Sexbots have been around forever, but they are getting smarter all the time. David Levy, an artificial intelligence expert, sees a future when people will prefer robots to humans. They will offer, he says, better sex and better relationships.
By Philip Bethge
Andy, whose measurements are 101-56-86 centimeters (40-22-34 inches), has what many men want in a woman: “unlimited patience.” At least that’s what the manufacturer, a company called First Androids based in Neumarkt near the southern German city of Nürnberg, promises. Andy also comes with options, including a “blowjob system, with adjustable levels,” a “tangible pulse,” “rotating hip motion” and a “heating system with adjustable controls” to raise the body temperature.
“Except in the feet — they remain cold, just like in real life,” says David Levy. The British scientist’s interest in Andy is purely academic, he insists. For Levy, his high-tech sex doll is nothing less than a harbinger of a new world order.
Levy is an expert in artificial intelligence. He is fascinated with the idea of “love and sex with robots,” and his visions of the future include “malebots” and “fembots” as lovers and life partners. A chess champion and the president of the International Computer Games Association, Levy, 62, has just published a book, “Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships” — that is provocative in the truest sense of the word. He is convinced that human beings will be having sex with robots one day. They will show us sexual practices that we hadn’t even imagined existed. We will love them and respect them, and we will entrust them with our most intimate secrets. All of this, says Levy, will be a reality in hardly more than 40 years from now.
“The mere concept of an artificial partner, husband, wife, friend or lover is one that, for most people at the start of the 21st century, challenges their notion of relationships,” says Levy. “But my thesis is this: Robots will be hugely attractive to humans as companions because of their many talents, senses and capabilities.” Given rapid developments in technology, Levy believes that it is only a matter of time before machines will be capable of offering human-like traits. According to Levy, “love and sex with robots on a grand scale are inevitable.”
The idea of love involving androids isn’t exactly new. In Greek mythology, the sculptor Pygmalion makes an ivory statue of his ideal woman. He prays to the goddess of love Aphrodite to bring the statue, which he has named Galatea, to life. Aphrodite agrees to help him and when Pygmalion kisses Galatea, she returns the kiss and the two marry.
The same thing could soon be happening with robots. Levy already sees signs of budding robophilia wherever he looks. According to Levy, the appeal of Sony’s Aibo robot dog and of Furby, a toy robot that looks like a ball of fur with appendages, and a built-in computer circuit board, shows the potential for technology to serve as a sounding board for human emotions. “Nowadays, it is relatively commonplace for people to develop strong emotional attachments to their virtual pets, including robot pets,” says Levy. “So why should anyone be surprised if and when people form similarly strong attachments to virtual people, to robot people?”
Even simple computers exert an almost magical attraction on some people. The dedication in Levy’s book reads: “To Anthony, an MIT-student who tried having girlfriends but found that he preferred relationships with computers. And to all the other ‘Anthonys’ past, present, and future, of both sexes.” What will computer nerds say when they can play with computers that move, talk, look like people and could possibly even experience emotions?
When it comes to sex, robots could soon supplant the original flesh-and-blood human experience, says Levy. The researcher has delved deep into the history of erotic machinery to document Homo sapiens’ susceptibility to mechanical sex toys. He discovered documented evidence of early vibrators powered by clockwork mechanisms and steam machines. Levy describes a pedal-driven masturbation machine for women designed in 1926 by engineers in the German city of Leipzig. In a late 17th-century pornographic anthology from Japan, the author read about a “lascivious traveling pillow.” The artificial vulva, known as “azumagata” (substitute woman) in Japanese, was made of tortoiseshell and had a hole lined with satin.
Dutch seamen shared their bunks on their globe-trotting trading journeys with hand-sewn leather puppets, which explains why the Japanese still refer to sex dolls as “Dutch wives” today — although today’s version is no longer made of leather. The Japanese company Orient Industry sells female dolls that are near-perfect replicas of young Japanese women — down to the tips of their hair and consistency of their skin. The company’s success is based on an earlier model known as “Antarctica,” a doll scientists used to take along to Japan’s Showa research station to keep warm during the long Antarctic winter.
