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The sex robots are – ahem – coming

Advances in silicon compounds, robotics and AI will see the air going out of the blow-up-doll market. Photo/Getty Images

Sex dolls are becoming increasingly lifelike but human flesh still wins out.

We’ve been told the robots are coming to take our jobs. They are, but that’s not the half of it. They are also coming to seduce us.

Sextech, dildonics, telesex robots and technovirgins – in the next decade, the quaint sex doll will get a high-tech upgrade courtesy of innovation in silicon compounds, robotics and artificial intelligence.

A report by the Foundation for Responsible Robotics in The Hague is one of the first to consider the technical progress and social implications of sex robots. It makes for mind-boggling reading.

At least four companies sell sex robots, ranging in price from US$5000 to US$15,000. They are typically steel frames coated in silicon rubber advertised as “warm to the touch”. They have realistic skin tones, nipples and pubic hair and, in many cases, interchangeable heads.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The Android Love Doll can perform “50 automated sexual positions”; Susie Software and Harry Harddrive, for their part, can simulate sexual movement once they’ve been manoeuvred into place.

Many of them can talk, grunt and sigh, with lip syncing. They are given personality traits such as “Frigid Farrah” and “Wild Wendy”. And Siri-like chatbots are being experimented with so the alluring androids can make conversation.

The robot bordello scenes of Westworld and the Gigolo Joe and Gigolo Jane of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. are still some way off. But surveys of people’s willingness to have sex with robots have thrown up some interesting results. One study of 229 heterosexual men found that 40% could imagine themselves buying a sex robot in the next five years.

“Studies using indirect experimental measures found that people were aroused by touching robot’s ‘intimate’ regions and that males found pictures of robots in underwear just as attractive as females in underwear,” the researchers noted.

A big factor in acceptance of sex robots is the so-called “Uncanny Valley”, which refers to growing affinity with robots as they look increasingly human, until a turn-off tipping point when they look nearly identical to people. On the other side of the valley is a robot that can actually fool us into thinking it is human.

The closest so far is Sophia from Hanson Robotics, which uses highly realistic elastic polymers to mimic skin and muscles. Sophia can detect faces, process conversational data and respond with facial expressions and head and arm movements.

There is a growing market for this stuff. But what if sex with robots comes to be more appealing than the real thing? Could it lead to social dysfunction if the greater sexual gratification of a robot lover steals people away from human partners? The scientific literature doesn’t have any answers, although researchers of porn addiction may have something to say about it.

On the flip side, sex-robot makers are quick to point out that their androids are assisting with sex therapy and in helping lonely souls find some comfort.

Then there are the implications for the sex trade – will bots put prostitutes out of work? There are sex-doll hotels in Asia and Europe. But human flesh still wins out for the time being. What will happen to concepts of gender in a world of robotic sex and what is the legality of designing a robot that can simulate rape?

Could sex robots actually cut down on sex crimes? In Japan, a child-like sex doll whose creator is a self-confessed paedophile is on the market.

“We should accept that there is no way to change someone’s fetishes,” Shin Takagi told the Atlantic last year. “I am helping people express their desires, legally and ethically. It’s not worth living if you have to live with repressed desire.”

And we thought drones and driverless cars posed some ethical conundrums.

This article was first published in the July 29, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.