RealDoll, as the name suggests, make incredibly life-like sex dolls. You might have seen the documentary on the BBC about the four men who treat their RealDolls like girlfriends, or Lars and the Real Girl, the Ryan Gosling movie where the co-lead is a RealDoll named Bianca. Or you might have just seen them on the internet, for it is a vast and thorough thing. You also might have seen, on the internet, that RealDoll founder Matt McMullen is working on integrating robots and artificial intelligence into the dolls.
While most AI personal assistants we chat to today—Siri, Microsoft's Cortana, Amazon's Echo—hire writers to ensure their responses are charming but always professional, Matt's trying to exploit the developments in speech recognition to create an AI whose main aim is to get you mentally and physically excited. A doll that can think for itself and will learn more about you as your relationship develops, while also satisfying your sexual urges.
David Levy, an international chess don and AI expert, said in his book Love & Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships that, by 2050, "robots will have the capacity to fall in love with humans and to make themselves romantically attractive and sexually desirable." So is Matt's work the first step in swapping our relationships with real people for fake ones?
I spoke with him to ask that very question, and to find out how the project is coming along.
VICE: How would you describe what you're doing with AI at Real Dolls?
Matt McMullen: I met some people in robotics and started asking, "How can we connect AI to robotic dolls?" That's at the core of what we're doing: integrating artificial intelligence into RealDolls. We're spending time and effort perfecting the AI as much as possible so that interactions with the dolls are entertaining and believable. We're not trying to fool you into thinking, 'Is this a real person?' We're trying to make the experience something you'll enjoy.
So the move into sex robots was your consumers' idea?
Well, when I started the dolls back in 1997 they weren't the same dolls you see today. They were pieces of art, very high end mannequins, if you will. And the public wanted to buy these dolls as companions and sex toys, so I just went with it. So yes, it's kind of the same thing with AI.
What developments in other AIs are you taking inspiration from?
We're trying to build on top of the basic personal assistant AI architecture you see elsewhere to create something similar to The Sims, where the AI has a needs system and the experience is game-ified. So the AI has desire—or at least the illusion of desire—and there are goals, and if you meet them you're going to get some kind of reward, be that verbal, visual, or in sexual movements.
People are only designing AIs to be support systems—they're not trying to make them entertaining or a lover, like we are. So we're asking: what can we do from a programming standpoint to mimic what happens between two people when they have a relationship? It's far more than sexual entertainment. People really zero in on, "Oh, you're making a sex robot." I'd say we're making a robot that can have sex. Although it's a very different, very intimate way that you can connect with something that is robotic and has AI technology built in.
So what are you putting into your AI to mimic human relationships?
For me, it's the random factor; it's nice to have some random things occur in a conversation. Sometimes it works and sometimes it's a catastrophic failure because she'll say something that completely doesn't fit or make any sense. But other times it's like, "This is the perfect statement at the perfect moment." And you go 'wow.'
Is your ultimate goal to make a human fall in love with a machine?
I don't know about falling in love, but I would love for people to be able to create a bond. Call it a friendship, a companion, whatever you want—but a bond that you wouldn't see in any other machine-human relationship.
Do you think we'll begin to trust machines to be our friends?
Are you concerned with the ethics of that? Do you think it's going to make humans less social?
I feel strongly that not every person on the planet is going to create bonds with the robots and AIs. I think it's a specific type of person who finds it appealing for one reason or another. Whether it's by choice, they're in a head-space where the idea of "I want to bond with a robot, and I prefer the company of this robot or AI to a human being" is compelling to them. So I don't know that, all of a sudden, it's going to be this thing where everyone disconnects with each other and goes with robots.
So you think it's a niche market?
Well, I think the sexual component may be a bigger market. Too many people talk about it and ask me about it for that not to be the case. I think a lot of people will limit their interaction with the technology to that level. I think the actual emotional connection—really creating the pseudo-relationship with an AI—won't be something that everyone will engage with. Although, for both, I think it takes a certain type.
How would you describe that person?
Some are very lonely and for one reason or another do not have the desire or ability to make real bonds with someone else. Some are victims of circumstance; either something happened to them or someone broke their heart, or they might have lost a loved one to a disease. They don't want, necessarily, to start new relationships. It gives them some level of: "Oh, I have someone at home..."
But if I was to summarize the people who buy the dolls, I would just say they're very nice. They're very down to earth, super sweet people. There's nothing strange or off-putting about them, and they come from all different age and social-economic groups. People think, 'Oh, they're with these dolls and that's really strange,' but really, in the grand scheme of things, there are far stranger things out there in the world that we don't pick apart as much. This is something that makes them happy in the privacy of their own home, so why is it your job to critique what they're doing or judge them as being strange?
Do you want a world where humans are walking the streets, chatting with their AI dolls?
Sure. Absolutely. Yes!
Related: Watch 'Chinese Cockblock—The Sex Doll Factory'
How do you feel about feminist concerns? A lot of your dolls have unrealistic-sized eyes, breasts, and waists. Do you think your creations are perpetuating unrealistic body images?
I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it. I've always said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all I've ever done artistically is imitate the female form in all its sizes and shapes. There are obviously limitations to how large we can make bodies before they become too heavy to move. I don't think it's going to create any more of an impact in the feminist sense than, say, Barbie dolls. I'll make a doll in any size or shape if someone will buy it.
Okay, tell me a little about the work you're doing with VR.
The AI that we've created can be interacted with in three ways: one is on a tablet with the avatar that we've created, the second is to connect the AI to the robot, and the third is in a virtual reality environment. So we're creating a separate platform that runs on a semi-powerful computer and a headset—an Oculus Rift, for example—where you can immerse yourself in fantastic environments. You could be on the surface of the moon or walking on the rings of Saturn with the avatar that runs on your AI. Everyone's version of the AI will be different because, as you interact with it, over time it will grow and learn specific things about you. So it's pretty exciting, trying to learn and come up with all these ways that people could interact with them. First on the agenda is getting the app—the AI itself—out there.
Will the app have sexual functions as well?
Yes, it will have some adult aspects. It'll have some nudity, you'll be able to pick and change the clothes on the avatar, change her body size, and really customize it to your liking.
Have you thought about how your developments might affect the prostitution industry?
That hasn't been a motivation of mine, but I think if they evolved to be so good that people no longer had to engage in human trafficking, that can only be a positive thing. Someone could buy a bunch of them and the robots could be the prostitutes instead of people.
So you could pimp robots?
Yeah. This hasn't been one of my main motivations by any stretch, but the question has been asked.
Follow Georgia Lewis Anderson on Twitter.