(S)ex Machina: On Sex Robots and The Future of Human Relationships

Maryam Madani investigates the growing popularity of sex robots, their representation in film and their possible affect on society and relationships

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Still from “Ex Machina”

Note: This article originally appeared in “The Edition”, DIT’s college newspaper edited by Dan Grennan and Nikki Murphy.

My commute to Aungier Street leads me past the neon pink façade of Good Vibrations. I’ve never taken more than a lingering peek inside. But today, I find myself in the backroom, with a fully naked, life-sized and discomfitingly life-like doll sitting spread-eagled on a chair in front of me. She is anatomically correct, Asian in appearance, with dark hair and pinkish-white silicone skin and is for sale at €450 a pop.  

Gary the manager says that a few customers have bought them. It seems that apart from the internet, his store is the only place in Dublin where they are available. “It hasn’t taken off here because they are [simply] not here yet. I think if they went on sale and were out there, they would sell.”

Sex dolls equipped with robotic parts that have the ability to move and speak with AI programming are not popular in Ireland yet but they are becoming increasingly popular in the US, UK, China and other parts of Europe.

They are bringing with them a wave of concerns for the future of human relationships. Dr. David Levy, author of “Love and Sex with Robots” has said “I believe that humans will want to marry robots by about the year 2050.”

The dolls are generally marketed towards those who are lonely or have difficulty with social interactions. But there is concern that their use may damage our capacity to form relationships with each other.

Gary is not so sure. He feels that to a certain extent, a customer is likely “pre-exposed into whatever condition he’s in, before he even buys the sex doll. The problem is evident before he even makes the purchase, be it loneliness, or a personal fantasy. It’s a chicken and egg thing”. He does worry that a robot might “enable them to stay in that position, of not socialising”.

In her thesis on Sex Robots, Carmen McNerney Quigley tracks the development of sex robots, and how men have always dreamed of creating the ideal woman. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses in 8 A.D, Pygmalion, who had grown tired of human women and created Galatea, with whom he fell in love with and became obsessed with dressing, cleaning, and bedding. Venus eventually brought her to life. The concept of creating perfect beings to bonk or fall in love with has never left our cultural imagination, from works as modern as “Ex Machina”, “Her”, “Blade Runner”, “Weird Science” and even the “Bride of Frankenstein”.

“The thing is, is the ideal which you imagine actually truly what’s ideal?” asks Ben Field, a technologist at Tog Hackerspace in Dublin with work in the field of robotics. “We’re the worst judges of our own character: we’re narcissistic, we frame ourselves in the best possible light, and really a partner who challenges and complements you, while also contradicts parts of your personality, is what makes life more interesting for people, because no one likes predictability. Being kept on your toes makes things much more interesting.”

“I think if you were given the partner that you had formed, sculpted, crafted to be what you imagined it to be, you would get bored of it very quickly. And then you’d probably get quite dark.” Gary isn’t sure whether the doll would satisfy sadistic urges: “I think from a psychological standpoint, it wouldn’t be release at all. It’s just an object, there’s no reaction, there’s no feeling of power if that’s what they’re seeking.”

The Campaign Against Sex Robots bases much of its criticism on a feminist standpoint, fearing that the dolls may normalise violence against women, and encourage literal objectification of women.

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The “Harmony” RealDoll 

One only has to look at the porn-inspired bodies of the biggest manufacturer, RealDoll, to understand the concern. Their dolls are fully customizable from skin tone to vagina lips. Ben wonders if pornography and the mainstream media “are more the cause of concern in forcing this narrative and image on people:  I think the manufacturers would just be following suit”.

The potential positive uses as sex therapy dolls are already being assessed, not just for the lonely but for paedophiles, for the disabled, the elderly in care homes. Ben can see some potential here: “For example, having a companion that is incapable of taking advantage of you and is focused solely on your well-being would be advantageous in a rehabilitation/trauma setting.” But with some areas including paedophilia, he is concerned that “you’re substituting and possibly reinforcing that behaviour”.

Gary thinks that we tend to “jump on the negative” in assessing these things and he’s “sure it can have some positive benefits”.  

In the 2007 film “Lars and the Real Girl”, starring Ryan Gosling, we see a positive interpretation of the possibilities of sex dolls, as a way for a lonely person to transition to intimate relationships with real people.

As to whether we should fear this technology replacing our intimate relationships, ultimately Ben thinks “there are traits in humans which can’t be emulated. I hesitate to use the word ‘soul’ for it’s spiritual/religious connotations, but it’s the most appropriate. Until we have AI that are capable of independent thought, creativity and a degree of emotional intelligence, then I can’t see it working.

When we get to the point that AI are capable of such things, and robots that are suitably life like – I think we will have more pressing issues to handle, namely the existential crisis of a race of sentient beings that are vastly stronger and faster than ourselves that could see us as inferior or as a threat. Not unlike Homo Sapiens and the Neanderthal.”

Although we will continue to see technology being used to commodify every aspect of our lives, Ben still thinks it’s important to stop and ask these questions.

“It’s at the point where the march of technology is inexorable, it will continue whether or not we want it to because there are vested interests, people need to make a bottom line and they’re going to try and use more and more invasive means to make that money. Imagine if you have an ad-supported sex robot, trying to sell you things while you’re using it? Technology is going in this direction: how do we feel about it and what do we want to do about it?”

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