What We Talk About When We Talk About (Robot) Sex — Rethinking the Future of Intimacy

by Chrystal Ding — Artist and co-founder of Ixy Labs

Sex is the activity at the interface of public and private life. It is one of the most intimate acts a human being can engage in with another human being, an act of engagement between our most private selves, and the most private self of another. At the same time, it is an act of deep political, religious, and social significance (think about virginity with all its varying implications across nations, cultures, and beliefs). Until relatively recently, sex has been considered one of the sacred bastions of that which is organic, natural, and unencroachable by mechanisation and automation. It’s just too fundamentally human. But with sex robot manufacture on the rise, and robot sex moving from fiction to non-fiction with the 2018 publication of new works by John Danaher, Neil McArthur, and Kate Devlin exploring the ethical and social implications in real terms, the challenge to our assumptions arises too: to what extent is sex a human prerogative, and what do we actually want for our sex lives?

Ixy Labs is sharing articles, videos and a podcast investigating the future of private life, and is an independent offshoot of the Ixy app.

Why do we have sex?

1 It’s an evolutionary imperative for reproduction.
2. It enhances and reinforces companionship and intimacy.
3. It’s pleasurable.

Except that:

1. It’s an evolutionary imperative for reproduction.

This is no longer true. Alternatives come in the form of IVF treatment, IUI, sperm donation, surrogacy etc. That some of these are financially or socially inaccessible is a separate issue, but that the options exist removes the imperative for many.

2. It enhances and reinforces companionship and intimacy.

What constitutes a relationship is getting harder and harder to define, and alongside this, the role of companionship and physical intimacy. What is the ultimate aim now where our needs for a ‘significant other’ are concerned? Is marriage still a default aspiration? Does there need to be an ‘ultimate aim’ in the age of dating apps, sex workers, and professional escorts?

3. It’s pleasurable.

Today, we are inundated with things that compete for our pleasure: social media, gaming, the entertainment smorgasbord that is Netflix (which we discuss in our first podcast episode) — where does sex fit in the 21st century pleasure roster?

Not to mention the fact that pleasure itself is not at all a given, an equitable experience, or even an inherent part of the sexual experience.

So where does that leave us in our modern relationships with sex and each other when we begin to introduce mechanical alternatives beyond the already thriving sex toy market? Robots, say. Or AI sex dolls.

The Possible Freedoms of Sex Robots

Let’s take a moment to consider some of the possibilities that bringing robots into our sex lives might have.

Robots could enable us to bypass the difficulty of finding and maintaining a sexual partner, especially if there is a pathological or social reason for that difficulty in the first place. For example, having a severe or debilitating medical condition that makes it difficult for us to cross the threshold of normative human-human sexual relationships, having lost a life-partner to old age and not being able to or desirous of finding another (think PARO the seal, but with the addition of sex), or being one of the 30 million men of marriageable age who will struggle to find female partners in China thanks to gender imbalance as a result of policy.

Perhaps we are seeking greater control or indeed pleasure from our sexual experiences. Might we have preferences that our current partner, whom we love, adore, and want to spend our lives with, simply doesn’t want to indulge? Might we want to expand our sexual repertoire after 20 years of marriage to one individual (since routine has a tendency to diminish desire) without crossing the threshold of what constitutes ‘cheating’ between humans?

Perhaps the separation of the physical act of sex from the desire for intimacy will take the pressure off our human partner, who faces greater demands in a relationship today than ever before in our history. In the words of psychotherapist Esther Perel:

“Marriage was an economic institution in which you were given a partnership for life in terms of children and social status and succession and companionship. But now we want our partner to still give us all these things but in addition I want you to be my best friend and my trusted confidant and my passionate lover to boot, and we live twice as long. So we come to one person and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide.”

One study suggests that for the average person, increasing the frequency of having sex to at least once a week offers as much additional happiness as a $50,000 increase in salary per year. As John Danaher puts it in Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications, ‘Sex is an important human good.’

Sex robots, in the abstract, could be a solution to many of these scenarios. But of course there are questions, conditions, and risks that we are now in a position to consider, from which we can learn more about how relationships shape us now, and how we might want to shape them in the future.

“Buy Now”: Sex Robots Today

One of the problems that arises when we consider the potential of robot sex for the improvement of the human experience, is what conditions this future would need to entail physically, scientifically, and ethically. Danaher proposes that a ‘sex robot’ is defined as an artificial entity used for sexual purposes that meets the following three conditions:

Humanoid form, i.e., it is intended to represent (and is taken to represent) a human or human-like being in its appearance.
Human-like movement/behavior, i.e., it is intended to represent (and is taken to represent) a human or humanlike being in its behaviors and movements.
Some degree of artificial intelligence, i.e., it is capable of interpreting and responding to information in its environment. This may be minimal (e.g., simple preprogrammed behavioral responses) or more sophisticated (e.g., human-equivalent intelligence).

Of existing robots that fulfil Danaher’s criteria, key contenders today are Emma by the disturbingly named The Perfect Girlfriend, a bilingual sex robot who reportedly responds to Chinese and English and moans in response to sexual activity, Samantha by Synthea Amatus, who moves her lips and can hold basic conversation, and Harmony by Realbotix. While these are all impressive examples of sex robots available today, the AI and embodiment at present remain uncanny. For Realbotix CEO Mat McMullen, this is not a problem: “I want people to actually develop an emotional attachment to not only the doll, but to the actual character behind it. To develop some kind of love for this being.” Existing behaviours of owners of sex robots seem to bear out McMullen’s proposition.