The US company RealDoll, the market leader in the business of life-like sex dolls, sells its “Leah” and Stephanie” models for $6,500 apiece. Customers can order the dolls with bra sizes ranging from 65A (30AA) to 75H (34F). Each doll comes with three “pleasure portals.” Another model, “Charlie” even comes with a penis in various sizes, as well as an optional “anal entry.”
Are these all just erotic toys designed for the occasional quickie? Not at all, says Hideo Tsuchiya, the president of Orient Industry. “A Dutch wife is not merely a doll, or an object,” he insists. “She can be an irreplaceable lover, who provides a sense of emotional healing.”
Levy has a similar take on the issue. But will robotic women and men resemble humans so closely within a few decades that they will pass as an equivalent or even better alternative to a human lover?
Mimicking human appearance seems to be the least of the challenges. Two years ago, Japanese robot expert Hiroshi Ishiguro unveiled his “Repliee Q1” robot. The awkward name is misleading. Ishiguro’s creation can easily pass as the first robot woman in human history. Thanks to 42 actuators driven by compressed air, the gynoid can “turn and react in a humanlike way,” says Levy. “Repliee Q1 can flutter her eyelids, she appears to breathe, she can move her hands just like a human, (and) she is responsive to human touch…,” he adds enthusiastically.
Much more difficult than external traits, however, will be the challenging of breathing something approaching a soul into the robots. The biggest stumbling blocks are some of the most fundamental of human behaviors. Current robotic sensors, for example, are incapable of reliably distinguishing between individual people, says Levy. He concedes that if a robot fails to recognize its partner, or possibly even confuses him or her with someone else, the relationship is easily ruined.
Nevertheless, Levy predicts that advances will come rapidly. For Levy, imbuing robots with such human traits as empathy, humor, understanding and love is merely a question of technology. Empathy, for example, is “essentially a learning task,” he says, and therefore “relatively easy to implement in robots.” All the machine has to do is observe its partner, make intelligent assumptions about the partner’s thoughts and react accordingly.
Levy sees a future in which artificial intelligence will enable robots to behave as if they had gone through the entire spectrum of human experience, without this actually being the case. He cites emotions as an example. “If a robot behaves as though it has feelings, can we reasonably argue that it does not,” he asks? “If a robot’s artificial emotions prompt it to say things such as ‘I love you,’ surely we should be willing to accept these statements at face value, provided that the robots other behavior patterns back them up.”
Levy finds the advantages of artificial companions over human partners appealing. Infidelity, moodiness, poor taste, poor hygiene, an unhealthy obsession with soccer — all of these relationship difficulties would be resigned to the dustbin of history. Robotic partners would even be immortal. Levy envisions backing up the entire personality of his androids on hard disks. If a robot is destroyed, it’ll be easy to order a new one.
And the sex! Always willing, never disappointed, goodbye migraines — and with the dirtiest possible fantasies available for download. A robot could be programmed to offer “sexual positions and techniques from around the world” or placed in “‘teaching mode’ for the sexual novice,” says Levy. Everything from vagina dimensions to penis size, body scent to facial hair could be available as options.
“Imagine a world in which robots are (almost) just like us,” says Levy. “The effect on society will be enormous.” He also addresses the potential ethical and moral issues in the days after the great robot invasion. Will it be unethical to lend sexbots to friends or, for instance, “using a friend’s sexbot without telling the friend?” Will it be permissible to deceive androids? What will husbands do when their wives tell them: “Not tonight darling, I’m going to make it with the robot?”
Levy is convinced that women, in particular, after initial misgivings, will welcome robots as an alternative to their sweaty husbands. The fact that their sexual appetites often go well beyond the mediocre performance of many men is reflected in the “staggering sales figures” for vibrators, says Levy.
And the men? Well, as far they’re concerned, all the fuss about artificial intelligence is wasted energy.
Men are willing to “have sex with inflatable dolls,” says Henrik Christensen, the coordinator of the European Robotics Research Network. It’ll be easy to do one better than that. According to Christensen, “anything that moves will be an improvement.”
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan