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Big Idea

The sex robots are (almost) here

AI-driven machines are about to make one of humanity’s oldest activities much weirder.

By Glenn McDonald

As biological imperatives go, sex is a pretty good time. It’s natural, necessary, and remarkably fun. We humans are into it, too. Anthropologists can tell you that homo sapiens are by far the most sexual of all primates, in terms of how, when, where, why, and how often we have sex.

And like every other aspect of 21st-century life, sex stands to be profoundly impacted by technology. Social media, sexting, and Tinder have already introduced tectonic changes to the dating game — changes that are either refreshingly efficient or deeply confusing, depending on your point of view.

The actual physical act of sex, however, has remained low-tech and analog. Aside from some useful advances in pharmacology, latex, and battery-powered devices, technology doesn’t actually get between the sheets all that much.

That’s about to change. Yes, we’re talking about sex robots.

We kind of have to. Sex robots will soon be a decidedly real thing, and they bring with them a strange parade of technological and ethical concerns. Hold on to your hats.

The concept of the sexbot has been a staple in science fiction and popular culture for decades — for as long as we’ve been imagining robots, really. Now that technology is finally catching up with our fantasies, things are going to get weird.

Clicking around in the pornier corners of the internet, I found all sorts of companies promising interactive, lifelike sexbots for the discerning consumer. But follow those links — I did it so you don’t have to — and you’ll find old-fashioned sex dolls with some basic moving parts. Pre-order at your own risk.

“With sex robots right now, a lot of it is just hype,” says Bryony Cole, writer, sex educator, and host of the Future of Sex podcast. “The more advanced technology right now is using artificial intelligence…I think all the other stuff is really just dolls.”

That said, Cole knows of one legitimate sex doll manufacturer. Meet RealDollX, the anatomically correct sex doll that’s being billed as the world’s first sexbot.

Also known as “Harmony” — the branding is still in flux — RealDollX combines high-end sex-doll design with artificial intelligence and advanced animatronics, according to Matt McMullen, founder and CEO of the California company Abyss Creations.

“There are really multiple components here,” McMullen says, calling from his office in San Marcos, Calif. “It gets a little involved.”

“You can’t just take a doll, throw a couple of moving parts on it, and call it a sex robot. It doesn’t qualify. There has to be some level of autonomy. It has to be able to interact with the user on its own.”

Indeed. The sexbot body is made by McMullen’s longtime company RealDoll, which has specialized in upmarket sex dolls since 1997. (Its immortal marketing slogan: “The Ferrari of love dolls.”) RealDoll mannequins feature “lifelike” silicone skin, a poseable interior skeleton, and relevant removable parts for maintenance and cleaning.

The high-tech venture is more recent. “We only got really serious about this three years ago,” says McMullen. “My wife was the one who really pushed the idea of making one of these dolls into a robot.”

To create RealDollX, McMullen added animatronic options to the doll head, as well as AI options built into the system as a whole. RealDollX run on software developed by Realbotix, a partnership between McMullen and AI and robotics experts.

The name “Harmony” refers to one of several personality kits for the RealDoll. Much like Siri or Alexa, that “personality” is driven by artificial intelligence software. A user downloads the personality to a smartphone app, which connects wirelessly to speakers and actuators in the robotic head. The software animates the face, so that the doll appears to talk and interact with the user.

The “Harmony” AI software goes with the “Harmony” face, but the user can customize the experience from there.

“The AI is set up in a way that’s friendly to that, so they’ll be able to give her a name and learn from her,” McMullen says, “and vice-versa, she’ll learn from them.”

If the user chooses to sexually engage with RealDollX, he or she activates the “X-Mode” option in the app, which triggers new options and sensors in the body, head, and AI personality.

“It will be able to detect the sex act and respond with audio and expressions on the robot’s face,” McMullen says.

Are we talking about what you think we’re talking about? Yes, McMullen says: “She can have a simulated computer robot orgasm.”

