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What sex robots say about us

The doom of the sex robot lies in the very quality that makes it so appealing as an idea, the fact that it is human-like

Gigolo Joe (right), an android, in Steven Spielberg’s, ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’.
Gigolo Joe (right), an android, in Steven Spielberg’s, ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’.

A few days ago, the Foundation for Responsible Robotics, which was established in Holland, released a scholarly paper on “Our Sexual Future With Robots". This in itself implies that it is inevitable that people will have sex with robots. The paper does ask if we would, but it is the type of question that is only meant to set up more substantial questions—when will humans begin to have sex with robots, and what would be the consequences?

Already, there are sex dolls with a degree of computation power. None of them can walk but that is only because walking is expensive in robotics and peripheral to sex (for most people). But there are sex dolls that can get into many positions—the Android Love Doll, for instance, can assume “50 automated sexual positions", according to the paper. Who knew there were 50. Some dolls can simulate sexual movements. I assume that the most expensive sex doll, Harmony, which costs about Rs10 lakh, can do all this. But it is nothing compared to what some companies are working on. In about five years, the paper predicts, sex androids with an impressive capability to imitate humans will be widely available, and there will be several problems.

There is deep discomfort among women, who are following the news, about the mass production of the female sex android. Writers in the West have begun to overtly and covertly insult the type of men who would acquire the robots. “Maybe it’s time to take misogynistic sexual dysfunction more seriously," wrote British commentator Deborah Orr in The Guardian last year. “Maybe people who want to buy sex robots need to present the agreement of a couple of doctors, before they are judged emotionally restricted enough to need to retreat to such an inhuman fantasy."

In India, Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code makes the entire sex toy market illegal, and this arrangement may not change in coming years, but we can be sure that sex robots will have a thriving underground market. In more liberal nations where people would be able to purchase the robots with greater ease, there is a sense that something is wrong with the whole idea. But fear of the sex robot is unnecessary. The sex android is bound to be a spectacular failure. It would be nothing more than an expensive version of the sex doll, at best a fringe experimentation.

The doom of the sex robot lies in the very quality that makes it so appealing as an idea: It is human-like.

For centuries, humans have created mythical beings in their own image. Superior, certainly, but human-like. The rise of scientific rationality did not have an impact on this fixation. When humans conceived the first automaton, they, naturally, thought it must look human to perform human tasks. And that was why the first generations of robots failed. It appears that the human form is useless for most useful tasks. So the android that would be the perfect mechanized servant or factory worker never came to be. Robots began to succeed when they were liberated from the human form.

A small moving disk could clean a house more efficiently than a large doll standing on two legs. The most sophisticated robots today, which crawl through the internet at the speed of light, are formless. But how can the history of android failure be an argument against the sex android? It would appear that if there was one area where the anthropomorphic robot would have an advantage over other kinds, it would be in sex. But this is a wrong assumption.

Considering our current level of robotics, where androids find it hard to open doors or climb steps, a human-like sex robot would not be able to perform many of the physical manoeuvres needed for sex, which are far more complex than opening a door, not including foreplay. So the creation of a sex android would mean serious compromises in the capacity to simulate pleasurable human acts. Like the vacuum cleaner and the dishwasher are far superior, considering their objectives, to any known android, the most meaningful sex robots would be the ones that do not look human but perform specialized tasks well. Also, the more lifelike the sex robots appear, the more lifeless they would seem, and the more repulsive they would be to most people.

The overestimation of the sex android is largely a contribution of popular cinema. In Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a gigolo android conveys to us, and one of his clients, that after she has had him she would never want a real man. It is a mystery how the gigolo survived—men would have deployed idealism to destroy such serious competition.

As part of the research for this column, a friend asked me to watch an episode of the teleseries Black Mirror. When the episode opened with a beautiful young woman walking in a heavy downpour carrying hot drinks, one of the cups for a man in the car, and then driving the vehicle, and looking at him fondly even though he is constantly distracted by his phone, I was certain she was the sex robot and not the wife. But I was wrong. Eventually, she brings her dead man back as an android, and even though she appears to have vastly improved sex, she begins to behave like a spouse for the first time in the story—she is always annoyed with him and kicks him out of the house for reasons he is unable to comprehend. She hates the android because “it" resembles her lover but it is not him, it is not human.

Many people believe that such robots are attainable. But there is nothing in our present technology that remotely suggests we are capable of this level of sophistication in the near future. The most probable lover robot is hinted at in the film Her, which has an introvert falling in love with a sentient computer operating system. We find this love story convincing though because the voice of the software is Scarlett Johansson. But Her contains seeds of where scientists believe the future of robotics lies—it would merge with virtual reality and Artificial Intelligence. We would be projecting ourselves into a machine and we would be falling in love with the projections of the others. The scientist Ray Kurzweil and the billionaire Elon Musk very seriously believe that very soon we will be able to download our brain into machines. Maybe it is the rich man’s hope for immortality masquerading as a scientific argument, but it is the most sensible prognosis yet for an effective sentient android.

For better or worse, the best sex robots of the future will only be us.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People.

The writer tweets at @manujosephsan

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