But if innovative leaps are anything to go by, we have already seen how the porn industry has shaped at least one generation’s expectations of sexual norms. If sex robots might shape the next, then it is worth our while to interrogate some of the ways that we can influence this for the better.

The fear is that having unmitigated access to sex via a robot will lead to the normalisation of abusive behaviours in our treatment of one another. We already have anecdotal reports of children variously gaining skills (the ability to pronounce the letter ‘l’ after starting off addressing ‘Awexa’) and losing social boundaries and etiquette when speaking to Alexa in the home. See Channel 4’s Humans for a fictional imagining of one family’s varying views on how much humanity should be bestowed upon robots in the home, and one girl’s attempt to stop a group of teenagers from sexually assaulting a robot on the grounds that it would be rape.

This video is part of “Escaping from Children’s Abuse of Social Robots,” by Dražen Brščić, Hiroyuki Kidokoro, Yoshitaka Suehiro, and Takayuki Kanda from ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories and Osaka University.

AI — A Gendered Issue?

It is impossible not to acknowledge a potentially gendered aspect of the risk. Until earlier this year when Realbotix announced the pending arrival of male sex robot Henry, it was impressively difficult to find any male sex robots on the market (excluding the pre-pubescent-looking male sex robots available from certain Asian manufacturers), and the assumption is that — at the outset at least — the market will be male-dominated.

China-based Exdoll’s Xiaodie is a (female) sex robot fitted with Wi-Fi function, which will allow it to search the internet and control smart home devices, much as Alexa does today. In short, they are heading towards the creation of an embodied voice assistant that you can sleep with. It seems we could well be at risk of perpetuating our gender biases regarding roles around the home and work in our automata.

Slide from presentation by Professor Gina Neff of OII in 2018. In 66 films that had AI characters — from Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis to Alex Garland’s 2015 film Ex Machina, all but 3 of the 77 AI characters were gendered. All but 17 were male.

This is a quandry already familiar in discussions around the creation of ethical AI: how do we engineer automata to avoid our own biases and worse predispositions, or indeed to regulate and improve upon them? I suspect this will have much to do with the ongoing conversation about maximising diversity in the workforce that builds them.

Synthea Amatus is attempting to design for this problem by building Samantha with a ‘dummy mode’ (see: ‘analysis mode’ of Westworld) in response to overly aggressive behaviour or boredom with her partner’s attentions. But how effective this is as a moderator of human behaviour remains to be seen. And after all, it seems the market will determine many of our choices for us, as it did for porn. We are innovating faster than we are able to test and research the potential risks and it seems likely that the answers will come later, when we begin to see the outcomes borne from consumer adoption.

A Safe Solution, or a New Class of Servants?

At the same time as we consider human-human interaction, we might also consider the possibility, as Steve Petersen and Joshua D. Goldstein do, of whether being designed and used for sex could be good for a robot (or indeed how we could make it so). We already know that работа (‘rabota’) means ‘work’ in Russian and some Slavic languages; are we simply creating a new form of indentured servitude that will eventually need liberating?

Scene from Karel Čapek’s 1921 play Rossum’s Universal Robots.

The graves of science fiction are filled with the bodies of abused sex robots: Westworld, Ex Machina, Blade Runner, to name a few.

But even if we do not think much of the moral patienthood of robots, we might consider the debate from a Hegelian perspective: by holding robots as our slaves, do we dehumanise ourselves?

Turn Yourself on Before You Turn on the Robot

One of the most poignant pieces of advice I have heard about sex comes from Esther Perel’s talk ‘The secret to desire in a long-term relationship’.

“I began to ask the reverse question. ‘I turn myself on when …’ Because most of the time, people like to ask the question, “You turn me on, what turns me on,” and I’m out of the question, you know? Now, if you are dead inside, the other person can do a lot of things for Valentine’s. It won’t make a dent. There is nobody at the reception desk.”

It is no accident that this has nothing to do with sex robots. Technological advancements have provided us with more options, for reproduction, for companionship and intimacy, and for pleasure. And pleasure is nature’s way of incentivising us to advance as a species. That we abuse it when it comes to food, drugs, sex etc. is more a symptom of the personal choices we make (influenced by the social, cultural, economic contexts that we carry with us in our every interaction and decision) than a symptom of the introduction of new toys to the mix.

How we respond to this new product category, phenomenon, or indeed ‘species’, will be a reflection of our collective and individual humanity. If we can design for our sexual preferences, we first must understand them. If we want to bring additional experiences into the home, we must expect that it will require engagement and negotiation with our partners, our marriages, our households, and ourselves.

We might not agree on much when it comes to sexual preferences, but it would be difficult to imagine a world in which we do not want to be able to choose better sex for ourselves and our chosen partner(s), whether they were made in a laboratory or a bed.

Further reading:

Danaher, J., and McArthur, N. ed., (2017). Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications.

Devlin, K., (2018). Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots.

Levy, D., (2007). Love and Sex with Robots.