The social nuances that come with sex are already weird as hell, and technology, in its infinite wisdom, only makes the weirdness that much more glorious. We’re already psychologically wired to give genuine emotional responses to smileys and emoticons, the bread and butter of modern flirting, so who’s to say how technology could enhance or even redefine sex itself? Perhaps you aren’t fully aware of how science and advertising have symbiotically injected themselves into the Great Single Life, namely via dating/life management apps powered by mystical algorithms that are changing the dynamics of how people meet, have sex, break up, get married, get divorced, and everything else in between.
It’s been a great year for hookup apps like Tinder, which recently made its first match in Antarctica (yes, it was two research scientists). In a classic case of stranger than fiction, modern dating tech trumped some truly absurd geographical odds, and helped two people connect. Considering we’re entering the Internet of Nouns era, I’d like to consider my people, we filthy, grasping Millenials, as pioneering guinea pigs for what could be the most neurotic age of sexuality that humankind has ever known. Dazed wets its beak on a few of the trends we might see in the future of sex.
THE END OF RUBBER
While lots of people would be happier to see technology defeat the need for condoms altogether, it’s nice to know that researchers at the University of Manchester are working on the thinnest, strongest condom ever made made of graphene and latex. Backed by a considerable grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, scientists are interested in rebranding the old message of ‘condoms as necessity’ to one along the lines of ‘condoms enhance pleasure,’ and graphene seems to be just the nanomaterial for the job. For one thing, it’s only one atom thick, but strong as hell – an engineering professor from Columbia University said “it would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of Saran Wrap [cling film].” I, for one, look forward to the inevitable slew of YouTube videos that will strive to disprove this claim. There are also claims that graphene condoms will actually enhance sex because of its excellent heat conduction properties, but skepticism remains quite the bitch. For now, suck it up and enjoy our old-fashioned analog peasant connies, so you can tell your grandkids about how pedestrian and tedious it was being young in the age of rubber.
Speculative fiction has given us iconic ideas of what sex could be like in distant futures, and at risk of sounding like a wide-eyed relic hell-bent on sticking to nostalgic presentations of sex tech (Sleeper, for one, but it’s not particularly sensible to trigger discussions about Woody Allen movies) I'd like to see some of them happen. Now that scientists have enabled a monkey to mind-control another sedated monkey via a cortical-spinal connection, the ability to virtually outsource sex is around the corner. One prescient imagining of this set-up is described in Greg Bear’s Slant as the yox, a new form of entertainment in which the audience is neurally connected to performers and feed off the latters’ emotions, thoughts, and sensations. This is, quite plausibly, the pinnacle of pornography, as it demands some kind of emotional connection or genuine sexual frisson between the performers in question. Combine Bear’s vision of sexual empath tech with the concept of sex surrogates (most recently in Spike Jonze’s Her), and we have the technological foundations and existing social interest for a comprehensive rehaul of what we consider to be true sexual companionship. Of course, all sorts of savagery can and will ensue with the theoretical rise of sexual mind-control machines, especially when we have no layperson words to discuss them except ‘sexual mind-control machines,’ but since sex tech doesn’t diminish the act itself, we can all agree that sex will never become obsolete. On a side note, this is also a reality in which the concept of ‘safe sex’ requires a greater need to protect oneself in the digital realm, not just the physical.
Science the moodkiller strikes again: imagine trying for a child with your significant other, and being able to know, mid-act, exactly which sperm was a viable candidate to make sweet babies. Now there’s new 3D technology to capture realtime video of living sperm, which would be used to help the in vitro fertilization industry. But since nobody ever listens to the old “just because you could, doesn’t mean you should” adage, imagine that some enterprising startup pairs this borderline eugenics-based tech – that is, the ability to increase the odds of getting a “good” sperm” – with immersive gaming tech that allows you to pilot said sperm, and you have the makings of open source DIY-fertilization experiments that could revolutionize (or completely screw) Big Medicine.
TOYS IN FUTURE BABELAND
In the future, a “self-aware” sex toy wouldn’t necessarily involve plunging a terrified screaming robot into an inhospitable orifice (though it might, and nobody’s judging you for that). Scientists at UC Berkeley have developed “electronic whiskers” – incredibly sensitive and responsive peripherals that can allow an A.I. to fully experience its surroundings. As one of the researchers explained, “Whiskers are hair-like tactile sensors used by certain mammals and insects to monitor wind and navigate around obstacles in tight spaces…our electronic whiskers consist of high-aspect-ratio elastic fibers coated with conductive composite films of nanotubes and nanoparticles. In tests, these whiskers were 10 times more sensitive to pressure than all previously reported capacitive or resistive pressure sensors." Instead of whiskers, these types of sensors could be refashioned to revolutionize the tactile value of roleplaying paraphernalia, sex aids, and even A.I.-powered companions; if a smart entrepreneur really put some elbow grease behind this tech, a vibrator with with a mind of its own would probably generate enough revenue to fund space travel. Which brings us to…
Tenga makes disposable “masturbation aids” that allow a user (one with a penis) to basically have actual, physical sex with a video game. Now, this seems sort of interface seems slightly skewed (and on principle, also sexist) to point at men, so I’m hoping that Tenga has some kind of female counterpart for the sake of equality. Here’s a wonderful demo for a robot-given handjob being used with an Oculus Rift virtual porn program.
