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Do you ever find sex to be mechanical? Baby, you haven’t seen anything yet!

It would not have occurred to me to write about such a bold and forbidden topic had I not come across a serious article titled: “Our Sexual Future with Robots,” a 41-page report [] published by the Foundation for Responsible Robotics []. The Foundation for Responsible Robotics is a European effort challenging scientist and engineers to think ahead about their creations and to take ethical considerations into account. In this paper, they focus on 7 core questions:

  • Would people have sex with a robot?
  • What kind of relationship can we have with a robot?
  • Will robot sex workers and bordellos be acceptable?
  • Will sex robots change societal perceptions of gender?
  • Could sexual intimacy with robots lead to greater social isolation?
  • Could robots help with sexual healing and therapy?
  • Would sex robots help to reduce sex crimes?

They give each of these questions serious consideration, citing research where available. Clearly, however, it’s early days and there is much more research that is needed and considerable debate can be expected in the years to come. As the authors observe: “A problem with the public perception of sex robots is that the public is currently not well informed about the actuality of robots in general. Sex robots are new and only a few people have encountered them directly. Information in the public domain mainly comes from science fiction tropes engendered by television and the movies.”

It’s a remarkable document and I recommend it to any readers interested in more detail. That being said, here are a few of the findings (in my own words) that stand out for me:

  • Certainly, there are people interested, eager even, to have sex with robots. Adoption of this behavior will be slow at first. Nobody can predict at this point how widespread it might become.
  • Price will be an important consideration as to how many people will purchase robots for sexual purposes.
  • At this point, the percentage of men interested/open-to sex with robots is greater than the percentage of women.
  • Sex with robots will increasingly become the focus of heated religious, philosophical, political, and legal debate.
  • Privacy concerns will come to the fore. There has already been one successful $4 million suit brought against a Canadian company that stored dates and times of customers using their vibrators.
    Sex robots are already here.

This is an issue about ethics, responsibility and the emotional, psychological and social impact of sex with robots.

Back about 40 years or so I was finishing up my doctoral degree in clinical psychology at the University of Michigan. As part of that program, I was doing an internship at a Veteran’s Administration hospital outside of Detroit. One day I unexpectedly received a letter at the hospital from a woman I did not know. I don’t know how she got my name or knew to write me at the VA Hospital. Her letter contained a sort of psychic reading on me in which she asserted that back in the age of Atlantis I had been a robot maker. She went on to say that the purpose of this current incarnation is for me to work off that Karma by dealing with people in more humane ways. Well, of course, I pretty much discounted her ideas as nutty. I never wrote back to her or had any contact with her. Nevertheless, I’ve never forgotten this unsolicited wisdom. I have to say it now strikes me that maybe I should have given her more credence. She would have had no way of knowing that I always had strong interest in electronics and, originally, had planned to become an electrical engineer. In fact, I been accepted in to University with a full-scholarship in engineering, only to switch out into creative writing and then again into psychology. So there’s some history there of moving from the mechanical toward understanding and serving people instead of machines. And, now, here I am writing about robots. The return of the repressed, perhaps?

I wrote an article recently about how to design robots that we’d perceive as friendly rather than threatening, and in hind-sight it occurred to me that sexuality would inevitably be part of the formula for some designers. Certainly, friends with benefits has great potential for being seen as amicable.

Not surprisingly, this possibility is one that has been explored in written science fiction and recent sci-fi movies. Blade Runner (1982) is one of my all-time favorites for the futuristic atmosphere it portrays. That film features Pris, the replicant android “basic pleasure model” for sexual gratification of humans until she becomes a cold and brutal killer. For this article, I’ve been re-watching Ex Machina (2015) with the beguiling female android Ava who is fully equipped for giving and receiving sexual pleasure. In the 2015 TV series Humans (2015), Anita is a domestic nanny robot and her married owner yields to the temptation of initiating her sex mode, to the repulsion of his wife and family.

If we take a step back, we realize that mechanical assistance for sexual gratification goes way back. According to Wikipedia, for example, “Dildos in one form or another have been present in society throughout history… The world’s oldest known dildo is a siltstone 20-centimeter phallus from the Upper Palaeolithic period 30,000 years ago…” Dildos are also depicted on ancient Greek urns. Could sexual androids simply be an elaborate extension of such devices? Or is there something deeper at play here?
Might sex with androids ever become socially acceptable? Consider the case of vibrators which we might regard as a first approximation. In 2009, Indiana University reported two research studies on vibrators used for sexual purposes. They found vibrator use during sexual interactions to be common in nationally representative samples of adult American men and women, with approximately 53 % of women and 45% of men ages 18 to 60. They concluded that “not only is vibrator use common, but the two studies also show that vibrator use is associated with more positive sexual function and being more proactive in caring for one’s sexual health.”
The wide acceptance of vibrators can also be seen as contributing to the growth of the sex toy industry, which in 2016 Forbes Magazine described as an unstoppable $15 billion industry.

I was surprised to discover the degree to which the sex-with-robots scenario is already upon us. For example:

  • According to the Responsible Robots report cited above, “These new sex robots include: Harmony by Abyss Creations, Android Love Doll by Android Love Dolls, Roxxxy Gold and Rocky Gold by TrueCompanion, and Suzie Software and Harry Harddrive by Sex Bot Company. They range in price from around $5,000 for an Android Love Doll to around $15,000 for Harmony (Kleeman, 2017). Customizations and addons can drive those prices up significantly. Browsing the company websites gives an idea of what are seen as the important features of sex robots: appearance, mobility, feel, and artificial intelligence.”
  • These robots feature natural-looking skin, are said to be warm to the touch, and some can execute programmed sexual movements.
  • Some are full-body, life-sized with flexible internal skeletons that allow variations in positioning.
  • Some already have or will have limited conversational ability via Artificial Intelligence.

A variation known as teledildonics allows couples at a distance to sexual stimulate one another. Again, according to the Responsible Robots report, “Companies now offering distance teledildonic devices include Lovense with the male Max and the female Nora, and Kiiroo with the male Pearl and female Onyx. Kiiroo uses capacitive touch technology to allow one user to control the other’s device. This, the company claims, encompasses all senses and allows users to stimulate each other visually, audibly and physically.”

As with so many other examples, the technology is moving faster than the codification of legal, ethical or psychological considerations. So regardless of how you or I might feel about this, the technology is willy-nilly driving us into this brave new world.

In fact, it’s well known that the pornography industry has been a key driver in the development of many of the technologies we take for granted such as high speed Internet downloading, increases in video resolution and frame rates. According to Business Insider, “While the military created the Internet, it would not have found a solid consumer base without porn. Not only did the adult industry find enough early consumers to keep the Internet around, but it then pioneered streaming video, tracking devices and online credit card transactions. The concept of ecommerce, which is now a major part of the world economy, owes much of its early existence to porn.”
As I concluded earlier, Sex with robots will increasingly become the focus of heated religious, philosophical, political, academic, and legal debate.

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