Kate Devlin says she does, occasionally, get a little weary of being pigeonholed as “that sex robot woman.”
Devlin, who was born in Northern Ireland, is a senior lecturer in the department of computing at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her days are spent raising a seven-year-old girl, training for a marathon by running to work, writing her next book, and teaching interaction design for undergrad, master's level, and PhD students.
And yes, thinking seriously about sex robots.
“There’s something so intrinsically human about sex, and it’s something that maps quite nicely onto AI,” Devlin told me in a recent Skype conversation from her London office. “In artificial intelligence, there’s this drive toward some kind of goal or behavior. That’s sort of like humans with their biological need to reproduce and spread our DNA.”
It isn’t a topic many people in academia were researching even three years ago, when she began studying the convergence of sexuality, AI, and robotics. Now, society and technology seem to be ripe and ready for sexbots. A new show on Britain’s Channel 4 explores the coming of the our mechanical sexual future. Interest in sex robots has spiked in recent years, while creations like the rape-fantasy robot “Frigid Farrah” and hypersexualized dolls continue to draw criticism from ethicists.
Devlin visited a RealDoll factory in California in July. She was apprehensive at first, she said, about what to expect on the tour.
“Actually I was quite surprised,” she said. “After some time there, I was looking at them as objects of art, instead of representations of women.” When she got close, she could appreciate the skill and craft of creating them.
But they’re still deeply problematic, Devlin said, and representative of how much farther we have to go. “We’ve gotten to the stage now in AI, where we can do machine learning, deep learning, and things like that,” Devlin said. “There are flaws in that, and the flaws include things like biased data sets that are very much geared toward a white male culture. We lack diversity, we lack a critical exploration of that.”
Objectified, heterosexual, male-centered robots are just one piece of the problem. Devlin’s not interested in a future brimming with artificially intelligent, synthetic T&A. “I am a strong advocate for moving away from realistic human forms for sex robots,” she said. “I think there’s going to be two lines of development: One is sex technology and sex toys, and the other is sex dolls.”
In their current, curvaceous form, sex robots evolved from traditional humanoid sex dolls. The result is an abundance of hypersexual humanoids, or ones that are just plain painful to imagine putting your genitals anywhere near. We need to bring it back toward the tech, Devlin said, where there’s more abstraction, personalization, and accessibility for all. In the same way vibrators come in a hundred cartoonish colors and shapes, so could sexual AI “robots.”
The technology is already out there: We quantify ourselves with wearable trackers and exchange our preferences about our daily lives—in the form of scads of metadata—every time we hit “I Agree” on a new app. Teledildonics aren’t as futuristic as they used to be (in fact, many are totally hackable now). Smart textiles exist. It wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine hacking together a personalized, life-sized pleasure bot from consumer-grade tech.
A glimmer of that abstract, artful world of sexbots could be seen at the hackathon Devlin started in 2016, which was the first public sex tech hackathon in the UK. Around 50 people showed up for each of the first two years’ events. At this year’s hackathon, held in late November, teams experimented with creating virtual reality lovers, immersive tactile experiences like a sleeping bag full of huggable air or a sensor-loaded cape, and of course, plenty of dildos.
Sure, we could bone our personalized sexborgs of the future, but could we ever truly love them? Depends on how far into the future you’re willing to look, Devlin told me. “It might not be the same as the way we feel about other humans, but I certainly don’t think that love is something that has to be reciprocated,” she said. “People love people all the time and don’t necessarily have it returned to them.” If we’re able to feel affection for inanimate objects or even friends we met over the internet, why not a bot that hits the right spot?
These questions are all tangled up in a future where Devlin’s students will have to use what she’s teaching them about the ethics of AI, gender bias, technology, and interaction design to navigate a burgeoning new world of sex bots becoming reality.
Along with all of these complicated, sometimes squirm-inducing subjects, she’s also honest with them about mental illness. Around 2004, just as she was finishing her PhD, Devlin was diagnosed with bipolar disorder following a psychotic episode triggered by antidepressants. She’s outspoken about her diagnosis, especially with the students she mentors. Being open about mental health is deeply important to Devlin, even more so than being “that sex robot woman.”
It’s really not all about the sex, she said, laughing. “But I do really enjoy the sex aspects as well.”
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