This post is part 1 of a 4-part series on the future of sexuality. Much of this discussion requires a mature approach, so handle with care.
In the immortal words of Salt-N-Pepa: “Let’s talk about sex.” Only let’s talk about this insanely massive topic by reducing it to a simple question: How will the Digital Revolution impact our society’s understanding of human sexuality in the next twenty years?
Sex captures our attention in just about every way. Equal parts public and private, under the sheets and on our t-shirts. Sex might be a taboo subject in many areas of American life and culture, but then again, it appears that every single episode of every new show on Netflix and every new act from every single comedian must pay homage to the god of sex. Talk about it, laugh about it, or just show it in all of its myriad forms for the world to gawk. I guess the cultural taboos of yesterday are falling asleep at the wheel. After all, I’m a theologian who’s about to write a series of articles on one thing: Sex in the future. Virtual sex. Robot sex.
What does sex in the future look like? Who knows. But I’m about to swing for the fences. I’m going to lay out some conclusions based on one very large assumption: Technology will continue to expand at its current speed (Moore’s Law) without interruption…which means that artificial intelligence (AI), by that time, will be frightfully sharp. Here are some of the major developments that will shape our culture in the next 20 years:
- Robotic sexual surrogates are around the corner, not in the next county. Even if you don’t buy the idea that robots will be in our homes (ala The Jetsons) any time soon, it shouldn’t surprise you that innovations in the virtual reality industry are becoming more affordable by the day. Facebook recently bought Oculus Rift for $2,000,000,000; such technologies are that promising, that valuable, and that life-altering. Like every cutting edge technology, the initial products will be priced way beyond the capacity of the average consumer to afford it, but as the production streamlines and the market catches up, any person with a little money stashed away will be able to afford a technologically advanced home VR system. The same principles hold for domestic robots, even though the ETA for a workable humanoid robot might be considerably longer.
- Expect a developing political conversation about the rights of robots, particularly robots designed as sexual surrogates. Robotic sex partners will, no doubt, be initially viewed with general distaste; our collective weird-o-meter would blow a gasket. At first. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that society’s attitudes towards sexual deviance have only loosened in the past century. As increasing numbers of owners use these robots for sexual gratification, I would expect that (without ongoing emotional commitment and the need to have sex in concordance with a partner’s desires) more and more deviant forms of sexual expression will be required to satisfy the owner, opening the door for a variety of dangerous behaviors, including BDSM, role play, rape, and/or multiple human/robot partners. If this comes to fruition, there will be some societal push back as to what, precisely, we can make robots do. Ray Kurzweil predicted this discussion a long time ago—by 2029, he wrote, robots would claim to be conscious and humans would largely accept this claim . I don’t think his timeline will miss by much, if at all.
- Moral governance within the robot itself. As a result of #2 some companies might choose to build in some sort of moral governor into robotic sex partners, at least in the earliest phases of development. For example, the robot might protest either physically or verbally if it senses that the owner wants to do a particular forbidden behavior…even initiate shut down procedures. But, of course, as these companies try to build robotic sex surrogates that have varying degrees of normative decency—there will always be the competitor on the market that allows the owner more (or every) freedom to do as they please. At this point, expect the feds to get involved with legislation and regulation that mandates a certain range of allowable robotic behaviors. I’m sure the legislation will be introduced by a 115 year-old John McCain.
- There will be a heated debate about whether human-robot sex is ‘healthy’ or not. Hordes of academics will weigh in on this one, from every discipline under the sun. On the side of the technophiles, such activity could be seen as a healthy expression of sexuality because it allows for, at the least, physically safe sexual activity without the fear of judgment or rejection. In addition, sex acts with a robot would be, presumably, 1) without threat of sexually transmitted diseases, 2) unwanted pregnancy, and/or 3) unsafe levels of emotional attachment. The first two of which might seem fairly uncontroversial, but the third, no doubt, would be subject to intense scrutiny. If we get emotionally attached to our cell phones (which we do), how much more would we attach ourselves to machines that can talk, touch, and feel like us? Or, at least convince us they can?
- The new red light district will have digital brothels and strip clubs. For those people who cannot afford sex-bots for their own homes, it would be safe to say that digital brothels would open up in most cities across America (worldwide?). At first, these shops would be at the center of a media and communal firestorm, but soon, they would simply be as accepted as a lingerie shop in a strip mall—a curious but ultimately harmless place to deal in the goods of sex. At these ‘brothels’, a consumer can fully customize his/her robotic/VR experience, choosing a sex-bot with any number of adjustable features, including race, height, weight, body shape, bust size, hair color…including special bots that might have some sort of plasticity customizable to any known person, such as a friend or celebrity. This will, without question, become a legal matter as it will call into question whether a person has rights to his/her own image in instances that it is used in human-robot sex activities. In addition to this type of image customization, the consumer will also have the option to customize robotic behaviors. Loud, demure, profane, voice style, aggressive, passive, and finally, sexual positions. Of course, for the wealthy, all of this is yours in the comfort of your own home.
- The rise of the full virtual reality experience, complete with haptic suits. As VR technology gets refined and more affordable, there will be a vast market for full-body haptic suits that can simulate all types of touch. For example, Call of Duty players could wear such suits to simulate the effect of a bullet wound or the concussive blast of a grenade (just enough to heighten the experience, that’s all). Carried over, full-body haptic suits are in development, and without question, the sex industry will begin to take advantage of this technology to create virtual sex without limits. A husband, in theory, could have sex with his wife even though he is away on a business trip and she’s still at home. As you might imagine, this would be only mildly controversial compared to other scenarios. VR systems can literally create anything that can be imagined, and in the case of surrogate sex, customers can imagine quite a lot.
For some of you, this might be ho-hum. What I’m suggesting makes sense, and you’ve seen it coming for a long time now. For others, this short list feels a little like Shock and Awe and you’ve just decided to melt your son’s Xbox. No matter which reaction, the sooner we start understanding what’s at stake, the sooner we can have intelligent conversations in our communities and churches regarding these emerging issues.
Start a conversation about sex. I promise the conversation will be interesting and worth your time. I’ll be back next week to talk about the “whys” as opposed to the “whats.” Stay tuned.
 Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines (New York: Penguin, 1999), 279-80.
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.