In recent decades, sex has become a more public and widely accepted part of society. Many different electronic toys and sex dolls are now widely used and sold by a large number of companies - the sex toy market is booming by 6% every year. However, it has recently been predicted that humanoid sex robots will soon go from virtual reality to normal practice, and more shockingly, it has been suggested that by 2050, human and robot sex will be more common than human and human sex. So, how has this phenomenon begun, and should the act of using a more “realistic” sex doll really be classed as sex?
Bondara is one of the UK’s leading sex toy shops. Last month, they teamed up with futurologist Dr Ian Pearson to release a report in which the future of sex - and thus sex robotics - is discussed. In this report, there are a striking number of major predictions, such as the idea that by 2035 the majority of people will own sex toys capable of having virtual reality sex. Whilst it could be argued that this is the future and merely the “next step” for sex toys, scenes from programmes such as Black Mirror come to mind - in which the human mind does not fare well when mixing emotions and electronics.
On the other hand, Abyss Creations’ Matt McMullen has made it his mission to develop a “sexbot” which sexually appeals to us on a physical and emotional level. He has done this by creating RealDoll- a lifelike sex robot whose starting price comes in at $5000 and has 11 different body and 31 different face types. Before McMullen, there wasn’t much progress from the inflatable and unrealistic sex dolls - it was McMullen who created the first silicone sex doll with features such as a posable and fully articulated skeleton. Following this, publicity boomed and - according to Abyss - McMullen’s dolls have popped up on more than 20 television shows and films including Lars and the Real Girl with Ryan Gosling. It’s clear that the film and television industry have lapped up the use of sex robots in order to create interest and to give us a taste of a more futuristic and sci-fi world.
There is a positive argument to be gleaned from the use of RealDoll and sex robots in that those who are grieving, living with a disability or simply unlucky in love have a realistic alternative if they don’t want to date. Also, the sexbots have been bought by a wide variety of customers - from art collectors to surgeons and potentially soldiers in order to practice saving the wounded. Thousands of different configurations can be made to customer specification - it seems they can make a doll for everyone. However, the “uncanny valley” concept could be a great impeder of progress for Abyss, McMullen and the RealDoll. The uncanny value concept - written by a Japanese researcher in the 70s - suggests the human response to robots shifts from positive to negative the more closely the robots resemble their human counterparts.
Thinking about this in more detail, why does the idea of AI sexbots make us feel uncomfortable? The primary reason, I believe, is that they are not the norm and have previously been portrayed negatively (e.g. Ex Machina). Whilst Dr Pearson believes that once a lot of people have used a sexbot, it will gradually become accepted in our society. Conversely, this is not the only argument that campaigners such as ethicist Dr Kathleen Richardson have against the use of sex robots. A major concern for The Campaign Against Sex Robots is the fact that these robots may add to gender inequalities in society- the robot women will look too realistic and are designed to be sexualised. This could therefore lead to women being treated as sexual objects both literally and figuratively, and people may be desensitized towards the needs and wants of real women. Whilst the campaign states that they believe in the benefit of robots to society and human cultures, but want to ensure robotics are developed ethically without producing or reinforcing any inequalities.
While the sex toy and technology markets are booming there is real excitement around creating AI sex robots to push our technological boundaries. However, I wonder if this is merely a way to show off what humans can do and creating these dolls is simply being considered because we can.
Overall, advanced robotics will always be an exciting avenue to explore, but there will always be fear of what could be if AI and human-robot sex became the norm. If these sex robots do become mainstream as predicted, this will have to come after radical changes in societal viewpoints.