Academic research into sex technology and intimate relationships with machines is still in its infancy. A small community of researchers and developers have recently shared ideas and theories at conferences and symposia such as the Love and Sex with Robots International Congress and the AISB’s Artificial Sexuality event.
In December 2016, Goldsmiths, University of London hosted the UK’s first sex tech hackathon. Organised by the Department of Computing and Hacksmiths, the Goldsmiths’ tech society, the 24hr event brought together designers, developers, psychologists, artists and industry specialists to prototype new types of intimate technologies. Videos of the products are available online.
Our aim is to explore the challenges and benefits of intimate technologies in the near future. With cognitive systems development being heavily influenced by human cognition, perception, and interaction, should sexual behaviour and sexuality be part of that influence? Previous research has examined what might happen to us if we form close relationships with machines and intelligent systems. We feel that this is only one aspect of what we term Artificial Sexuality, and suggest that there are multiple and equally important strands that have not yet been fully explored, including – but by no means limited to – modelling sex and cognition, embodiment, gender issues, reproduction, ethics, and law.
FAQs – responses from Kate Devlin
WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THE WORD “SEX” IN “SEX ROBOTS”
My view is that it is any type of enacted sexual activity. It’s actually not necessary to define it in terms of individual actions. We know it is something that causes the release of hormones such as oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine that make us feel pleasure. It does not necessarily involve penetration or orgasm. It is by no means necessarily heteronormative.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THE WORD “ROBOTS” IN “SEX ROBOTS”
A robot is a machine that can automate certain actions. They are already all around us (domestic, factory, surgery, care). To date these actions are programmed, though machine learning can be used to train it to respond in new ways that aren’t explicitly programmed. However, we don’t yet have robots that are self-aware, sentient or conscious. And we just don’t know yet what physical form they could or should take.
I see sex robots as falling under the umbrella of sex tech. Sex tech includes hardware (like sex toys), software, virtual reality, apps (hook-up apps; apps for intimacy) and mechanised sex dolls, which we currently refer to as “sex robots”. These dolls are gendered, stereotyped and clichéd and we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that’s what a sex robot must be like. We are nowhere near the point where we have the indistinguishable-from-humans robots of sci-fi. We’re just beyond blow-up doll stage.
DO PEOPLE WANT ONE?
There simply isn’t enough data on that yet. That’s why we need research. People want and use companion and care robots. People definitely use sex tech – it’s a growing industry worth around $30billion a year.
IS IT ETHICAL?
There is a global community of academics working on the ethics of AI and this type of question (i.e. should we make a sentient machine that will serve us) is one that is often debated. It also hinges on whether or not the robot will be truly conscious. It could be programmed merely give the appearance of consciousness which is convincing to us humans, so that we feel cherished and loved but the machine is merely processing its orders without being more than just a powerful computer.
Sex tech has the power to be incredibly beneficial in terms of helping people have a fulfilling sex life and the experience of intimacy.
CAN PEOPLE LOVE MACHINES?
Sure. People get very attached to inanimate objects all the time. And people fall in love with other people even if it isn’t reciprocated.
WHAT ARE THE BIG QUESTIONS?
Right now or in the short term future:
– what form will a sex robot take? There’s no need for it to look human. Or have a gender.
– how can we develop it?
– who might want it?
– can it be used therapeutically?
– can we shape development to be equal and diverse?
– what happens to our data?
In the long term future:
– how will they affect society? How will they affect human relationships?
– if we have a conscious machine, how will we know it’s conscious?
– how advanced will that consciousness be?
– what will be our responsibilities towards our creations? will they have rights? should we build in the idea of consent?