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The future of sex is not robots

The headlines tell us bots will replace sex work, but there's a deep cynicism behind the idea that AI could ever usurp real human connection

“Society is empty-headed already,” says Sergei Santos, an engineer and designer of a robotic sex doll named Samantha. “Technology has nothing to do with it.”

We’re speaking over Skype about the future of sex, and how AI-equipped Samantha and her descendants will affect it. Samantha is a rail-thin sex doll with enormous breasts and a jutting collarbone. Her skin is made from thermoplastic elastomers, which means that it is pliable – it depresses beneath a firm grasp in a pleasingly realistic manner during one of the many videos on Santos’ website. She is reactive to touch and speech, and is even capable of being brought to what is described as “orgasm”. In her rest mode, she closes her eyes and lets out contented little sighs which sound more sexy than sleepy.

I had expected Santos to have a slightly more upbeat take on what Samantha means for our future, frankly – to perhaps plea for the public to be open-minded about his creations, or suggest that Samantha could be a harmless, saucy addition to a couple’s sex life. But he is jarringly open about the fact he believes that sex dolls can, and will, replace women.

“I always say, if my wife left me, sexually I would have enough with the sex doll,” he says, apropos of nothing. What about an emotional connection, I ask? His response is, again, so bleak that I’m finding it difficult to suppress my nervous laughter.

“The only people left in the world who are polite are those you pay,” he says. “If you go to a restaurant, they will be polite because you pay. If you go to an airport, the only people who are nice to you are the crew.”

AI is progressing at a startling pace. As robotic products continue to drop in price, and discussions heat up about the automation of labour, the issue of sexbots is no longer a purely hypothetical one for us to play out in fiction. The views of inventors like Santos, no matter how far-fetched they may seem to us now, are a legitimate cause for debate. While it’s unlikely that there will be realistic androids in our homes any time in the immediate future, rapid advances are necessitating some difficult ethical conversations.  As companies like RealDoll and Harmony come closer to producing a genuinely mass-marketable interactive sex doll, one of these conversations is centred around the future of sex work.

A Barcelona sex doll brothel, Lumidolls, which opened last year, caused excitable speculation about the end of the human sex industry. While the brothel’s owner made it clear that he was servicing a particular fetish, tabloid headlines nonetheless reported these dolls to be “replacing” women. The relationship between sex workers and sex tech is an evidently titillating subject for many disparate groups.

Some, including Santos, propose that the proliferation of sex robots would be a positive development, and that their widespread use would help end trafficking and abuse. Others, like Professor Kathleen Richardson, who leads the Campaign Against Sex Robots, have a different take. Richardson opposes sex robots on the grounds that they encourage the objectification of women, and would therefore increase the sale of sex. She is anti-sex work entirely, an abolitionist, as are many people who oppose sex robots on moral grounds.

The Campaign website reads: “We take issue with those arguments that propose that sex robots could help reduce sexual exploitation and violence towards prostituted persons, pointing to all the evidence that shows how technology and the sex trade coexist and reinforce each other creating more demand for human bodies.” They believe, essentially, that the dynamic inherent in this sort of sexual relationship (whether with a human or a robot) chips away at empathy.

“You’ll be able to programme them to be whatever kind of personality you want. If you prefer to have a mysterious partner you can have the most mysterious partner you can imagine” – Dr Ian Pearson

I spoke to Molly Smith, a sex worker, to ask her thoughts.

“There is a population of men who will want to buy sex robots, people into sex tech. Those people are a market,” she told me, “But I don’t see it overlapping massively with the sex work market. I can see brothels having a whole range of sex toys and sex tech, but I can’t see it biting into sex work.”

Molly is a supporter of decriminalisation of sex work, as are many sex workers across the world. She feels that campaigners against these robots, like Kathleen Richardson, are using the discussion to further their broader anti-sex work views.

“It can seem at times like they’re using sex robots as a proxy for what they would really like to be saying about sex workers, but no longer can because it wouldn’t seem progressive,” she explained. “They can talk about the sex robot as an object who can only be acted upon by monstrous men, which is how many people would like to talk about sex workers in general. But the sex robot can’t pick up her phone and tweet, ‘Please don’t talk about me this way’. By talking about them together, you can conflate the sex worker with the object.”

Dr Ian Pearson, a futurologist, released a report in 2015 in which he made the startling prediction that by 2050 the amount of human-robot sex would overtake the amount of human-human sex. When we spoke on the phone, I asked what he thought about those parts of desire and attraction which depend on mystery, the unknowability of another person. Surely the absence of these things would mean that sex with a robot would be, for most people, a deluxe masturbation aide, as Molly had suggested?

“You’ll be able to programme them to be whatever kind of personality you want,” he told me – meaning, I guess, that if you get turned on by indifferent fuckboys, then you can build one of your very own.

“If you prefer to have a mysterious partner, you can have the most mysterious partner you can imagine.”

“Seeing a sex worker isn’t the same as masturbating. We are people, we make relationships, and that’s unique” – Mathilde

This seems to rather miss the point of what is involved in attraction, which is not only unknowability but also surprise – surprise at what a person is like, surprise at what can turn you on. The surprise of desire is what can make it feel so miraculous. Programming a robot to be coquettish is a fairly self-defeating exercise.

The possibility of a neutered, uniform concept of desire is not the only reason to be fearful of AI invading the bedroom. The availability of women-like objects as receptacles of sexual sadism is also, in itself, a worrying concept. We shouldn’t be complacent about normalising the urge to hurt women for pleasure, even if it is in aid of a pragmatic harm-reduction approach.

Dr Pearson told me that a significant worry amongst developers and theorists is the potential for paedophilic expression. There is enormous room for plausible deniability in this area. Sex dolls are already often childlike, albeit with exaggerated curves. What is to stop a manufacturer producing a childlike robot, but claiming that they are simply a young-looking 18-year-old?

Sex robots are on the horizon, whether we like it or not. Their imminent arrival means we have some unpleasant realities to confront, alongside the positives of whatever erotic pleasure and companionship they will provide. Mathilde, a French sex worker based in London, believes that whatever challenges these products pose to society, sex workers themselves have nothing to worry about.

“Men come to me for all sorts of reasons. I’m not going to say lots of them come just to chat, but there is a large variety in what they desire and why they have come. It’s not just physical release. Seeing a sex worker isn’t the same as masturbating. We are people, we make relationships, and that’s unique.”

She and Molly believe – as I do – that the need for a certain kind of connection will never be sated by the availability of even the most advanced sex robot.

Not everyone agrees, and the profound nihilism which informs the world-view of at least one sex robot inventor is pretty chilling. From Barcelona, Sergei Santos listens to me ask him why it would ever be the case that men would choose to be with a robot over a woman. He answers, voice rising:

“Why would people prefer the doll? Because something neutral is better than people sometimes. Sometimes having an object is better than people...people who are liars, people with pathetic questions, ridiculous arguments. It’s not about technology – it’s about people. Actually, even a rock would be better.”