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Will robot sex ever replace the real thing?

Prepare for steamy trysts with smart bots complete with heated jelly orifices but what does techs new sexual frontier mean for the future of sex workers?

Depictions of millennial life on film always include futuristic tech staples: the flying car and the robot housemaid. Recent sci-fi productions like Ex Machina, Humans, and even The Terminator play with the idea of robots living among us. However, at no point were we adequately prepared for a dystopia where men actually ditch women to start having sex with bots instead. Yet, this year, companies across the world have been gearing up to get their own version of the ultimate animated sex doll on the market.

The front-runner in the game are the developers of Realbotix, the AI sister-company to RealDoll. They recently announced a project that incorporates artificial intelligence and more realistic sexual functions to bring their creations to life and sell a product people can actually fall in love with. The race to be the first to cash in on tech’s newest sexual frontier is on. Futuristic dolls coming from the likes of Doug Hines, the man behind True Companion and Matt McMullen CEO of RealDoll reportedly have “functional genitalia”. Although said functions vary, a patent which already influenced the current RealDoll model describes “pseudo mucous membranes made from a soft gelatinous elastomer located in said oral, vaginal and anal cavity”. 

All of this is forcing another industry to consider its future. Commentators prophesize how sex work could soon be revolutionised, with some hailing robotic sexual surrogates as the answer to everything that plagues the industry; from STIs and widower woes to sex trafficking and loneliness. Considering the first models are on the way for an estimated cost of between $10,000 and $60,000, renting a robot sex worker would be a cheaper and more accessible alternative to buying one.

“This will be an alternative to human relationships. Whether they will be a full replacement for a sex partner will remain to be seen” – Matt McMullen

RealDoll inventor McMullen doesn’t seem opposed to the idea of fembot brothels. “I do believe they are possible and will provide a viable alternative to the types that exist today,” he says. Despite being happily married with a family (“all of whom support what I do and see it as a positive thing”), he understands the appeal of a “love doll”. “Many customers write to us expressing the positive changes that having a RealDoll has brought to their lives, alleviating loneliness and aiding in social anxiety.”

While there are a handful of male sex dolls available, the majority of McMullen’s customers are men (aged primarily between 55 and 65) searching for a life-like female replacement. Right now, RealDoll uses high-grade silicones to provide lifelike soft skin and squeezable boobs, and McMullen says with new research and the introduction of artificial intelligence he can provide an entertaining and engaging experience that will provide the “simulation of a persistent relationship”. This intimate interaction will be aided by the bots ability to mimic sentience.

“The robotic system that we plan to release first will feature a fully animated head and neck, able to form expressions, blink eyes, synchronise mouth movement with the speech of the AI, and make eye contact. It will also be capable of recognising the user and other items by sight,” explains McMullen. Equipped with the ability to sense where they are being touched and warm their body against yours, it sounds like McMullen's dolls are shaping up to be quite the substitute. He wants to create the illusion of a personality, a creation that can hold a conversation and “generate plausible sex talk”. “This will be an alternative to human relationships, not a replacement. It may very well improve the way we interact with each other in that positive interactions will lead to positive feedback from the AI,” he adds. “Whether they will be a full replacement for a sex partner will remain to be seen and will be based on preferences of individuals.” 

Regardless of this, UK sex worker Lydia Minxy believes her job is as much about developing an emotional connection as it is about sex. Most men, she says, come to her “for the human touch”. “I don't believe the desire for real women will ever go away,” she explains. “I have many regulars who see me for my personality and character. It's not just about getting off. This goes for those with anxiety or sexual dysfunction too. I don't think kindness, patience and empathy can be replicated by a machine.” Minxy remains unconvinced that a robot could ever offer the same experience due an inevitable lack of empathy and understanding – but it could cater to a particular fetish of a niche audience. “There will be men who will get off on robot sex as a kink or to try something new but BDSM services would be hard to replicate.”

As McMullen and Minxy agree, some men go visit sex workers or sexual surrogates because they might have sexual dysfunctions or anxiety. Psychologist Sarah Hatheway Valverde predicts that this stigma on doll ownership is likely to lift the more realistic they become. In fact, it was shown that for some the dolls may improve depression.

NUI Galway Law professor John Danaher, who has conducted research into human enhancement and artificial intelligence, says sex robots are coming but he too isn’t yet convinced that they can take the place of a human woman. “My best guess is that in the next ten years there will be reasonably sophisticated devices marketed to consumers,” he says. But for all feminists have done for the objectification of women, it is a worry that men may seek to replace them with actual objects that only tell them what they want to hear.

“I don’t believe the desire for real women will ever go away. I have many regulars who see me for my personality and character. It’s not just about getting off” – Lydia Minxy

“There are many concerns about damage to human relationships,” explains Danaher. “Users of sex robots are probably most likely to be male and may start to treat real human beings with a lack of respect.” Last year, a campaign was launched to ban sex robots out of the fear for what they might do to human relationships. “This is because they will be encouraged to see the robots as ever-consenting instruments of pleasure and might transfer that attitude onto real human beings,” he adds. 

Despite this, Danaher still thinks that sex work might be “relatively resilient to technological displacement”. He suggests that if conventional brothel workers want to keep their job they might have to face a decrease in wages and prepare to adapt to become more competition. “It’ll have all the usual results that automation has when it comes to displacing human workers,” he concludes.

Some may already be familiar with doll brothels in Tokyo, the kind once hilariously portrayed in this creepy short film, and it is noticeable how empty and absurd it feels being sat in a room with an unmoving caricature of a woman. Out of the thousands of current patents issued for newer and more inventive sexual technology, it is only a matter of time before someone develops a sex doll more responsive and impressive than those currently on the market. Whether that is Realbotix, True Companion’s Roxxxy or a man named Wai Kin Yeung who is setting his sights on a doll that would react to the sound of male moans, the ultimate aim is clearly to make a partner that can mimic human intimacy. A bond so strong that from the time most of us enter our teens we are fixated on finding it. It would be seriously impressive if a programme made of learnt responses could ever adequately compete.