Humanoid sex dolls won’t get you off, but a sexy body-tracking duvet might
Sex robots have been dominating headlines for the past couple of years, with the media alluding to a sexually dystopian future where women will be replaced by pseudo-sentient, hypersexualised sex dolls eager to please men. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. According to Dr Kate Devlin, senior lecturer in social and cultural AI at King’s College London and author of Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots, humanoid sex robots will remain nothing more than sensationalist clickbait. The true future of sexual robotics is much softer, both literally and figuratively.
Devlin believes the evolution of sex toys lies less in creating objectified, heterosexual, male-focused robots and more in soft robotics: wearable toys that merge AI with smart fabrics and materials that are responsive to touch. Think Spike Jonze’s HER, but as a duvet... or hammock. It might sound visionary beyond human ability, but the technology already exists. We use wearable trackers to monitor everything from how many steps we take to the quality of our sleep, and we already have access to responsive sex toys that communicate with each other via Wi-Fi. So, sex hammocks aren’t as futuristic as you’d think.
Dazed spoke to Devlin over email about what sexual robotics will actually look like in the future (we already have the technology, so we might not have to wait long), and why traditionally heteronormative sexual scripts like anatomically correct replicas of genitals might become a thing of the past.
Heterosexual male-centred, humanoid sex robots have been dominating headlines, but how likely is it that they will they become mainstream?
Dr Kate Devlin: I don’t think it's likely (they) will become mainstream, but then, I don’t think it’s likely that any human-like sex robots will become mainstream in the near future. Until, if ever, we have convincingly life-like robots, I think this will remain a niche market.
Why do you think they’ll remain a niche?
Dr Kate Devlin: The current form of sex robots comes out of the lineage of the sex doll. The market for sex dolls is diverse, but it is limited: there’s no mass-scale production (and) there is no big corporate backing, it’s just a handful of workshops making dolls which range from basic to high-end.
“If we move away from the idea of the human-like, usually reductively female, sex robot then we also move away from a male-dominated heteronormative view of how this technology should be” – Dr Kate Devlin
In previous interviews you’ve said that in the future will toys become “wearable”...
Dr Kate Devlin: My hope is that we move away from attempts at making human-like sex robots. We’re very bad at making human-like robots, I see much more scope for immersive intimate experiences, or responsive materials providing sensuous feedback. AI companions also seem much more realistic than robot ones (and) soft robotics – flexible, elastic controllable materials – could mean sex toys that move of their own accord.
My favourite is the idea of a sex duvet: some kind of blanket that could wrap around you, and comfort or caress you. Maybe it could read your body signals, for example, using data from health trackers, and respond to your body’s current state. Perhaps your sex quilt will purr, or whisper to you. Perhaps it vibrates. I think it’s all about tactile experiences that respond to the current mood to deliver an intimate, comforting, sexual or sensual experience.
You say we are bad at making humanoid sex robots, why is that?
Dr Kate Devlin: If we look at all the robots around us in the world today, very few of them take a human-like or humanoid form. This is because most of them don’t need to – for example, bomb disposal robots or robot vacuum cleaners – but also because it’s incredibly difficult to make a human-like robot that looks like, moves like, and responds like a human. The sex robots we see today aren't ‘true’ robots: they are sex dolls with some mechanisation or animatronics built in. They can’t stand up on their own, for example, (and) they can’t move from the neck down.
Another factor is the uncanny valley, a phenomenon which generally means that the closer something non-human looks to being human, the more we find it freaky. We as humans are very good at spotting the freaky, and life-like robots kick us into that uncanny valley and make it more likely that we are repelled and revulsed by them. For some, they can overlook that – those who own dolls will happily suspend their disbelief – but many others will be quite freaked out at the thought.
“I don't think that this technology will replace human-to-human relationships, rather, I think they can enhance (them)” – Dr Kate Devlin
What will this evolution of sex toys mean for traditional heteronormative sexual scripts?
Dr Kate Devlin: I like to think that if we move away from the idea of the human-like, usually reductively female, sex robot then we also move away from a male-dominated heteronormative view of how this technology should be. We’re already seeing great, innovative designs of smart sex toys from companies that focus on accessibility for all.
What will this shift towards wearable toys mean for accessibility?
What do you think this shift says about our relationship with intimacy?
Dr Kate Devlin: With new forms of sex technology, there is scope for enhanced pleasure. I don’t think that this technology will replace human-to-human relationships, rather, I think they can enhance (them), but can also provide pleasurable sexual experiences when used alone too. We can use sex technology to connect people over long distances, to promote sensuality, to explore pleasure, and to provide intimacy where it is needed.
If humanoid sex robots aren’t the future, what is?
Dr Kate Devlin: Whatever you can imagine!
Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots is out now