This post is part 2 of a 4-part series on the future of sexuality. Much of this discussion requires a mature approach, so handle with care. You can read part 1 here.
Last week, I made a rather strange claim that human-robot sexual relationships will soon make their way into the mainstream of American society. This is not the stuff of sexual fetishes or Blade Runner-style science fiction, but a careful calculation based on the exponential surges in digital/AI technologies and the constant of human nature. Today, I want to elaborate on this calculation, presenting you with three observations that will serve as this week’s dish: 1) What robots are doing already; 2) some societal reasons for believing this future is near inevitable; and 3) a roadblock here or there.
First, let me tell you of the ways that the robotics industry is making an enormous impact in the here-and-now of civilized society.
- In Singapore, Nanyang Technological University has recently live-tested ‘Nadine,’ a fully humanoid robot that works as a secretary. Nadine must be able to give accurate instructions, recognize repeat visitors, and hold several conversations at once. She can shake your hand and has her own set of emotions, but honestly, she looks like a bad wax museum mock-up of a Dunder Mifflin grunt.
- For several years now, Japan has been using humanoid robots and robotic pets to serve as therapeutic companions for elderly people. Japan’s low birth rates have led to some serious need for such devices. The sales figures for worldwide domestic robots are expected to exceed $10 billion annually in 2016. That’s a lot of spider rolls.
- The researchers at Johns Hopkins have built robotic arms that can be attached to a person’s torso—controlled entirely by thought. One particular subject lost his arms as a result of an accident in his youth, and now as a double-amputee can perform many of the physical maneuvers he was able to do 40 years ago.
- The use of nanotechnology (really, really small machines) is already in widespread development for military purposes. Drones that are essentially the size and shape of local fauna—birds, bugs, etc. –allow covert intelligence gathering without the need for human risk. Despite their small stature, these drones have a ridiculous amount of technology under-girding their function. If our military can squeeze such an immense amount of function out of a machine that can fits in a ring box and weighs less than a post-it note, what could the private sector do with near-unlimited funds and a simple mandate: to create a robot that convinces a person of its own personhood, even its own discreet sexuality?
You may be skeptical at this point. You know what my next question/statement is: Is it any surprise that robots built specifically for sexual purposes are closer than we think? Sure, we can program a robot to vacuum a floor or mow the yard, but sexuality is qualitatively different than the performance of some rote housework. It’s comparing apples to algorithms. …and you’d be right. Kind of.
Sexuality is fundamentally different than the performance of tasks, for several reasons. First, sex in a classic sense is tied to deep relational bonding and procreation. Bonding with a robot is certainly plausible, but procreating with one is (at least for the time being) utterly inconceivable (<-pun). Second, human sexuality is bound to deeper questions of identity. I, in part, know who I am because of the body I’ve been given by God. To engage a robot sexually would be to challenge the complementary characteristics found in my species, my humanness. In a way, the sharing of sexual experience would be a betrayal of what makes me, in part, a man. But, I have to say, if sexuality is reduced to a set of pleasurable sensations–which, by the way, is how much of the world sees it–then nothing should prevent a person from seeking out ways to manufacture these sensations. Sex toys were made for this precise purpose.
Aren’t robotic sexual companions simply sex toys on a grander scale?
Here are the reasons society will embrace these now and future techs for the purposes of sexual fulfillment. For a more comprehensive list, check out David Levy’s and/or Andy Clark’s work, cited below ):
- The ever-increasing proximity we’ll have to humanoid robots and VR systems. Proximity is one of the key features of both companionship and romantic love. Lots of studies confirm this, but I’ll try to lay it out in a few sentences. We tend to fall for those who we see regularly. Sure, an end result of romantic love might not come to fruition (e.g., entering the ‘Friend Zone’), but the ongoing affection is borne out of regular, everyday contact. If we have robotics as a part of our day-to-day lives and we begin to sense these robots have original personalities, there is no doubt that some owners will begin to wonder if a relationship can indeed blossom, even if the object of affection is mostly wires and transistors.