THE ENDURING COMMERCIALIZATION OF SEX
Thus far, in our hypothetical future where sex is outsourced to remote performers, it would be feasible to have public places to indulge in these new sensations in a social way. London South Bank University recently built a replica pub to conduct a simulated experiment to explore how people get drunk and interact, complete with dried booze-stench, ambient sound effects, and of course, bar music. A large component of this research is a burgeoning gold mine for the condom/sex app industry, because we’ve got years of conditioning bred into us that alcohol lessens physical inhibitions, and what do people do when they want to get laid? They go out and drink. Public sex clubs are one possibility. As more people experiment with online dating and any sort of sex tech that requires an internet connection, so will companies and organizations with vested interests in nurturing our relationship with drinking and sex.
TECHNOLOGY > SEX
A survey recently showed that more Americans would rather forego sex than technology. Harris Interactive reported, “20 percent of American adults polled said they could not do without sex. That’s compared to 28 percent who said they could not live without Internet access, 26 percent who said they could not live without their cell phone and 24 percent who said they could not live without their computer.” It’s a sizeable margin, but in a world where something like one in ten adults feels okay answering the phone during sex, not too surprising. Sex itself is a hydra of confusion, so it’s quite understandable for the more neurotic half of Generation Y to retreat behind a manageable interface and control their interactions as much as possible. However, with the recent technological focus on haptics, declining birth rates in tech-heavy countries like Japan and Singapore, as well as an overall detachment toward traditional dating methods, perhaps the future of sex is technology (let’s hope not).
“ANONYMISH” AS THE NEW ANOMYMOUS
Secret is – well, was, an open secret for a while before it exploded all over the Silicon Valley dating scene. With techies often wrapped up in their specific [Insert Big Name] World, it seems like the perfect community to serve as a petri dish for SnapChat and its quasi-anonymous brethren. Secret is an “anonymish” app that posts quasi-anonymous gossip based on phone contact, and it did very well for itself during its beta test among said techies. It is, essentially, a black hole of social crack, from which it is extremely difficult to extricate oneself. It’s actually kind of amazing for an app to so successfully tap into the essence of schadenfreude and basic human nature to get our kicks. It’s hard to deny yourself the allure of knowing that you’re two degrees away from the source of a particular salacious secret, and the guilty satisfaction of proving said suspicions as true. Secret is in the midst of honing its security, but really, since the NSA is watching anyway, who really cares?
Robert Heinlein wrote about epic sex marathons in magnificently flip terms, because in the future apparently everyone is an epic sex marathoner. But now we have nanobioeletronic sensors (in the form of a one-time use, disposable tattoos) that tell you when you’re about to have muscle fatigue and exhauation, when you need to hydrate, and basically maximize one’s endurance. Researchers are working to include a heart rate monitor and other bio-signs in future iterations of the temporary tattoo, which could ultimately help boost sexual endurance in much-needed areas.
OXYTOCIN: LOVE POTION #9
The future of a successful date might lie in huffing oxytocin, which some believe is the biochemical basis for love. As Popular Science’s Viola Gad explains, “The brain releases oxytocin into the bloodstream during physical contact such as stroking, hugging, and sex. When this happens, blood pressure lowers and you feel calm, safe, and trusting. As a part of the body's anti-stress system, it works as a mirror to adrenalin, the hormone associated with the fight-or-flight response.” Viola ordered a bottle of OxytocinFactor, a nasal spray that claims to lower anxiety, and snorted it before a date. The idea is apparently that the presence of oxytocin in one person could be enough to “spark a natural release of oxytocin in the other person,” which is really just the perfect nudge for something to happen. While the date didn’t result in anything long-term, Viola reported feeling absolutely fantastic during the evening’s events, which brings to mind the literary insouciance of Aldous Huxley’s narcotics in Brave New World. We’re not sure where this kind of hormone technology stands legally, but it could definitely raise interesting social questions about full disclosure and being “under the influence.”
Follow Alexis Ong on Twitter here @steppinlazer