Bots threaten to upend all we know about sex

For the hordes of involuntary celibates and virgins frustrated by strict moral codes, advanced self-pleasuring devices and AI lovers could be just what the doctor ordered

Firstpost print Edition

It’s painful to be around this woman. Deepak wishes he hadn’t asked her out. He doesn’t want to debate movies, he loathes her floral top, and her constant chewing and sipping seem so unnecessary. “I’ve got somewhere else to be,” he blurts. Hurt flickers in her eyes, but he feels a sense of relief. Someone is waiting for him at home. Solana knows exactly what he wants to hear, she dresses exactly as he likes, and her breasts are made to fit exactly into his hands. He’s glad he remembered to recharge her last night.

The future of sex is seductively close, and the innovations of less than a decade ago already seem curiously dated. What are Tinder and Bumble but more of the same when you have men in Japan marrying virtual reality holograms and sex tech companies creating biomimicry microbots to give women “blended orgasms”?

Where we once debated putting silicone into women, we are now talking about putting the idea of women into silicone. Those who are weary of real-life relationships could, like Ovid’s Pygmalion, bring to life the lovers of their dreams, albeit with the sculpting being done by a handful of sex tech companies busy creating talking-blinking-moaning “artificial intelligence companions” such as Realbotix’s Harmony (and her sister Solana), whose personality, accent, body shape, hairstyle, nipples and labia can be customised to fit your ideal of a mate (there’s also a somewhat token male creation called Henry, customisable for height and length).

These sexbots have flawless bodies, their AI makes them thirst for knowledge about you so they can serve you better, and the clincher — their self-lubricating bits are detachable for detergent cleaning. Their makers are now working on adding heat to their skin and installing cameras in their eyes, all the better to see you with.

Although sexbots promising companionship and coitus are already on the market, price is a constraining factor for now with the better models retailing for upwards of $10,000. Also, current models haven’t quite crossed what Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori famously called the “uncanny valley”—the juncture at which artificial figures are human-like enough to cause us psychological discomfort. Harmony, for example, may be anatomically correct but you can reportedly still hear the motors in her head and her tester and so-called boyfriend ‘Brick Dollbanger’ confessed that she once broke under his passionate thrusts.

Given the ever-accelerating speed of tech disruption, the limitations of cost and realism may soon be transcended. Remember— the first commercial mobile phone, launched in 1983, was an ugly and slow clunker that cost nearly $4,000, but look at us now with our beautiful and cheap China-made devices, many capable of being loaded with the Harmony AI Android app that allows you to create your own ‘virtual girlfriend’ for a small yearly subscription. Avatars, though, are just the gateway drug for the real—or more accurately, material—thing.

According to some experts, such as Dr Trudy Barber who studies the intersection of sex and tech, virtual and robot sex could become staples for the satisfaction of everyday needs in 25 years or so and help us appreciate the “real thing” more when we do get it. Others such as robotics expert Noel Sharkey believe that such a time may come within a decade, and will have a ruinous effect on human relationships. Futurologist Ian Pearson predicts that “relationship-free robot sex” could overtake human-human couplings by 2050. As for the public themselves, 40% of men in a 2018 survey of 2,000 people said they are willing to have sex with a robot, and one in six respondents said they’d prefer this to intimacy with another human.

Proponents of sex tech believe AI-powered companions could help ‘beta males’ who who’ve been swiped left one too many times and even have therapeutic uses for those who struggle with intimacy, and perhaps even provide a “safe” sexual outlet for darker desires. There is no evidence to support these claims yet, although one surreptitiously operated sex doll brothel in Toronto invites men to express their violent fantasies.

However, other experts are pressing the panic button, as is the norm whenever technology enters the bedroom. Some, such as professor of ethics and culture of robots Kathleen Richardson are waging a full-fledged campaign against sexbots for their potential to intensify the objectification and victimisation of women (and children). There is no evidence to support these claims either.

Studies about the effects of pornography on sexual violence have yielded conflicting results over the years, and the data is still sparse on the effects of virtual reality and AI on sexual behaviour. Nonetheless, we can extrapolate some assumptions from sociological trends, psychological research, and the relatively conclusive data at hand on the effects of personal technology on human beings. Here, we will focus on the Indian context.

The ‘future of sex’ in India

What might happen when sex tech innovations become more accessible to Indians (provided they are not banned outright)?

