Sex, love, and robots: will sexbots make human life better, creepier, or both?

Author:Brown, Elizabeth Nolan
Position:Essay
 
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HER JOINTS ARE "a bit tight and creaky." Her head circumference is smaller than expected, and there's "a slight chemical smell again." But "Mr-Smith" is mostly proud to introduce Page to other members of the message boards at DollForum.com. And they are happy to meet her, too: "Glad to see such an awesome lady of mystery!" one responds. "Have a fantastic honeymoon," types another. "Congratulations, she is a beauty," posts a third. "When you get around to completely introducing yourself to her, you will find that her softness will blow your mind."

Page is what's known as a "love doll" or "sex doll." She is "anatomically correct"--that is, built so people can penetrate her--but she doesn't move on her own or speak. There are at least a dozen high-end doll makers globally, and many more making cheaper models. "Even China is getting into it ... in a year's time China has gone from being non-existent in the doll market to having like is different manufacturers," artist Stacy Leigh, who styles and photographs these dolls, told Acclaim magazine in 2013. "The world better be prepared, because love dolls are coming."

Katie Aquino, a futurist and self-proclaimed techno-optimist who goes by the name "Miss Metaverse" online, agrees that sex dolls and sex robots are poised to go big. But Aquino doesn't think improved industrial tech will be the main force driving the growth. Instead, she thinks hobbyists are the future: "I believe that the first truly lifelike sex dolls won't be made in factories, they'll be made in people's garages. Sex robots will be made by makers," she says, using a catchall term for the growing do-it-yourself subculture in everything from 3D printing to mead brewing. And she's mostly on board with this: "New sexual technologies will liberate us, allowing us humans to freely express our desires and fantasies while remaining safe and healthy from the comfort of our homes."

But Aquino also worries about possibilities like "a population decline because more people will choose synthetic relationships over 'organic' human relationships" and human women "comparing themselves to synthetics and therefore choosing to modify themselves, just as we see how Photoshopped models and celebrities affect women today." Some men are already predicting this day with glee, crowing on blogs and Reddit boards that human women will have to lower their expectations, step up their beauty rituals, or face the fact that many men will find sex robots a "better option."

On the other end of the spectrum, you have people like Sinziana Gutiu, whose presentation at the 2012 We Robot conference focused on how artificially intelligent sexbots could "foster antisocial behavior in users and promote the idea that women are ever-consenting beings, leading to diminished consent in male-female sexual interaction." In other words, she thinks sex robots may lead to more rape.

By promoting "lies about women's humanity," sexbots present "a danger that builds on and surpasses the harms attributed to pornography," Gutiu wrote in her conference paper. In this she joined the laments of social conservatives. "Sodom and Gomorrah never dreamed of sexual immorality like this," Jennifer LeClaire wrote last year in the Christian magazine Charisma. Dave Swindle, an associate editor at the conservative/libertarian site PJ Media, asked, "What happens when a bunch of teenage boys pool their money to buy a robot prostitute they can gang rape? ... What will our world be when people lose their virginity to a machine?"

Is that last option even possible? Virginity is more a social construct than a physical state; we don't say someone whose hymen breaks using a Tampax or whose penis enters a Fleshlight have "lost their virginity" to tampons and sex toys. But it's this rather outlandish hypothetical that gets us to the crux of the issue: Will sex robots be more like vibrators, pets, partners, or slaves?

That question--and how technologists, potential customers, ethicists, and legislators will answer it--is mostly the concern of a few academics at this point. But in the not-too-distant future it will become much less hypothetical for billions of people. We are drawing ever closer to the era of realistic, affordable, emotionally intelligent robots, including sex robots. These have the potential to change not just how we relate to technology but how we relate to one another. The challenge: How can we make robots part of our social/sexual fabric without letting them remake us?

Meet the Sexbots

Contemporary commercial sex dolls can appear quite lifelike, but they're mostly non-robotic. The dolls, produced by companies such as California-based RealDoll and Japan's Orient Industry, tend to be made from silicone and a metal skeleton and weigh as much as 120 pounds. Depending on the company, dolls can be customized in a variety of ways, from hair and eye color to pubic hair style, plus the addition of features like artificial milk glands. Some offer simulated breathing, pulse, and heartbeat.

One of the few existing robotic sex dolls appears to be Roxxxy, from New Jersey-based TrueCompanion. With an appearance akin to an especially lifelike (yet not especially attractive) store mannequin, Roxxxy is in no danger of being mistaken for human. But she has three "inputs" (mouth, vagina, and anus), according to TrueCompanion's website, and the deluxe model boasts five programmable personalities, including Young Yoko, described on the company's website as "oh so young and waiting for you to teach her," and S&M Susan, "ready to provide your pain/pleasure fantasies." Roxxxy and her male counterpart, Rocky, are billed as responsive companions able to "listen, talk, carry on a conversation, and feel your touch." Owners can purportedly program them with likes, dislikes, and foreign languages, as well as upload their "personalities" to the cloud.

Roxxxy's renown has been wide since her debut at a 2010 adult-entertainment expo, garnering mentions everywhere from tech blogs to the BBC. But many in the love-doll community are skeptical that TrueCompanion has ever sold any robots.

Davecat, 41, is one such person. A "Synthetik advocate," Davecat is part of a group known as the iDollators, who say they prefer sex dolls and robots to intimacy with "Organiks," a.k.a. human beings. Davecat lives with three dolls, whom he has named Sidore, Elena, and Muriel. He has made up personalities and created Twitter accounts for each of them.

Davecat was there for...

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