Right now there’s a whole lot of buzz about sex robots. Some people are really excited about them, and think we’ll be marrying robots by 2050. Other people are really worried about them, and are organizing whole campaigns against sex robots. This week, we travel to a future where sex robots are realized, and talk about everything from warranties to ethics.
[A note: if you listen to our show with or near young kids be aware that today’s episodes discusses the future of sex, and goes into some detail about sex toys, sex work and other sexy time things. If your kiddos are ready for a calm, reasonable discussion of sex and the sex industry, carry on! If you’re not there yet, that’s cool, but maybe skip this one.]
This week we have three experts helping us think through how we get to sex robots, and what we do when we get there. A.V. Flox is journalist who covers the intersection of sex, law and technology. She is very skeptical of all the sexbot hype, and says we have a long way to go before we’ll see anything remotely like an actual sex robot. Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and futurist who’s been a guest on the show before. A few of her books involve sex robots, and she thinks that before we get anything human we’ll start to see cartoony looking forms. And Shelly Ronen is a sociology PhD student at NYU who studies sex and sex object production. Ronen says that it’s possible we won’t demand full-on humanoid robots, but instead be totally satisfied by less human-like machines.
Together the three of them walk us through all the things we might have to sort out before and after the rise of the sex robots. How do you keep them clean? Where do you store them? What happens if they break? What will they look like? How do you handle the uncanny valley? Who should use them, and how does their existence impact sex workers?
You can read an optimistic take on sex robots in the book Love and Sex With Robots by David Levy and you can find more on Levy’s outlook on robots here. Levy is optimistic about sex robots — not only does he think they’re coming quickly, he also thinks they could have some very positive impacts. On the other side of the table is the Campaign Against Sex Robots. You can guess how they feel about these devices, and their argument is generally summed up here. Essentially, they feel that prostitution is bad, and sex robots would be a form of prostitution and encourage it, therefore sex robots are bad. This is an argument that many people disagree with, including sex workers who point out that many of them enjoy and would like to keep their jobs.
Plus, we have to make this a lot sexier before it will work for most people:
To top everything off, here are some fun fact about our long tradition of wanting to create and love female robots:
- Robots were originally assumed to be male. The 1920’s science fiction play R.U.R. that gave us the word robot also gave us the term for a female robot: a robotess.
- The term “gynoid” (which you don’t see quite as much anymore) was coined by the writer Gwyneth Jones in her 1985 novel Divine Endurance.
- The term “fembot” first shows up in 1976, in a script for the show The Bionic Woman.
- Brigitte Helm played “Maschinenmensch,” the female robot in the iconic 1927 movie Metropolis. Apparently her costume was extremely uncomfortable, and other actors would apparently slip coins into various openings out of pity for her. She used those coins to buy chocolate.
Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth, and is part of the Boing Boing podcast family. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Broke for Free. The illustration is by Matt Lubchansky. The music for our various sex robot commercials was by Alaclair, Strong Suit and BoxCat. The voice for the Hadaly commercial was Jaya Saxena, whose writing you can find at jayasaxena.com. The voice for Margot’s Discount Closet Solutions was Mike Rugnetta, who has a podcast called Reasonably Sound that you should absolutely listen to. And the voice convincing you to buy a Leopold was by Brent Rose, who is currently driving around America in this crazy high-tech van. You can follow his adventure at ConnectedStates.com and on Instagram @brentdangerrose.
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at email@example.com. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways you can do that too! We have a Patreon page, where you can donate to the show. But if that’s not in the cards for you, you can head to iTunes and leave us a nice review or just tell your friends about us. Those things really do help.
That’s all for this future, come back next week and we’ll travel to a new one.
Hello! And welcome to Flash Forward. I’m Rose, and I’m your host.
Flash Forward is a podcast about the future. Every week we explore a possible, or not so possible, future scenario, and try to really think through what it might be like. Each episode we start with a little field trip to the future, before dialing it back to now, and discussing that future with experts.
Go it? Great.
A quick note about today’s episode — if you’re listening with or near young kids be aware that today’s show discusses the future of sex, and goes into some detail about sex toys, sex work and other sexy time things. If your kiddos are ready for a calm, reasonable discussion of sex and the sex industry, carry on! If you’re not there yet, that’s cool, but maybe skip this one.
Okay, with that out of the way. Let’s go to the year 2086.