You might notice that McMullen largely uses future-tense phrasing to describe the full sexbot experience. That’s because Abyss is not quite yet selling its sex robot to buyers; there are still a few bugs in the system. But McMullen assures us that X-Mode technology is up and operational. In fact, several RealDollX units have been…hmm, let’s say “beta-tested.” The company has accepted about 100 pre-orders, and this prompts the bottom-line question:

“We have a kind of a package deal where you get the robot head, all the hardware to run the AI, and a body of your choice for about $12,000,” McMullen says.

Due to various technical and app-policy issues, the RealDollX software is available only on Android phones, not yet on the iPhone. The company is also developing an X-Mode option for its male RealDolls.

RealDollX’s release date has been pushed back several times. McMullen says he’s committed to getting things right.

“In order to build a real sex robot, you have to build a real robot,” he says. “You can’t just take a doll, throw a couple of moving parts on it, and call it a sex robot. It doesn’t qualify. There has to be some level of autonomy. It has to be able to interact with the user on its own.”

Pretty much everyone agrees that, in regard to sex and technology, sexbots are the next big thing. Academic conferences in the U.S. and Europe have begun to map out the legal, ethical, and sociological implications. Books have been published, documentary films produced, action groups assembled.

The nonprofit Campaign Against Sex Robots is dedicated to interrogating the various potential consequences of this emerging technology. Founded by Kathleen Richardson, professor of ethics and culture of robots and AI at De Montfort University in Leicester, England, the group issued an open letter in July 2018 that’s really required reading on the topic.

In essence, Richardson argues that, among other concerns, the sex robot paradigm furthers the sexual objectification of women — not a thing we want to rush or stumble into.

“The idea of forming ‘relationships’ with machines is becoming increasingly normalized in today’s culture,” the open letter warns. “These products further promote the objectification of the female body,” it continues, and “constitute a further assault on human intimacy.”

Benjamin Yelle, a professor of applied ethics at Northeastern University, agrees that sex robots raise a number of issues around the idea of sexual objectification.

“It’s like the ultimate distillation of objectification,” Yelle says. “It’s literally an object that looks like a woman.”

But Yelle also notes that we’ve struggled with these issues before, in regard to pornography and those original analog-style sex dolls. The various ethical concerns around sex dolls are entirely legitimate, Yelle says. But as a matter of public policy, things get slippery. Generally speaking, people don’t want their government in their bedroom, and America has a dubious track record when it comes to moral sex panics. Prior to 2003, sodomy was still a crime in some U.S. states — and pretty much everything was considered sodomy.

It’s complicated, all right, and perhaps a more measured approach is warranted when it comes to sex and emerging technology. Maybe we just need to, you know, slow the thing down.

For those interested in a more gradual exploration of technologically mediated sex — “sextech” is the emerging consensus term — Cole recommends the category of sex toys known as teledildonics. These are sex toys for couples. A partner can trigger the device to vibrate or otherwise stimulate, typically by way of smartphone app and wifi hookup.

“There are plenty of remote sex devices now,” Cole says. “They’re potentially useful for married couples who want to spice things up. One might be in the bedroom, one might be in the kitchen. But it’s really more of a novelty at this point than something for legitimate, regular sex use.”

Cole expects the future sex industry to develop quickly as new technologies come together and prices drop. Meanwhile, she says to watch for a particularly weird development — robot bordellos.

“They’ve been popping up all over the world,” she says. “One in Barcelona got shut down.”

In these pop-up storefronts, one can spend time with various sexbots in various phases of development, under various rules and conditions. Yelle notes an eerie parallel with the HBO sci-fi series Westworld, which also features sex robots for rent.

Westworld aside, the very concept of a robot brothel obviously opens up another gigantic tangle of legal, ethical, and regulatory concerns — so you won’t find them labeled as such.

“They call them robot experiences,” Cole says.

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


Illustration by Miguel Porlan


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