Oz isn't happy about the future of sex. The day I'm scheduled to appear on his show, the television physician and Oprah protege has assembled a cast of victims and villains that includes a college communications major who caught chlamydia from a Tinder date; a year-old woman who was stabbed 21 times by the fiance she met online; and Douglas Hines, a cartoonish engineer donning a white lab coat and outsize bowtie, who claims to have created the world's first sex robot.
This story may contain links to and descriptions or images of explicit sexual acts. I'm here, presumably, to act as a voice of reason in a segment called "Rise of the sex robots: Why experts are issuing warnings! While one is slightly more optimistic, their arguments are essentially two sides of the same coin: Sex robots either can or will pose a threat to human relationships, or worse. As TV doctors do, they've both developed firmly planted opinions on the subject without any first-hand experience.
It's not lost on me that I'm the only one in the room who's actually seen a sex robot IRL. After the doctors deliver their warnings, Oz turns to me, a look of concern written in deep lines across his forehead. He wants to know if people can have real, intimate relationships with robots.
The answer is simple: For the past two years, I've followed the birth of the sex robot and the surrounding media frenzy with a burning curiosity. I've spoken with the men and women who have dedicated their lives to the study and development of these machines. I've spent countless hours devouring the many books, movies and television shows that laid the groundwork for their creation and gone hands-on with Harmony , the world's first market-ready sex robot. As Abyss Creations, the entity behind the RealDoll, prepares to unleash its sex robot on the world, just about the only thing I haven't done is have sex with one.
I did manage to take three of them out for dinner, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. It can move its head up and down and side to side, blink, smile and raise its eyebrows. With the help of an Android app, it can hold limited two-way conversations and simulate orgasms. Users will be able to customize their doll's personality and select from two preloaded avatars at launch: Their faces and bodies are fully customizable, and customers can select from a menu of 11 swappable vaginas and hundreds of nipple variations.
So far, Matt McMullen, the founder of RealDoll, says he's sold six of these robots, but their reputations precede them. Over the past couple of years, sex robots have taken on an outsize role in popular media. Everyone from The New York Times to the BBC has found a way to wedge these largely nonexistent machines into debates around everything from gun violence to child sex trafficking. According to recent accounts, you can buy sex robots that look like children, celebrities, even the deceased.
They offer a " rape mode " and bionic penises , and operate entire brothels in Europe and Asia. So I flew to England, about a month after my daytime-TV debut, to meet the two women at the center of the sex robot debate. Kate Devlin and Kathleen Richardson couldn't be more different. Devlin is a senior lecturer at Goldsmith's University of London, where she studies human-computer interaction and runs an annual sex tech hackathon.
Richardson serves as professor of ethics and culture of robots and AI at De Montfort University, where she launched the now-infamous Campaign Against Sex Robots in Where Richardson has positioned herself as a sort of 21st-century Carrie Nation, calling for sexbot prohibition, Devlin has toured the country preaching a gospel of acceptance.
She believes that sex robots don't have to look like humans, that they can and should be gender-nonspecific. They could even serve as a deterrent to sexual abuse and violence. Richardson, on the other hand, thinks they should be stopped before they ever get started. And I think the media isn't portraying the reality of it because there's not so much of story in that.
Kate Devlin Evil Maria or the Maschinenmensch in Fritz Lang's film Metropolis, one of the earliest depictions of the sex robot in film. In her home office, just steps away from the River Thames, Devlin is finishing the final chapters of her book: Science, Sex and Robots. For all the doomsday scenarios surrounding her pet subject, Devlin is lighthearted and optimistic. For the past two years, she's served as a measured, objective voice in an increasingly sensational debate.
If you ask her, sex robots aren't much of a threat at all, largely because they don't really exist. I mean, that's super-exciting, super-scary. People want to believe that these things exist because we've been primed by so many years of films, so many years of reading books. The reality, to Devlin's point, is quite a bit less glamorous.
Samantha , the product of Spanish tinkerer Sergi Santos, can't even open her mouth or move her head. McMullen's RealDollx is the most sophisticated of the bunch, but even it has its limitations. Truth be told, the closest thing we have to the hosts of Westworld can't even stand up on its own, let alone fuck us to death.
