Businessman Bradley Charvet caused tabloid commotion earlier this year when he announced his plan to open a fellatio café in London. Inspired by Thailand's blowjob bars, he envisioned a place where men could enjoy a 15-minute blowjob along with their morning coffee. But local laws outlawing brothels made the project impossible — at least while human sex workers were in the picture. So with that in mind Charvet announced he'd found a way around this legal impasse by replacing human escorts with robots.
But are we ready for a Starbucks of sex robots?
David Levy, a robotics expert and author of Love and Sex with Robots, told VICE that sex with robots will become commonplace in a few decades, and even predicted that a new wave of sex robots will hit the market this year. In view of these predictions, Charvet's idea of a robot-staffed sex café sounds like a taste of the future. But is it actually realizable? Robotics experts agree that while sex robotics has a lot of potential, sex robots are only in their embryonic stages—still far from the uncannily human-like robots we see in sci-fi movies. Robotic BJs are still quite a ways away, and industry experts dismiss the fellatio café idea as a PR stunt. But Charvet's project has attracted a lot of attention, pointing to an important debate that has been taking place about what the prospect of sex robots means for the future of sex, and for gender equality.
Right now, the few sex robots that do exist are rudimentary: Essentially, they are enhanced silicon love dolls. Futurologist Ian Pearson says when it comes to look and feel, there are very good, life-like reproductions of the human body. From there, "people take [love dolls] and add very simple robotic movement," he says. One of the most advanced examples of sex robotics is a Chinese sex doll called Z-one, which blinks, moves her mouth, has genitals which heat up, and can have "Siri-like conversations in Chinese," says Jenna Owsianik, editor of FutureofSex.net.
Sex robots are still just "motorized dolls," says Kathleen Richardson, research fellow in the ethics of robotics at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK.
"They can't give you fellatio," says Owsianik. You could get creative by combining love dolls with teledildonics (a "sleeve" and dildo equipped with sensors and connected over the internet, enabling long-distance blowjobs), but "it won't be like having a woman come up and crouch down in front of you," Owsianik says.
Besides having limited motor skills, sex robots also can't talk or respond like a real person, if that's what you are into.
"Communication is our target [for the fellatio café]," Charvet, the founder of bumpix.co.uk (a UK "adult directory platform") told VICE. "Sex robots need to speak, need to discuss, to listen to the client like a human would" — something impossible for the moment (unless you consider Siri's conversational skills up to par). But "one robot maker is on the way to make this crazy project alive," according to Charvet.
Abyss Creations, known for making high-end, realistic love dolls, will release a robotic head for its RealDolls this year. This is exciting news, Owsianik says: it has recruited a team from Hansen Robotics, which is respected in the robotics field, to develop an artificial intelligence (AI)-enhanced robotic head. Abyss is also working on a complementary app, which it hopes to release in April. Through it, users will be able to interact with their robotic partner even before they physically 'meet' her. "She will remember, and the more [you talk to her], the 'smarter' she gets," Matt McMullen, the creator of RealDolls, told me.
Such sophisticated technology comes at a price, at least for now. RealDolls cost around $6,000 USD, and the Realbotix head would come at an additional cost — around $10,000 USD. Yet Charvet, who confirmed he's looking into this new wave of sex robots about to hit the market, told VICE the cost would be about $2,200 to $3,700 per doll—which wouldn't begin to cover a non-roboticized RealDoll. McMullen says Charvet contacted Abyss Creations for his project. "He was under the impression that we had [blowjob] robots on the shelf ready to go." He hopes to release the RealDoll robotic head by the end of the year, and says he's "not aware of a blowjob robot."
Charvet said that he has been in talks with Chinese company MySiliconLoveDoll (which sells silicon dolls for up to $2,600 USD, though none of them robotic), but told VICE that he is still considering several brands.
At best, Charvet, who claims the café will open around April 2017, is optimistic about the technology available at present (and the discount he might get for buying in bulk). The idea is, at this stage, "pretty conceptual… it sounds like the perfect recipe for a headline," says McMullen. Richardson was even more blunt: "it's a marketing ploy."
Indeed, Charvet's project cleverly taps into our cultural obsession with human-robot relationships (and, of course, sex.) The prospect of sex robots has created strong reactions not just in the robosexual community (people who are attracted to robots), but also among experts and the general public.
"People have super lofty expectations [from sex robots]," says McMullen. Some, like Levy, are excited with the possibilities that this emerging field might open up—such as STI-free robotic sex workers—or accept sex with robots as an inevitable development. Once android domestic aids become mainstream, says Pearson, sex will simply be one of their many uses.
Richardson told VICE that sex robots reinforce the narrative that sex is "a market with buyers and sellers, where some people are products." Eleanor Hancock, a graduate student studying the effects of technology on the sex industry and a panelist at the 2nd International Love and Sex with Robots Congress held in London last month, says that sex robots (largely designed for, and by, men) commodify women, "but we already have real people selling sex — this is about something else. It's about objectifying women, not just their bodies, but their minds, too." Sex robots risk becoming subservient, "user-customizable" versions of women. McMullen told VICE that clients will be able to "create a personality" for their robotic doll, "more [or less] dominant, intellectual or naive, sexual or sex shy."
McMullen says his dolls aren't meant to objectify women. "We all have our fictional, ideal partner that we carry around in our minds. There's nothing wrong with giving people the ability to create the physical and mental model of their dreams." He's focused on making robots people can connect with. This project is about "far more than sexual entertainment," he told VICE.
Owsianik says "a lot of [the men buying sex dolls] are not terrible and objectifying women, they really care for [them]." People are already falling in love with robots—"there's a big loneliness market," Pearson says. But according to Owsianik, sex with robots wouldn't only be for those lonely or shy people—it could benefit everyone. "When [robots] are able to learn what you like and your responses, they might be able to anticipate [it] and teach you what you enjoy. It will be exciting to see if this will help people become more fulfilled sexually."
Still, when Owsianik says that robots could one day make us "better lovers" and sexually educate us, I wonder who will teach those robots what the "right" way of having sex is. Will everything else—the incredible variety of things different people like to do in bed — become wrong then? And if their makers' ideal woman is an object, what will these robots learn, and then teach humans, about gender roles?
Progress in the field of sex robots really depends on who's creating them, in terms of resources, says Owsianik. If companies like IBM were to work on erotic AI, we would be much further ahead, she says. But it also depends — I would add — in terms of what they will teach these robots. When I ask Charvet whether the fellatio café has encountered any opposition, he says that "men love the project, girls don't." Maybe it's a slip of the tongue that he chose to call women "girls," but even so, it speaks volumes for how a large part of the industry he comes from sees women as subservient and disempowered. It's no wonder some women are less than enamoured with his idea.
For the moment, however, this project doesn't seem to involve much more than teasing: Though it points to a very real fascination with robots and how they could transform our sex lives, the fellatio café idea itself is little more than a PR stunt—at least for now.