Technology is evolving quickly. The gaming industry and virtual reality are reaching new levels of innovation. Developments in artificial intelligence are advancing and robots are being created. Meanwhile, the porn industry is at its highest peak in production. Due to the advent of the Internet, adult entertainment has become a highly competitive market with an ever-increasing need to produce more extreme visuals to draw in viewers. As porn becomes saturated and consumers become increasingly bored and desensitised, pornographers are searching for new ways to differentiate their products from others.
It is the collision of such technological developments, social conditions and cultural trends that have resulted in the creation of sex robots. Where there is demand, there will be supply. Where there is curiosity, there will be creation. But just because “we can” doesn’t necessarily mean “we should”.
According to artificial intelligence researcher and author of Love and Sex With Robots, David Levy, sexual and personal relations with robots will become commonplace in the next few decades. In 2009, Levy won the Loebner Prize in artificial intelligence (A.I) for creating the most human like ‘chatbot’, a computer program designed to simulate conversation with humans. Levy believes this software could enhance the experience of using sex robots.
Artist and entrepreneur Matt McMullen is one of the people making Levy’s predictions about sex with robots an actuality. McMullen is the creator of RealDolls – life size anatomically correct, completely poseable silicone sex dolls. McMullen and his team are now working on integrating emerging technologies to add robotics, A.I and virtual reality to the dolls. To hear McMullen explain the artistic impulse that drives him to ‘sculpt women’, his ambitions for A.I assimilation and to see the level at which these dolls are currently at, watch this video posted by The New York Times.
[Image: Some of McMullen facial creations inside the RealDoll workshop. Image Source.]
With the introduction of A.I, future owners of RealDolls would not only be able to select physical attributes such as height, race, eye colour, breast size and vaginal appearance, but also select whether their doll is submissive, dominant, flirtatious, or if she says ‘Oww’ when spanked for example. Each doll is given a name, a personality and the sole purpose to serve her owner.
In an interview with Vanity Fair McMullen explained that the aim is to animate the dolls, adding that the ultimate fantasy is to ‘bring her to life’. However, it is clear that McMullen’s true ambition is to design a woman that looks and behaves in the most desirable way for his customers.
Female sex robots are modelled on the likeness of the human, female body. The sex robot is an object presented as ‘female’ that is bought in exchange for money. This subsequently enforces the view that the female body is a commodity. The female becomes regarded as something to be moulded and manipulated.
Because of this, the demand for, and creation of sex robots arguably exposes a disturbing social desire to own, to control, and to keep women.
[Image: Matt McMullen converses with a RealDoll in the The New York Times video. Image Source.]
In McMullen’s RealDoll showroom, Vanity Fair also reported that, as well as an array of RealDolls, customers are greeted by a suspended male doll of McMullen himself, playing air guitar on a red upholstered throne. This arrogant display – the God like creator looking down upon his creation – is a recurring theme amongst humankind throughout history. Robot creation is providing the perfect platform for this narrative to be performed.
The concept of human beings creating something in their own image of course links to the biblical story of Adam and Eve, when God created humans in His ‘own image’. However the ancient myth of Pygmalion is the most poignant comparison within this context.
In his poem Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid presents Pygmalion, a sculptor who carves a woman out of ivory. After becoming disgusted by the local prostitutes, Pygmalion loses all interest in women, observing them as flawed creatures. Instead, he creates Galatea, a beautiful sculpture of a woman. Pygmalion falls in love with his own creation, which eventually comes to life.
The myth has been the subject of much literature and art ever since, reflecting the on-going human fascination with a fantasy that speaks of curiosity, perfection, sexual desire, ownership and power.
[Image: Pygmalion and Galatea, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1890. Image Source.]
The human impulse to create is inexplicably linked to our thirst for knowledge and understanding of the world. For artists and scientists alike, the ultimate expression of understanding something is to be able to create it. In the future, artificial intelligence and robotics could help people unlock some of the deepest mysteries of the mind – answering questions about identity, consciousness and what it means to be human.
Conversely, sex robots are not designed to teach us about the mysteries of the mind. Their role in society is more primitive.
Before we can start contemplating how advanced A.I will impact on humanity, it is essential to look at what is occurring in the here and now, and how humanoid robots will affect the way humans view and treat each other.
The more recent sci-fi thriller Ex_Machina, like most other films of its genre, explores the human fear of advanced A.I. However, the film also brings forward other complex social problems that would arise with the introduction of robots to society. Evolution and Darwinism are brought forward as well as themes of slavery, sexual and physical abuse and exploitation. In the film, the power hungry robot creator, Nathan, uses the physicality of his inventions to serve him and bring him sexual gratification. He mistreats the robots, keeps them imprisoned and is violent towards them. Even though they are not human, the viewer feels empathy towards the robots because of their decidedly human appearance.
[Image: A still taken from the film Ex_Machina Image Source.]
The writer of the film, Alex Garland explains that part of the film is to bring forward a literal objectification of women. The film therefore makes reference to the ownership of women, sex slavery and the sex trade.
Robot ethicist and director of the Campaign Against Sex Robots, Dr. Kathleen Richardson, stated that the very business idea of sex robots is modelled on the already existing businesses of the sex trade and the porn industry. The creation of sex robots imitates and reproduces the value system of these corrupt and brutal industries that capitalise on the exchange and dehumanisation of women.
There is of course another very important side to this argument that concerns the creation of male sex robots for the use of women, and the homosexual use of sex robots, which are essential layers to this debate to be discussed. Men, women and children all have a right to have their subjectivity recognised and should not be presented as a ‘thing’ to be used, discriminated against, or coerced.
However, what cannot be denied is that sex robots, like most of the technology we use today, have predominantly been designed and created by men and with male users in mind. At present the technology industry is undeniably male dominated. This is a fact visible from the top down, from workers and investors, to owners and creators.
Men are also the main users and buyers of pornography and prostituted persons.
This has resulted in sex robots being modelled on the appearance of porn stars and prostitutes and consequently inheriting the same roles.
It may seem obvious to those in their mid twenties and older that porn is not representative of real life, real sex or real relationships between men and women. But due to a widespread lack of sex education and the ubiquity of porn on the internet, many young people today confess to learning a great deal about sex from adult entertainment.
Anti-pornography scholar Gail Dines argues that the dominant images and stories distributed by the porn industry promote and legitimise a gender system that undermines equality and encourages violence against women. Pornographers exploit the degradation of the female body. These often extreme and violent images lead to distorted notions of sex and relationships.
The creation of sex robots would make these images and relations viewed in porn tangible to the viewer by putting a faux female sex worker in front of them. The sex robot will be used by its owner in the same way women are used in pornography. Due to the humanlike appearance of the sex robot, the concern is that the user will begin to see sex with robots and sex with humans as an interchangeable physical act. This would result in the same sexual objectification present in porn and sex work ultimately penetrating human relationships and human sex.
Sex robots will create another means through which women will be presented as objects to be used for sexual gratification and mistreatment. They will also desensitise humans to intimacy and empathy, which can only be developed through experiencing human interaction and mutual consenting relationships.
In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, cultural critic Walter Benjamin points out that we can now mass-produce art in a way that was never possible before technology. But he emphasises that when a work of art becomes mass-produced, the original piece loses its significance. It becomes obsolete and is no longer valued in the same way. The ‘aura’, or authenticity, of the original is lost.
With the introduction of sex robots into society – with the very real potential for them to be mass-produced – the original is lost. That is, the original human, consenting relationship which is based on freedom rather than control and coercion.
In order to protect basic human rights and discourage the brutal objectification of humankind, it’s time to examine the human ethics of freedom in relation to sex robots. We must address the ways in which advancing technology should be used as a force for good and could reflect what is best for humankind. We – as humans – have a voice, and we must use it.
We cannot let our humanity and our dignity slip away into a world of technology.
Lydia Kaye is a Contributor. She is author of Unpacking Female Hysteria and The Reason Skinny Models Are Here To Stay. Her Masters dissertation project examined the social impact of using transgender models in fashion imagery. Lydia has a particular interest in the interrelationship between social change, technology, identity and artistic expression.