- The wall between inanimate objects and living beings is less present in our children, who have relatively few qualms about treating computerized personalities as something other than ‘real.’ Some people call this the human capacity for ‘enchantment.’ In other words, because most people have almost no knowledge of how a computer actually works, users are prone to experience a measure of enchantment, a pleasure that is derived from a surprising or from a novel experience. Adults, at least, can place themselves at a certain distance from their tools. Kids? Not so much. Uncoiling a kid from a worldview that has never not known human-computer relationships will prove to be a complex task, especially when few authoritative voices are suggesting that such a view of technology might actually be a harmful thing.
- Our propensity for anthropomorphizing everything, including the relationship we have with our devices. By this term, I simply mean how easily we ascribe human characteristics to non-human objects, even computer programs. How many of us have played the computer card game ‘Hearts,’ only to say a phrase directed to no one in particular, ‘Oh, she’s going to play that queen, I know it.’ Or, ‘If I play this, then he’s going to know what I’m trying to do…’ Eddie Izzard, the eccentric British comedian, absolutely kills it on this point. The heavy anthropomorphism–and the f-bombs–hit their stride at the 3:00 mark.
Creating a world of humanlike personality allows us to understand a world that is cold and indifferent to our emotion; by treating something like a person, we imbibe the object/pet/thing with a telos and deeper value. Conversely, when a person wants to dehumanize something or someone, the first order of business is to remove any sense of name, humanity, or purpose from the target. Hence, numbers for names in Birkenau.
- Due to increased elegance in computer programming and society’s general lust for consumerism, the central human-computer relationship is no longer master-slave or owner-servant. Our phones and computers are being personalized in ways like never before. Operating systems are designed so that you feel like your individual machine has its own personality and way-of-being. The former way of thinking is that software/hardware construction exists to perform a task with precision and efficiency. The new way is to build designs that move beyond sheer brute force task completion in order to better address the human user as a human. The way to do this is to construct designs with personality, emotion, and an eye for the spontaneous. I’m willing to bet large that Siri’s design team spent every bit as much time on its (her?) delivery, snarkiness, and tone of voice than the information algorithms that Siri uses to give us the up-to-date score on the Spurs-Warriors game.
- Robots can be programmed to look for a variety of desirable traits. Is there an actual difference between a robot that speaks at though it has interest in a person, and one who actually has interest? If a robot can be programmed to draw out the qualities of personality and/or shared interest, the temptation will be to remove the suspension of disbelief and treat the robot as a person. Maybe not as a human, but still as a person. It is a small step, then, from treating a robot this way to actually developing real feelings for it, whether those feelings are gratitude, respect, romance, and/or sexual attraction.
I’m guessing you probably gave your first car or first guitar a name. The Beast. The Blue Bomber. Tina. Whatever. The reason you did it is because: 1) you were always in it; 2) it had idiosyncrasies that either frustrated or charmed you; and 3) your history is built into the fabric of the car. The car took you to your first date, it was present when you got your first fender bender, and it kept you warm and dry when it was cold and wet outside. No, this does not mean you want to know your car (like the biblical way of ‘knowing’)…but it does illustrate how easily you bond with objects that cannot real-ly share in your corporate identity.
“Uncoiling a kid from a worldview that has never not known human-computer relationships will prove to be a complex task, especially when few authoritative voices are suggesting that such a view of technology might actually be a harmful thing.”
A robotic sex companion will have stunning features that tempt, cajole and alter our sense of reality. As the quality of programming in voice recognition and speech continues to rise at exponential levels, domestic robots will make you laugh and think—precisely because programmers will move from functional programming to emotional programming. Robots will be able to recognize when to flatter you and when to encourage you. With each successive behavior, the owner will shed its commitment to seeing the robot as a device only and begin to treat it as a friend, family member, or (of course) as a lover.
I’m not trying to weird you out. I’m trying to show you that, even if there is some initial resistance to the thought of robot-human relationships that are rounding second and heading to third, at some point society will lose its ethical scruples about such a game in the first place. The Church will be a lonely voice in the wilderness.
Perhaps the Church will need to be there…out in the desert eating bugs and wearing camel skin…freakishly counter-cultural. Welcoming those who desire a baptism into something entirely new and authentic, free from the tangle of a million nano-tethers (or one tether, full-sized and ready to go).
 David Levy, Love+Sex With Robots (New York: HarperCollins, 2007).
 Andy Clark, Natural Born Cyborgs (New York: Oxford, 2003).
*These are old tomes by now. However, both texts are good at presenting some of the key reasons why we are naturally oriented to build relationships with devices.
© 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.