Artificial Desire: Build Your Own Partner

A cursory search of the all-knowing internet will reveal that I am far from the first person to write about this topic. In fact, in addition to countless books, articles, videos, video games, and preachy religious websites, this past November even saw the First International Congress on Love and Sex With Robots, featuring such panels and presentations as “robot emotions,” “intelligent sex hardware,” and my personal favorite, “teledildonics.” While there is a lot of noise, frightening imagery, and confusion around the topic, one thing that most people agree on – except the religious extremists – is that love and sex with robots will eventually be commonplace, and likely within our lifetime. Hell, even Joaquin Phoenix fell in love with an AI – though admittedly, he may not be the best example to prove my point. 

Pun completely intended, there are two ways to approach this topic: top-down (love) or bottom-up (sex).

Interestingly, the first instance of the concept of robotic love dates back to the first ever use of the term “robot.” In Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), artificial beings revolt against their creators; the play ends with a male and female robot falling in love and inheriting the earth. However, when it comes to interspecies erotica, the first instance of human-robot love – to my knowledge– was in Lester del Rey’s 1938 short story Helen O’Loy. The plot tells of two young men who modify a household robot to develop emotions. Helen, the robot, falls in love with one of the men who initially resists her, but ultimately marries her. They grow old together and, only in the story’s finale, is it revealed that both men were actually in love with her all along. 

Since these early works, countless pieces have been written by sci-fi authors over the years detailing robots developing emotions and falling in love with their engineering creators or vice-versa (and yes, the engineers also had to develop emotions). One of my personal favorites is William Gibson’s Idoru, where an aging rock star falls in love with a bodiless synthetic personality (artificial intelligence), and much hilarity and drama ensues. Gibson’s novel deals with many of the major themes you would expect: ethics, social stigma, misunderstanding, peer judgment, and the belief that our rock star, Rez, has lost his mind.

David Levy, arguably the foremost authority on the topic, even wrote a practical, and disturbingly thorough book on the topic, detailing the cultural history of our fascination with robots and some of its far-reaching implications. In Love and Sex With Robots, he views our potential love of robots and AI as an extension of the affection people show towards their pets, phones, vehicles, or other non-human constructs. Like Gibson, Levy naturally acknowledges that this is all a touch weird and, at least initially, will come with a certain layer of social stigma and judgment. However, he draws on historical examples such as oral sex, masturbation, and homosexuality to cite instances where public perception has gradually shifted towards acceptance in the initial face of outcry. 

Regardless, if we were to run with the premise of artificial sentience – that we will one day create robots capable of emotion – then isn’t the idea of people falling in love with robots not only plausible, but pretty much inevitable? A truly sentient AI should, in theory, be indistinguishable from human intelligence and therefore, falling in love with a robot should really be no different than falling in love with a person. Even if we haven’t quite perfected the hardware, one only need look to the wedding parties in World of Warcraft or Second Life to realize that recent tech generations aren’t too bothered by the lack of physical form.

Yet, physicality is a part of love that shouldn’t be ignored – and what fun would this article be if we didn’t get a bit mechanically depraved?

First, to anyone who finds the idea of having sex with a machine ‘ignoble’ and ‘disgusting’, it only takes a brief look to the multi-billion dollar global vibrator industry to highlight that we, as a society, seem to have no qualms about using machines for gratification. Granted, particularly in the early, unrefined days, the experience of sex with a physical robot may be more than a touch awkward and require a stretch of the imagination. However, we human beings seem to have few limits on what we can both imagine and accomplish, particularly when it comes to matters of the bedroom.

As you might have suspected, efforts to date largely serve the male market. You may have also guessed that the current technological leaders in this space are coming out of Japan. Tenga, a Japanese company trying to define the future of masturbation, is one example of such among the Flip Holes and Fleshlights. Beyond their take on the main cylindrical unit, which Tenga claims as the most advanced on the market due to “active detailed textures,” the system integrates a Novint Falcon to move the cylinder and help simulate motion around the tube. Moreover, they have created a cartoon-virtual environment and, using an Oculus Rift, are able to essentially immerse the user into a VR cartoon porno, featuring them as the male co-star. Feel free to engage in further research for yourself on the system’s capabilities through hilarious videos on the internet, which depict participants getting mechanical hand jobs at tech conferences.

In theory, there are some great benefits to the prospect of robotic sex. It would be tremendously safe from an infection standpoint, though I won’t comment on the risk of mechanical failure. It could decrease levels of prostitution in both adults and children, though the thoughts of what wild robotic fantasies some may envision make me want to crawl out of my skin. It would reduce complications of emotion, intimacy, and sexual anxiety (you’re welcome,teenage boys). And of course, since it’s all about you, robotic sex would become a veritable home run derby of orgasms – though the romantic in me does find something sad about the ability to program the “perfect orgasm.”

Of course, there is a catch to our robotic lovers: babies. While many of the darkest corners of both our bedrooms and minds may have forgotten that the evolutionarily-intended function of sex is procreation, the fact remains: the reason you get that special feeling when you look at a swell gal or fella is, in the strictest of biological senses, because your subconscious is trying to pass on its genetic code and preserve our species. Yet, until we invent artificial fallopian tubes that pop out digital ovum or robotic testes capable of mass-scale production of cyber-sperm – each of which can fuse with human gametes to create some blasphemous homo-robo zygote – we might as well be flying solo.

And we need only look to the declining nation of Japan to see the effects of a reduced birth rate. To be fair, Japan’s lackluster interest in babies has to do with strict social codes and a backlash against traditional marriage, not the excessive fetishization of technology (I was as surprised  as you). Regardless of intent, the nation is already beginningto experience the side effects. Reports have hypothesized the disappearance of smaller towns, the shrinking of national workforce, a risk of economic collapse, and, in extreme scenarios, the extinction of an entire nation and culture.

These types of impacts outline a fairly solid counterpoint to the “if it feels good, do it” argument of robo-love, and suddenly make the idea of falling in love with an AI, or buying the world’s greatest sexbot, seem pretty selfish if it means potentially contributing to the downfall of mankind. I’m not about to close this article by siding with the religious extremists, but from a purely long-term economic standpoint, maybe the sexbot community needs to consider designing for artificial polygamy or robotic three-ways.

Shane Saunderson is head of health devices at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada.

the author

Shane Saunderson

Shane Saunderson is VP, IC/Things at Idea Couture. See his full bio here.