Are We Ready For The Robot Sex Revolution?

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Illustration of three female sexbots. Image: Public Domain
At what point does the artificial simulation of sex go too far?

There’s a limit to realism when it comes to flirting with artificial intelligence. Since 1987, the Virtual Woman software program has had users strike up conversations with a 2D-generated image of a woman.

Virtual Woman was one part chatbot, one part video-game; and one of the oldest artificial ‘intelligence’ on the internet. The novelty of ‘chatting’ with a robot (albeit one with pre-determined responses) made many install it. And with further iterations, one could customize the avatar’s look, ethnicity, personality and even career (one option provides for a spy, who will regale you with tales of her exploits).

In 2007, two security guards missed a heist because they were so engrossed in the program.

If a wholly-digital artificial intelligence could generate so much interest, what’s the future going to be like when humanoid sexbots are a reality?

Today robots are far more lifelike than those of the 1980’s. And some are even capable of having sex with you. The question is whether humanity is ready for the sexbot – and why it exists in the first place.

Why do robots have a gender?

Though utilitarian robots like the ones NASA designs are usually made gender-neutral, those that have to interface with humans are often given gender-defined traits – pink lips, breasts and of course, a voice.

Some experiments showed people to feel more comfortable around ‘female’ robots. But female robots also pose the idea of the cyborg femme fatale. It’s an idea as old as the Greek legend of Pandora, a woman who was created by the pantheon gods to seduce and punish Prometheus. Feminist theorist Laura Mulvey calls Pandora the “prototype for the exquisite female android…and femme fatale.”

The female form, as artificially conceived through a male gaze, tends to provoke existential questions. The artists Hans Bellmer famously made a life-size sculpture of a young girl. Simply called “the Doll,” it was a surrealist protest against the Nazi regime – equal parts erotic as it was disturbing to look at. It suggested that we had made machines of ourselves, and chased after them with a disquieting lust.

Bellmer’s dolls play a part in the cyberpunk anime “Ghost in the Shell 2”. But as disquieting as they are to look at, they don’t approach the uncanny feeling one gets when one interacts with a genuinely humanoid robot.

The uncanny valley

It’s an observed psychological phenomenon, first postulated by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970. It’s the unease many feel when face to face with a robot that’s humanoid…but not fully human-like. It’s a thin line, presentable on a graph.

As robots grow more humanlike in appearance, the human trust of them increases before plunging suddenly once they are ‘near-human.’ It might have to do with the unnatural sight of something close to life but not quite alive – a zombie.

Overcoming this valley is the biggest challenge of the sexbot industry. For numerous cyber-girlfriends have mastered the art of seducing men through chat and conversation. But what happens when a sexbot gets close to you?

Of course, not everyone will react the same way. There’s a fetish, called technofetishism and Usenet forums like Alt.Sex.Fetish.Robots were where you could post if you had it. Calling themselves ASFR-ians, they are most likely the first to try out sex robots when they hit commercial production.

Of course, sexbots have been around for a while. And while India is famous for the Kamasutra, it was the Mughals who first pioneered the automated sex doll – as a 17th-19th-century painting (the date, creator, and context are unknown) depicts. It shows a Mughal having intercourse with a headless sex doll and a manually-operated dildo-machine behind him. It’s a Mughal version of a sex machine.

It’s unsure whether the painting was in the context of a depiction of sin or of a depiction of a crazy, sexual idea. It does make one wonder how India will react to the idea of the sexbots.

Legislative hurdles

It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to just buy one off the bat. India’s sex toy industry always operated underground – but e-commerce saw it hit mainstream prominence for a brief period.

E-tailers like Snapdeal had Sexual Wellness sections where one could order sex toys online – and it would arrive in discreet packaging so the neighbours wouldn’t know. Some, like ohmysecret, were dedicated sex toy websites. But a 2015 court case saw these sections taken down, as it contravened Section 377 for being “against the order of nature.”

India is a country where un-marital sex is frowned upon. But what if you married your sexbot?

Author David Levy predicts that humans and robots could get legally married by 2050. Is a customizable robot the ideal fit for the Indian arranged marriage? Only the future will tell. Sexbots will have a lot of bump and niggles to get past before they get feasible. Foremost will be their safety. But pricing constraints might encourage homemade solutions. One can only hope that Indian Jugaad doesn’t result in a potentially dangerous sexbot – such as those that already exist in the United States.

Sexbots raise ethical questions – in particular about the objectification of men and women. So far, the sexual fiction of techno sex isn’t encouraging – it suggests a large degree of rape and objectification of the feminine. But perhaps, a truly human-like robot will be difficult to be cruel to?

Only time, and humanity can tell.

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