Psychologically speaking, we look like quite the ideal market, with our low sex ratio and huge population of men and women who do not know how to sexually engage with each other outside of conjugal duties and incestuous fumblings under covers. Given our sexual deprivations (and resultant depravities) and hordes of virgins/involuntary celibates frustrated by strict moral codes, advanced self-pleasuring devices and AI lovers could be just what the doctor ordered, with no side-effects on virtue or health.

India is, after all, fast to catch up in technology adoption, especially when it offers some form of release from the dreariness of everyday life. According to a Pew study released this year, 24% of Indians (or more precisely, 34% of men and 15% of women) own a smartphone. One of our favourite smartphones activities is consuming videos online.

This hunger extends to porn—the smartphone traffic to Pornhub increased by 121% over 2013 and 2017 due to cheaper data, and we are the third-largest porn-watching country in the world. All this to show that large numbers of us already look to tech to channel our libidinous impulses.

Unfortunately, the very chasms, desires, and tendencies that might make sexbots particularly alluring for us could also make them more dangerous.

First, in advanced economies, revolutions are usually evolutions—over a period of time, societies are able to engage intensively with the cultural, social, legal, and ethical dimensions of disruptive technologies. In India, on the other hand, we import ideas and we often do not know how to deal with the consequences, as is seen in the case of the messy and generally pointless rules and regulations being made up after the fact in e-commerce.

As a society, too, we are still sexually stunted. Sexbots and virtual lovers may send us in an even more regressive direction if they make an entrance during a juncture at which society itself has not evolved.

Greater social freedoms are an important aspect of human development, but vast swathes of India are still stranded amid centuries-old cultural stratifications and barriers. At the same time, there is a complicit understanding that boys will be boys and have needs that must be satisfied. I can well imagine parents in the India of 2050 gifting sexbots to their teenage sons to keep them away from — in their eyes — the nearly equivalent temptations of rape and romantic love.

If such a situation comes to pass, then there will likely be less of a push from within society to alter atavistic cultural constructs. Teenagers who form their first sexual relationships with bots—something which has been predicted by experts—may be permanently crippled in their ability to negotiate complex relationships with women.

In Japan, AI girlfriends and sex dolls have been blamed for keeping men from real women and thus contributing to the dropping birth rate. In India, this is less likely since even sexbot-loving males might not escape being dragged to the altar of an arranged marriage, but what effect would this have on the flesh-and-blood woman in the relationship, unless she is really into threesomes?

As for the men who find it hard to attract women or sustain relationships, sexbots may take away any chance they ever had. Of course, such men may not mind this so much, given that humans are hardwired for laziness. Dollbanger, for example, told Forbes in an interview he has pretty much written off women for now. When a doll becomes worse for wear, he simply strips the silicone away and dismantles the frame before replacing her. It’s not so different from what many men do to women already.

It has often been theorised that Indian men are particularly misogynistic because of how much they are built up in this male-worshipping culture, where they learn to see women as objects that exist only for their gratification. Sexbots with their breathless subservience will only perpetuate the status quo. There is no feedback loop for men to adjust their behaviour, no concept of consent, no responsibility to provide pleasure. In such a scenario, it is not so difficult to imagine a Westerworld-like situation where humans are free to ‘rape’ robots, further normalising sexual violence.

There may be other types of impact on women too. Many women are already suffering from body image and mental health issues due to unrealistic beauty standards. How will they negotiate a world they must share with big-breasted, tiny-waisted, perpetually airbrushed simulacrums of themselves? Might they feel compelled to compete, in their looks, in their compliance to male desires, in a disavowal of their own human needs? In India, they might be more drawn than ever to Fair and Lovely-type products given that to date at least, the available sexbots conform strictly to Western beauty ideals.

What is a girl to do? While it may take longer for it to be acceptable for women in India to cart home the likes of Henry the sexbot, they might at least be able to discreetly retreat into their bedrooms to dream up virtual boyfriends, maybe with a microrobotic dildo in hand. But futuristic self-stimulation cannot solve our larger problems, and sexbots cannot serve as anything other than band-aid solutions to our struggles with sexuality.

Of course, where we stand now, it is highly unlikely that human beings will be sexually outdated any time soon, regardless of what the manufacturers of sexbots will have us believe. The technology has a long way to go, the prices are far from hitting their sweet spot, and it is too early to make doomsday predictions. However, even if society is not shaken to its core, it most certainly will be stirred, and many of us may be negatively affected even if the technology has some clearly positive potential. It’s time to think about it.

Asavari Singh is an editor with a background in psychology and gender

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