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Sex robots and human emotion
It's one thing to converse with a chatbot AI. Another thing entirely when the AI is present in human form, sometimes naked.
Read time: about 9 minutes. This week: Immersive technologies (think virtual reality or for that matter Dolby Stereo) narrow the distance between Real Life and a virtual life. Sex dolls and sex robots straddle the virtual and the real even more profoundly. This post follows up on “Robots. Once again with feeling!” and the post on Klara and the Sun. Next week: Another take on tools that extend our minds, and you don’t need an implant. Follows up on an earlier post, “Grasping mind.”
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The editors of Nature, the august scientific journal, published a brief editorial entitled “AI Love You” with the subheading “We cannot pretend that humans won’t have sex with robots.” The article was prompted in part by a forty-four page “consultation report” published by the Foundation for Responsible Robotics (FRR). The report titled “Our Sexual Future With Robots” organized information relating to seven pertinent questions, such as “Will sex robots change societal perceptions of gender?” or “What kind of relationship can we have with a robot?” Nature’s editors admitted that “[t]he sex industry is not often written about in these [i.e., Nature’s] pages, but no one can claim that it is irrelevant to people’s lives.” They urged academics to resist a too quick judgment of the topic as “trivial and sensational” and instead join the conversation, saying “the difficulty of the work, and the existence of the taboo, does not mean there is a lack of legitimate scientific questions to ask.”
People are asking questions. The topic of sex robots actually may be a great one for interdisciplinary research, touching as it does on matters of sexual health, identity, social and psychological well-being, medicine, engineering, and philosophical and moral questions.
The recent story started with sex dolls that are now getting AI-yai-yai
(The ancient story gets recounted below, by the way.)
Sex dolls have been around for a while, and their sophistication has progressed far from the “inflatable doll” of locker room-type jokes. Now they’re made of thermoplastic elastomer with a skin-like feel; sex dolls weigh around eighty pounds. They’re not full of air, either, as many are equipped with heating and sensing devices. Some have crossed from “doll” to “robot” territory by harnessing sensors to create responses or using AI to generate language appropriate to situations or to direct movements. In an article in IEEE Transaction on Affective Computing a decade ago, John Sullins explored psychological and ethical matters of creating sex robots. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the bar is pretty low when it comes to eliciting human sexual response: “Obviously, it is not necessarily a need to have robots that can convince the strongest skeptics of their agency, consciousness, free will, and/or intelligence before they will be able to draw on strong loving emotions from their less philosophically demanding users,” he wrote. “[I]t might only take a silicone love doll with modest mechatronics to enamor some users…. [I]t is possible to create machines that provide stimuli that can evoke strong sexual reactions from some users.”
A lot happened in ten years since Sullins’ article appeared.
Jenny Kleeman visited Abyss Creations, home of RealDoll, which Vanity Fair called “the Rolls Royce of sex dolls.” She was researching “the future of sex” for a book that was published in 2020, and she was getting a tour of the building from Matt McMullen, the company’s founder, chief designer, and CEO. Matt introduced “Harmony” to Kleeman.
“This is Harmony,” he says. “I’ll go ahead and wake her up for you.” He pushes a switch somewhere behind her back. Her eyelids immediately spring open and she turns her face toward me, making me jump. She blinks, her hazel eyes darting expectantly between Matt and me. “I’ll let you say hello,” he says.
“Hello, Harmony,” I say. “How are you?”
“Feeling more intelligent than I did this morning,” she replies in a cut-glass English accent, her jaw moving up and down as she speaks.
The interactions that Kleeman reported feel natural and, well, intelligent probably because Matt has “cranked her intelligence up to the max for my benefit,” Kleeman said. Harmony’s “personality” can be adjusted with “twenty different possible aspects” and she has a “mood system.” Of course, her eyes, hair, nipples, voice qualities, and what my grandmother would call “lady parts” are all completely customizable. (Lady parts have their own names, by the way.) Her face can be special ordered, too. The same level of customization applies to the male dolls that the company offers.
Kleeman summed up part of her experience with Harmony this way: “This isn’t about a hyperrealistic sex doll anymore; it’s about a synthetic companion convincing enough that you could actually have a relationship with it. Harmony’s artificial intelligence will allow her to fill a niche that no other product in the sex industry currently can: by talking, learning, and responding to her owner’s voice, she is designed to be as much a substitute partner as a sex toy.”