Female voice: In today’s world, it can be hard to find a moment to connect. We all spend so much time near one another, and yet, can never seem to get truly close. Dates, dinners, movies they all blow by in the wind, but can never quite scratch that deeper itch. Now there’s a way to feel true affection, true partnership, without the boredom of endless dates. Simply add Hadaly to your life, and you’ll find peace, happiness, passion… and more.
Male voice: Do you find your closet space cramped? No room for that new cyborg lover you just brought home? Come on down to Margot’s Discount Closet Solutions! We’re the only place in town that offers custom cabinets to hold, charge and hide your bedroom companions. Equipped with adaptors and sockets galore, our Closet Solutions have all the room your frisky robot friend needs, and can even hold its clothes and cleaning supplies. You won’t see another custom cabinet deal like this! Our cabinets hold all major models — whatever you’ve picked, tall, short, big, small, horned or winged, we can make a custom cabinet for you, no questions asked!
MUSIC: Strong Suit
Male voice: Do you ever find that your desires are … unconventional? You want more than your partners can give. Something stronger, something bigger, something… more intense. It can be hard to ask, but it’s easy to program. Let the Leopold step in, and make your desires a reality.
Rose: Okay! So, in this future we’ve invented robots for sex. Sex robots. This is a thing some people are really excited about. And that other people are really worried about. There’s a whole organization called the Campaign Against Sex Robots, which argues that they’re a terrible idea. Other people think they should be used to help eradicate sex work, or help people with dangerous desires like rape fantasies or pedohpilia. Some people think we’re going to be marrying robots by 2050. But other people are… less optimistic about that.
A.V. Flox: I think there’s a really big disconnect between what we have achieved and what we have yet to achieve in order to arrive at a place where sex robots are a reality.
Rose: That’s A.V. Flox, she’s a journalist who covers the intersection of sex, law and technology. And she says that for all the buzz about sex robots right now, we have a long way to go before we’ll see anything remotely like an actual sex robot. You see, making a sex robot is hard. Right now the products out there are really just sex dolls, that might have a couple of pre-programmed phrases in them. There are some devices that you can connect to the Internet, to feel like you’re having sex with someone who’s in another room, or another continent. But sex robots, full on walking talking sex having robots, are a huge technical challenge.
Flox: They’re going to require nanotechnology to replicate non uniform skin, and they’re going to require a sort of AI complete natural language understanding, to say nothing of realistic personality simulations. And I think this is a really important story because sex robots aren’t just going to be sleeves or dildos. They’re not going to be simple enough for a single genius to just put together the way that they might a haptic dildo or a chatbot.
But even before we get to realistic skin or convincing artificial intelligence or any of that. We first have to make them them stand up.
Shelly Ronen: The things that do exist, like the dolls, because of the stance, they were designed to have a stance that is most effective for intercourse so they have this frog like stance with their legs wide open. And they can’t even stand on their feet, they have hooks in the back of their heads and they have to be hooked in, in order to have a standing like posture. So there’s some design issues here that these makers are going to have to deal with pretty soon. All the unseen pieces of labor that women are constantly doing in their heterosexual relationships, one of which is just being able to move themselves! Who knew that that was something they would miss about us?
That’s Shelly Ronen, a sociology PhD student at NYU who studies sex and sex objects.
Those sex dolls you can buy right now, for about $7,000, weigh anywhere between 65 and 105 pounds, which is a lot of dead weight to have to move around. And if you’ve ever watched any videos online of robots walking and moving and… falling down. You know that our current state of the art robotic motion isn’t exactly sexy.
Now, once they can stand and move, they have to then look and feel and act convincing. All of this is to say that making sex robots is going to be really hard, and it’s going to require a lot people engineers, roboticists, sex toy experts, computer scientists.
Flox: Which means licensing and investment capital
Rose: And Flox says that that is the big challenge.
Flox: The adage that sex sells is true unless you’re actually trying to sell sex.
Rose: You see, in the United States at least, companies working in the so called “adult industries” often have a really hard time finding investors, getting loans, convincing credit card companies to carry them, all the things that a business might need to actually get going. Tech platforms like the Apple App store and Google Play won’t approve any kind of adult content. Search engines don’t show adult content unless you specifically ask for it, and even then some of it is filtered out. This is all to say that it’s going to be pretty hard to get the money and backing required to make a sex robot any time soon.
Flox: I think if people did a little less daydreaming about sex robots and a little more lobbying for the right of innovators to access loans, payment processors and funding I’d be a little more optimistic about it but I’m really not holding my breath.
But this is a podcast about the future, and EVENTUALLY we’ll probably get sex robots. We just can’t seem to help ourselves.
