human spark is likely to keep them firmly in the uncanny valley for most of us. No matter how real a sex bot feels, they're more a very expensive sex toy than a potential replacement for an actual relationship.

Though there will doubtless be people for whom Pris-like robots are more compelling than a human, those folks are more or less Davecat 2.0 (and honestly, anyone more interested in an expensive toy than a human partner is doing the rest of us a favor by exiting the dating pool).

Despite what wild-eyed sex futurists might predict, most of us want a partner whose interest is borne out of free will, not programming. No matter how many bells and whistles a sex robot might possess, it's still, ultimately, just a really fancy object.

However technically enhanced our sex lives may get, it's the presence of another person on the other end—a person who is choosing to engage with us, not just responding to programming—that creates a sense of intimacy. No matter how good programmers and engineers might get, that intimacy is something they'll have a hard time replacing with tech.