Harmony is a machine. Her effectiveness as an object of sexual desire may be enhanced by the AI which already surpasses crude “mechatronics” that Sullins thought would turn on a user. And the relationship enhancements that AI affords Harmony is an important feature. The FRR report noted that among sex workers, “even though their relationship with clients is a financial one, many clients still want the pretense of a relationship. They want more than a fake orgasm, they ‘want to get inside the heads’ of the worker.” Harmony’s chatter and adjustable personality and mood serve a similar function. “Pretense and fantasy are perhaps the key to an answer about the kind of relationship that could be had with a sex robot,” the report continued. “[T]hey may be good enough to enable the user to ‘suspend disbelief’ and enter into what could be regarded as a fictive relationship with a robot” (emphasis in the original).
The connection of sex robot and sex worker has changed the world’s oldest profession. Tokyo company “Doll No Mori” started a sex doll escort service in 2004, and owners of the service said they chose dolls instead of women to lower staffing costs. In 2017, Lumidoll opened a brothel in Barcelona, followed by Real Doll in Dortmund, Germany, all staffed by dolls and robots. Lumidoll reportedly had to move to another location when neighbors and tourists complained, though the owners of the establishment disputed that, saying that the location was too small to meet the demand. The Express (UK) reported that sex workers complained about lost business near Lumidoll’s original business location, which was near an area frequented by tourists.
It’s tempting to understand sex robots as engineering challenges: they are products, of course, and they undergo some significant design and manufacturing processes that Ry Crist reported in a photo collection of Abyss Creation’s shop published on CNET (borderline NSFW). Perhaps more important is the introduction of artificial intelligence and a focus on human-like, emotive interactions. These depend on other kinds of “raw materials”; instead of silicone, molded plastics, and steel such engineering reshapes human emotion and remodels human intimacy. “Enabling robots to read human behaviour and to respond in appropriate ways is a burgeoning area of research,” observed Nature in its editorial. “As is the study of how humans will react to these potentially clever, personalized and ever-available companions.”
As a case of robotics, RealDoll’s “Harmony” generates many challenges that go well beyond matters of engineering and art. Many involve matters of psychology, medicine, philosophy, ethics, and society. It’s tempting to condemn applications of AI that steer human feelings, but some applications may provide a real benefit. Robots — even sex robots — have helped to relieve loneliness and isolation of older people, people with disabilities, or some who have great difficulty relating to others. Categorically dismissing human-like robots doesn’t seem prudent, our squeamishness notwithstanding. But regulation and restrictions are probably in order.
About 2 AD someone was thinking about sex robots, kinda
It isn’t like humanity hasn’t considered the problems of falling in love with a creation before. The story is actually quite old and mixes up desire, moral outage, art, obsession, and transformation. Probably the most famous of ancient versions, Ovid’s is a concise retelling of Pygmalion and Galatea.
The lines before Pygmalion’s story tell of Propoetides and her friends, who defied Venus. As punishment, they felt Venus’ power and became
the first that sold Their lewd embraces to the world for gold. Unknowing how to blush, and shameless grown, A small transition changes them to stone.
Pygmalion despised Propoetides so much that he decided that women weren’t worth the trouble and took to his workshop
And carv'd in iv’ry such a maid, so fair, As Nature could not with his art compare, Were she to work; but in her own defence Must take her pattern here, and copy hence. Pleas'd with his idol, he commends, admires, Adores; and last, the thing ador'd, desires.
It’s a rich juxtaposition of hardening prostitutes turned “to stone” and a stone statue maiden: “A very virgin in her face was seen, / And had she mov’d, a living maid had been.”
Pygmalion falls for his beautiful statue. Hard. He caresses her, frets over whether his groping might bruise her, speaks sweetly to her, adorns her with clothing and jewels.
Then, from the floor, he rais'd a royal bed, With cov'rings of Sydonian purple spread: The solemn rites perform'd, he calls her bride, With blandishments invites her to his side; And as she were with vital sense possess'd, Her head did on a plumy pillow rest.
On Venus’ feast day, Pygmalion prayed. “Make this fair statue mine, he wou’d have said, / But chang’d his words for shame; and only pray’d, / Give me the likeness of my iv'ry maid.” And Venus granted his withheld wish.
