Sunday January 22, 2017

The near and distant future of sex robots

Evolution of the doll: Companies like Real Doll (right) have been making hyper-realistic, poseable silicone sex dolls for decades, but will soon be adding artificial intelligence and robotics to the dolls.

Evolution of the doll: Companies like Real Doll (right) have been making hyper-realistic, poseable silicone sex dolls for decades, but will soon be adding artificial intelligence and robotics to the dolls.

Listen 17:58

Sexy robots have long existed in our pop-culture imagination from Ex-Machina, Blade Runner and The Stepford Wives to the new HBO series Westworld.

But, seductive androids may soon exist in our reality. Matt McMullen is the CEO and founder of Real Doll. For decades, his California-based company has been creating hyper-realistic, anatomically-correct, poseable silicone sex dolls.

However, over the last five years, Matt and his colleagues have been working on adding artificial intelligence and robotics to the dolls. By the end of 2017, he plans to release a synthetic woman who may give you at least the illusion of loving you back.

"Our first AI-equipped doll is named Harmony and she has a customizable personality," says Matt. "Every user who creates a version of Harmony will have a very unique experience based on their choices."

341 RealDoll head

The robotic head of a Real Doll, which will have a programmable personality by way of artificial intelligence.

What's the goal here? "I look at this more in terms of companionship, a virtual friend or girlfriend," says Matt. "I think that the AI technology will allow some sort of connection without the risk affiliated with trusting another human being... and it does go way beyond just the sexual aspect, it's really something more."

There are many factors such as ethics, privacy and gender dynamics to consider when it comes to the near and distant landscape of sex robots.

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Computer Scientist Kate Devlin

Kate Devlin is a senior lecturer in computing at Goldsmiths University of London. Her research focuses on AI, particularly sex technology and sexual companion robots.

Kate was one of the organizers of the second annual Love and Sex with Robots conference held last month at her university. Different views on the future of sex tech were presented, including those of techno-optimist David Levy. He sees great therapeutic potential in robots and even predicts the first human-robot marriage will happen by around 2050.

On the other hand, activists like Kathleen Richardson have spearheaded a Campaign against Sex Robots on the grounds that they "objectify women".

What does Kate think?

"I don't think it's all utopian. I do think we have to take a very measured approach. But also, likewise, I don't think it's all terrible," she says. "There's definitely a middle ground to tread. But it means developing things in a fair and equal manner."  

Yet, when it comes to gender dynamics, nearly all sex robots -- in pop culture and reality -- are women.  

"These days technology reflects the makers of that technology who are by and large male, and so we are seeing that," says Kate. "Fortunately there is a rise in sex tech where women are creating new companies that are making sex technology for women and that's a good thing."

As for what Kate predicts for the near future of sex tech?

"I think the next big thing will be virtual reality porn," she says. "But now is the time for us to get in and look at it from an equal and diverse view."