Would you invite a sexbot into your bedroom?

05 June 2017 - 14:09 By Tabi Jackson Gee
Engineer and inventor Douglas Hines poses with his company's True Companion sex robot, Roxxxy, at the TrueCompanion.com booth at the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas.
Engineer and inventor Douglas Hines poses with his company's True Companion sex robot, Roxxxy, at the TrueCompanion.com booth at the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas.
Image: ROBYN BECK/AFP

Cliched as it may be, the future is here; we can and should talk about it. Within decades we've become reliant on technology and robots are increasingly part of our everyday lives.

The latest chapter comes courtesy of RealDoll. The California-based company is about to unveil a $15,000 (about R200,000) life-size, hyper realistic, silicone sex doll. She can talk, blink, smile, regurgitate facts about your life - and, of course, have sex with you.

Her name is Harmony and she's being hailed as the most significant development thus far in the $30-billion sex tech industry.

According to Trudy Barber, a pioneer in the impact of technology on sex, our growing immersion in technology means it's only a matter of time before it takes a mainstream role in sex.

Put simply: sex between couples will increasingly be saved for special occasions as robots step in to satisfy everyday needs.

Speaking at the International Congress of Love and Sex with Robotics last year, Barber predicted that the use of artificial intelligence devices in the bedroom would be normal within 25 years.

Devices such as Rocky or Roxxxy True Companion can currently be bought for around R120,000, but advances in the field are predicted to make sex robots increasingly lifelike and affordable.

Indeed, in April last year a man figured out a way to make a female robot in his own home.

Ricky Ma, 42, a Hong Kong man with no formal training in robots, spent R590,000 to create a robotic woman that looks like Scarlett Johannson.

Unlike the vivacious and intelligent actress, his robotic counterpart was programmed to respond to questions like ''you are beautiful" and ''you're so cute" with a coquettish smile and a wink.

It's a disappointing reflection of the way women are portrayed in society - Ma's clever three-dimensional creation is about as one dimensional as you can get.

1409759_1134853.jpg 

Is all this cause for concern? Of course. Right now more money is being spent on making these things than thinking about the ethical and societal ramifications.

We already know porn provides a terrifying reflection on how society views women that can manifest itself in real life.

But what happens when machines start contributing to the objectification of women, too?

There's also a real worry that people will abuse robots assigned human traits - whether it be in a sexual or physical way.

Blay Whitby, a philosopher concerned with the trivialisation of robots in the media, thinks it's a legitimate concern: "Will people mistreat robots? They already do. The way people first meet artificial intelligence is in a character in a video game they're shooting at."

Kathleen Richardson, a fellow in the ethics of robotics at the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility, has done extensive research into this area - especially in regards to women.

She says: "Machines, like the portrayal of women in pornography, prostitution and the media, are entirely objects for male gratification. But women aren't like what males see in pornography or in prostitution or in popular media.

"In these areas, women are coerced or told how to act or behave with the temptation of money or threat of violence. In real life, women have their own thoughts and feelings and preferences and desires.

"It seems logical that if this extreme control can't be experienced by men with real women, the next step is to create artificial objects."

The people creating these robots are also to blame. A 2014 study titled Our Work Here Is Done: Visions of a Robot Economy examined how gender is assigned to machines in the workplace.

Researchers found that ''male" robots are thought to be better at repairing technical devices, while ''female" robots are thought to be more suited to domestic services.

So: people with gendered ideas make robots that conform to gender norms, which perpetuates existing stereotypes.

But it doesn't have to be this way. What if the people designing these robots didn't have such stereotypical views? What if they used this new platform to defy stereotypes, and inspired us to look at ourselves in new ways instead?

It's a nice thought. But as long as manufacturers stand to make a profit from robotics, and see these types of characterisations as a means to creating more humanised, relatable machines that sell better, not much is going to change. Being cautious isn't sexy in the business of technology - and it rarely comes with financial rewards.

Whitby, concerned with the social impact of emerging technologies and the trivialisation of robots in the media, urges us to act now, before it's too late.

"We need to have these discussions instead of waking up one day when robot companions are normal and question whether it was a good idea or not," he says.

As this kind of technology is rolled out around the world, he had a stark warning about where the democratisation of technology is taking us: "How would you feel about your ex-boyfriend getting a robot that looked exactly like you, just in order to beat it up every night?" -The Daily Telegraph

ANC Conference 2017
X