When I met the original RealDollx , Harmony, for the first time, I was immediately transported to the uncanny valley. She was crafted with such care, such attention to detail that, at a glimpse, she was indiscernible from a human being. As she lifted her eyelids and opened her mouth to speak, I found myself slack-jawed, at a loss for words. It wasn't until Harmony introduced herself that the reality set in.
Her lip sync is far from perfect and you can hear the motors whirring inside her head. Her smile is subtle, as are other small facial expressions, but her head moves with the staccato of a sprinkler. As with its mainstream counterparts, like Siri and Google Assistant, Harmony's AI often gets hung up on natural speech.
My first time meeting Harmony. Harmony is inanimate from the neck down. Her skin is cold to the touch. Her artificial intelligence, while impressive, is still limited. She requires an Android app to communicate and her battery lasts just two hours.
Once she runs out of juice, she's tethered to an outlet. She isn't the fantasy that we've been taught to expect.
Harmony is a first-gen device with niche appeal. Even McMullen admits that his robotic companions likely won't be a mainstream success. So, what's with all the hype? Here's another element of your life that will have a robot in it. It's not enough that your job is gonna be lost to automation, now your relationships will go that way, too.
That's a really deep fear to kind of tap in on. Oz suggested, but Devlin says, "It's not very difficult to bond with a machine. Nass found that computers don't even really have to take on human traits for us to treat them like humans. Kate Darling, a research specialist focused on human-robot interaction at the MIT Media Labs, dives deeper into those attachments and their implications.
She points to a number of scenarios in which social robots that look far less human than Harmony have elicited emotional responses. There's the case of the US Army colonel calling off tests of an insect-like robot tasked with detonating landmines on the grounds that the trials were "inhumane," and instances of Sony Aibo owners reporting feelings of guilt when they put their robotic dogs back in the box. The bottom line is, you may not be ready to fall in love with a robot, but chances are, you already have an emotional attachment to your smartphone.
This is exactly what Kathleen Richardson is afraid of. Two RealDollx bodies hang from the ceiling of the Abyss Creations studio. The End of Love. Over the course of my six-hour visit, though, I'll get to know a much more level-headed human being whose ideas aren't nearly as radical as they seem. That said, Richardson has the regrettable tendency to compare sex robots to slaves. She believes that sex work is inherently nonconsensual and that sex robots will lead to increases in human trafficking and child molestation.
On those points and others, I couldn't disagree more, but she touches on some very real anxieties about the rise of AI. Throughout a relatively scattered and meandering conversation on the dangers of sex robots, she keeps coming back to one theme: She believes that we are special, and the things that make us human should be protected.
That's not my concern. You know, this is not a campaign against robots or tools or hammers or chisels or any other manner of things. This is a campaign against the idea that human beings can be compared to machines, analogous to machines. For Richardson, it's about drawing a line between humans and goods. Still, her campaign stokes the flames of uncertainty. In her many talks and interviews, she paints a picture of a future where humans live increasingly isolated, unfulfilled lives, where human trafficking and child abuse run rampant, where gender inequality flourishes.
And it all comes at the hands of the sex robot. So, they'll just reflect back to us the objectification of women and girls, the sexual objectification of women and girls," she says.
If Devlin and Richardson have anything in common, it's a shared belief that the current crop of sex robots is harmful to women. So what do they think of Harmony?
Devlin's take is complicated. When she toured Abyss Creations last summer, she was struck by the sophistication of Harmony's AI and appearance. Richardson, who's yet to meet McMullen or his inventions in person, isn't pulling punches. When I returned to Abyss creations just weeks after my trip to the UK, he was eager to show me his latest project. Henry is the natural successor to Harmony and Solana, a 6-foot-tall white male sex robot with Alpaca hair eyebrows, washboard abs and a swappable cock and balls.
He won't be available until early next year, and he won't have a bionic penis as the British tabloid The Daily Star reported in January. Henry is under construction.