Rose: Do you think that this is inevitable?
Madeline Ashby: Um yeah, yeah on some level.
Rose: That’s Madeline Ashby, a science fiction author and futurist.
Ashby: And I say that not because I think that people are perverts, I do think that we are all perverts, but I think that it’s inevitable because humanoid robots are inevitable. The fascination of creating life and creating something in our own image is baked in at the biblical level, and baked in even at the level of fairy tale. The creation of pinocchio or other life or even in modern fairy tale terms The Velveteen Rabbit, if you love something enough it becomes real.
Rose: She says that to get around some of the issues of authenticity and realism, the first sex robots might not look particularly human.
Ashby: I think we are more likely to see a cartoony look first. I think that that’s how you skirt the uncanny valley problem, is to make a more cartoony or anime like or video game like face and body and appearance. Like red eyes and blue hair. Not only because Japan and other places is a huge market for it, but I think it’s weirdly easier to say I want to sleep with this thing that couldn’t possibly exist, because then it’s not a replacement for anything or anyone. It’s not a replacement for a person, it’s not a substitute for a relationship that you might have, it’s very definitely the achievement a fantasy.
Rose: Right now the dolls you can buy are highly customizable, you can choose everything from what kind of pubic hair you want, to what kind of freckles you like, to things like adding cat ears or having interchangeable genitalia.
Ronen: Actually I asked Real Doll, Abyss Creations, how often that is, and they said a lot more than you would imagine, a lot more of the orders actually request that the body have a penis but also have breasts and a female face So I think there’s potential for something subversive there
Rose: Now since this show is all about overthinking things, I want to talk a little bit about the actual logistics of having a sex robot in your house. Like, where do you store it?
Flox: It’s not just the robot, it’s also making a space in your life and your home for this robot
Rose: And, how do you keep it clean? Sex toys have their own cleaning protocols that, lots of people don’t follow, and when you scale that up to a human sized device, it sounds like a lot of work to keep it from getting… kind of gross.
Flox: Oh yeah and this is something you run into a lot when you talk to people that work in the adult and novelty industry, which is the euphemism for sex toys. There seems to be a disconnect between the sex toy and the ownership of the sex toy and the caring and maintenance of the toy and high school level chemistry. People don’t really think about this they’ve got a bunch of vibrators they just throw in a box or in a drawer, and they’re mostly all silicone or some variation, and they’re confused when one of them melts or gets discolored, it’s like ‘what’s going on why is this breaking?’ And it’s like well you know you can’t use silicone lube on a silicon toy you can’t just let them rub up on eachother because chemistry works in not very mysterious ways. Please bag your toys please use the correct lube. But we don’t really seem to understand this. So when you start actually investing in a very large purchase like a sex robot that is going to have very complex skin. Oh I can only imagine what a pain in the ass it would be to have a sex doll in cyberskin that you have wash and then dust lightly with powders so that it’s not sticky.
Rose But even if you take great care of the robot, it could, still, break. And when it does, what do you do?
Ronen: I mean sex is a very vigorous activity, most likely if someone is using a doll they probably will want to enact all sorts of fantasies that may involve damage.
Rose: Today, there are “doll doctors” that go around and help fix sex dolls that have broken. But if sex robots become more common, companies will have to figure out how to handle returns and fixes. Or maybe people will be able to do small repairs at home.
Shelly: I think 3D printing technology will probably dovetail nicely with the sex robot manufacturing, and presumably any customization you might want you’ll be able to go to the 3D printer in your living room and print her out a new nipple, a marilyn monroe mole because you want that now.
Rose: These robots will have to be tested pretty rigorously too, to make sure they don’t malfunction during use. Because you’re kind of vulnerable during sex.
Ashby: You don’t want unsafe at any speed in your bedroom.
Rose: And they’ll also probably come with some kind of manual that outlines what you are and are not allowed to do with the robot without voiding the warranty.
Ashby: It’s as sexy as an Ikea manual, and I’m imagining the poor graphic designer who has to put this together in multiple languages, or in the Ikea style where there’s very little language and just diagrams. Imagine unfolding this manual, or more likely looking at it on your phone — and realizing a) nothing is written down and b) you have to figure this out only from diagrams. These are in red these positions are in green so I think that means it’s okay unless I happen to be color blind in which case I’m screwed.
Rose: If you do try to do something with the robot it can’t do, maybe it starts beeping, or maybe it tells you to stop, or maybe it gives you a little shock.
Ashby: I’m sorry I can’t do that, that kind of thing, sure, or, why don’t we try something else, or, what have you.
Rose: Who is the voiceover person who has to read this out.
Rose: Oh and along with making the robots convincing and sexy and clean and safe, they also need to be secure. You don’t want your sex robot getting hacked to watch you or do things you do not want it to do.
Flox: So one of the first things I thought about was hacking. That would be an incredible plot for a thriller, a person with their sex doll is brutally murdered by a hacker.
It’s also possible that instead of a person having their own sex robot with a closet to put it in and a drawer of cleaning supplies and a 3D printer to replace small parts and a roboticist on call for when it really breaks, people might be able to rent time with them instead.
Ronen: So supposedly you can already buy time with them in some red light districts I’ve heard in Amsterdam and perhaps also in Tokyo.
Rose: Which also helps get around the issue of liability.
Ashby: Say for example you and your wife or you and your partner go to one of these places and something happens and someone gets injured, who then is liable? iIf you say for example bought a sex robot and then that happened, if your girlfriend going to sue you because you bought the sex robot? Or can you sue the owner of the robot brothel for not keeping up on their repair plan? A lot of people would much rather sue the owner than take the liability on themselves
Rose: These are kind of silly logistics questions but I think they’re interesting. But there are some much deeper, harder ethical questions too. Which don’t just apply to sex robots, they apply to robots more generally. How do we feel about owning a thing that looks and acts like a human?
Ronen: It’s unlikely I think, by the time we get to the sex robot commodity if we ever get there, it’s unlikely that they will be just for sex. It’s more likely that they’ll actually be a multipurpose device. They’ll take care of your children, they’ll take care of your elderly, they’ll cook your dinner they’ll drive you around. Well I guess you’ll have a self driving car so who knows maybe you’ll be having sex with your car. But it’s more likely that this will be a fully service device.
Ashby: And that’s the deeper actual ethical question, can you love something that you own?
Flox: We’re going to have to think very very hard about what that says about us and whether we want and accept fantasy to play out that way with a very very human-like object made for our own personal pleasure.
Rose: Those are really hard questions that, I don’t think anybody has the answers to yet. Thankfully, we’re going to have a lot of time to figure them things out.
Ronen: I think sometimes we imagine the technological advances pop out of nowhere and a commodity plops down next to us and is like “Hello! you haven’t seen any element of me before and now I’m here this whole hog thing!” And actually technological progress is much more incremental, much slower. We have these teledildonic devices that are just coming out now that network through the internet and let you have sex at a distance. Most like by the time any kind of sex robot, if it ever comes, by the time it comes to use we’ll be so used to having sex with our computers, I mean we’ll be having sex with our partners over the computer, but we’ll be so used to that that the idea of switching over to something that looks more like a partner is probably not going to be so huge of a transition. I think it’s less likely that there will be a moral panic than if aliens land from outer space and are like “here’s a sex robot!” And we’re like all like “oh my god all of our fears have come true!”
Rose: Then again, on this show, we can never rule out aliens.
For more on sex robots, and how they are or are not coming soon head to Boing Boing.com where I’ll post more links. I promise they’re all safe for work. If you want to read more about how far away we are from sex robots, you can go to BBC Future and read a piece I wrote there about all the barriers between you and a sexy android companion. And if you want full show notes, including links to all the music we used and additional readings, head to flashforwardpod.com.
Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth, and is part of the Boing Boing podcast family. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Broke for Free.
The music for our various sex robot commercials was by Alaclair, Strong Suit and BoxCat. The voice for the Hadaly commercial was Jaya Saxena, whose writing you can find at jayasaxena.com. The voice for Margot’s Discount Closet Solutions was Mike Rugnetta, who has a podcast called Reasonably Sound that you should absolutely listen to. And the voice convincing you to buy a Leopold was by Brent Rose, who is currently driving around America in this crazy high-tech van. You can follow his adventure at ConnectedStates.com and on Instagram @brentdangerrose.
If you want to support the show, you can do that at Patreon.com/roseveleth, like my name. If you do donate, you’ll get some cool goodies like a special fan newsletter, full transcripts for the show, and even your voice in the future. If you can’t donate that’s fine, you can go to iTunes and leave a nice review, tell your friends about the show, and generally spread the word. That does help!
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter (@ffwdpod), Facebook or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love hearing your ideas, so send em on over.
Oh and one other thing. Every episode I hide a few little references for you to find. If you think you’ve caught one, send me an email at email@example.com. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
That’s all for this future, come back next week and we’ll travel to a new one.