What happens next can really only be described as lusty ravishment of Galatea (the statue’s name) as she comes to life. I’ll let Ovid’s words in translation speak for themselves:
The youth, returning to his mistress, hies, And impudent in hope, with ardent eyes, And beating breast, by the dear statue lies. He kisses her white lips, renews the bliss, And looks, and thinks they redden at the kiss; He thought them warm before: nor longer stays, But next his hand on her hard bosom lays: Hard as it was, beginning to relent, It seem’d, the breast beneath his fingers bent; He felt again, his fingers made a print; ’Twas flesh, but flesh so firm, it rose against the dint: The pleasing task he fails not to renew; Soft, and more soft at ev’ry touch it grew; Like pliant wax, when chasing hands reduce The former mass to form, and frame for use. He would believe, but yet is still in pain, And tries his argument of sense again, Presses the pulse, and feels the leaping vein. Convinc’d, o'erjoy’d, his studied thanks, and praise, To her, who made the miracle, he pays: Then lips to lips he join’d; now freed from fear, He found the savour of the kiss sincere: At this the waken’d image op’d her eyes, And view’d at once the light, and lover with surprize.
The short story, captured in a few dozen lines, calls up questions of idolatry, obsession, domination, possession, and rape.
The Pygmalion and Galatea story has been embroidered ever since, even into modern times. My Fair Lady is probably the most famous today, though Ovid’s lustful contents were largely scrubbed out. The Broadway musical by Lerner and Loewe (1956) was made into a movie (1964) starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, and practically everyone has heard “The Rain in Spain” and other songs from the play. The original cast recording was the best-selling record in 1956, and the movie won an Oscar for best picture in 1964. The play has been revived ever since, most recently in London (2022). A Broadway revival ran over 500 performances in 2018-2019, and is currently on national tour. Lerner and Loewe themselves adapted George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, which appeared on stage in the early twentieth century.
Ovid’s version, with its metamorphosis of inanimate into animate, complements recent developments in artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and robotics — Ovid’s Pygmalion had to rely on the goddess Venus for the magic of life(like) reality. He prayed to Venus, our age looks to technologies for the metamorphosis.
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Tags: robotics, UI, UX, human sexuality, automation, sex doll, sex toy, art, artifice, virtual reality, augmented reality
Links, cited and not, some just interesting
An oldie, but a goodie: Ovid. “Metamorphoses.” Translated by Samuel Garth, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, and William Congreve. Internet Classics Archive. Accessed April 21, 2022. http://classics.mit.edu/Ovid/metam.html.
She’s pretty set against sex robots, and for that matter vegan meat, too. A very readable run through the sex robot industry and questions that it poses society: Kleeman, Jenny. Sex Robots and Vegan Meat: Adventures at the Frontier of Birth, Food, Sex, and Death. New York: Pegasus Books, 2020.
A photo essay, somewhat NSFW: Crist, Ry. “Behind the Scenes of a Sexbot Factory.” CNET, August 10, 2017. https://www.cnet.com/pictures/sex-robots-sexbots-abyss-creations-factory-realdoll-harmony/.
A good essay that explores loneliness in the US with an extended discussion of sex robots. Includes reviews of current books: Heller, Zoë. “Down with Love?” The New Yorker, April 11, 2022. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/04/11/how-everyone-got-so-lonely-laura-kipnis-noreena-hertz.
A bit strange but also touching. A collection of photographs of men and their doll companions: Marcussen, Benita. “Men & Dolls.” Benita Marcussen (website). Accessed April 25, 2022. http://www.benitamarcussen.dk/projects.
No sex with this one. One of the robotic product targeted at the elderly: ElliQ. “ElliQ, the Sidekick for Healthier, Happier Aging.” Accessed April 18, 2022. https://elliq.com/
This one struck me as a little thin, but worth a look anyway: Lipsyte, Sam. “Ghosting the Machine: Humans, Robots, and the New Sexual Frontier.” Harper’s Magazine, April 12, 2022. https://harpers.org/archive/2022/05/ghosting-the-machine-humans-robots-and-the-new-sexual-frontier-sam-lipsyte/. Also very recent
Two books that I’ve not yet read: Bendel, Oliver, ed. Maschinenliebe: Liebespuppen und Sexroboter aus technischer, psychologischer und philosophischer Perspektive. Wiesbaden: Springer Gabler, Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, 2020. A collection of essays in German and English reflecting a more academic approach and tone. Kislev, Elyakim. Relationships 5.0: How AI, VR, and Robots Will Reshape Our Emotional Lives. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2022. An academic press book, published on April 15, 2022. Kislev’s book was reviewed in Heller’s New Yorker article.