April 18, 2011

Sex Robots and The Future of F…ing

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Perhaps the near future will be just like now, except we’ll all be watching 3D-TVs. Maybe we’ll have hoverboards and jetpacks. And maybe we’ll be sleeping with robots. After all, as technology evolves to meet our business and social demands, it also evolves to meet our sexual demands.

NYC-based sexual health researcher, educator, and robot sex expert (robosexpert?) Laura G. Duncan addresses these developments in her multimedia research presentation “Hey, Where’s My Robot Girlfriend? An Exploration of Sexual Robotics, Teledildonics, and Carnal Technology.” Duncan’s funny, intriguing lecture nicely combines two topics I’m passionate about: sex (which I love) and robots (which I’m scared of). Since my fear is mostly based on taking too seriously things like the Terminator, the Matrix, and the Borg, it’s good for me to talk to someone with a prorobotics attitude. Duncan and I spoke recently about sexbots, science, sci-fi, and how to prepare for the approaching Singularity.

Thought Catalog: What do you like about robots, and what inspired you to start doing your presentation?

Laura G. Duncan: Well, most of my work is in the realm of medical technologies and how that affects people’s concepts of their sexuality. As someone who’s a big science fiction fan, I realized that a lot of more academic work on technology and its effects on sexuality talks about machines in terms of metaphor. But realizing that there are people having sex with machines, that you can turn it into this tactile real world example—it’s fascinating to see how all of those theories of the body and the machine and sex hold up when you’re dealing with real robots.

TC: What is teledildonics?

LGD: Teledildonics are computerized sex toys that interface with the computer, normally via the internet. They can be something as small as a vibrator that’s hooked up to a computer and can be remotely controlled, or something as large as a full fledged sex machine that could be remotely controlled.

TC: In your lecture you mentioned “long-distance intimacy.” Do you think “long-distance intimacy” is an oxymoron? Do people need to be physically close to experience intimacy?

LGD: A lot of people do see it as an oxymoron, that technology is moving people farther apart, but while relating without physical contact is definitely changing the way we conceptualize relationships, I think that instead of serving as an oxymoron, it’s actually causing us to change the definition of intimacy. For many people, intimacy is really tied to face-to-face physical interaction, but more and more people, especially younger generations who grew up with the internet, they’re really pushing to change what we consider to be intimacy.

TC: In your lecture, you mention Fuckzilla as a good example of a sex tech product currently meeting the demands of the sexbot consumer market. For those who don’t know, what is Fuckzilla?

LGD: Fuckzilla is a creation of fuckingmachines.com, which is a porn site that’s run by the kink.com porn empire. They’re one of the most popular, or at least the most high budget, sex machine sites. Fuckzilla is basically designed like Johnny Five. It has appendages, and one arm is a penetrating dildo. The other is a chainsaw that’s had the chain removed, and it’s been replaced with these silicon molded tongues that make a circular motion.

TC: Sex robots have a lot of advantages over people. They won’t cheat on you, they won’t break your heart, they’re not needy, they never smell bad, and they’re always in the mood for sex. How could a mere mortal compete with a Terminatrix sent from the future to fuck everybody?

LGD: Interesting. The question most people ask is when are we going to have perfectly human sex robots. Because for a lot of people, they think having sex with a machine—conceptually, they still aren’t really able to eroticize that. So for them, they ask when will we have Lieutenant Data, or Jude Law in AI, a robot that looks exactly like a human.

But humans do have all these relationship issues. They do cheat on you, they do break your heart. Do we want a robot that’s gonna start doing those things? Are we gonna end up with the exact same problems that humans have in relationships, with robots? That’s normally not what most people are asking. Most people ask when will we have a sex robot that exemplifies the ideal human partner for me personally. That makes that question a lot harder to answer, because it becomes about individual desire. Sexuality is so complicated, and why we have relationships with each other is so complicated.

So I think that pop culture depiction of sex robots as ever-servile is really important when we think about what kind of things we privilege about sex robots. You don’t often hear people say “I want a sex robot to challenge me intellectually” or “to call me on my shit.” You don’t hear that a lot, because with sex robots, it’s still an issue of ownership, of something you own.

I’d be interested to see people start to tweak that concept, and ask what would an egalitarian relationship look like with a robot. A lot of people, if they’re used to the pop culture depictions, that sounds really unappealing, it seems like too much work. As programmers start to get more interested in programming human emotions into robots, are we gonna have trouble balancing that with this concept that a lot of people have of a sex robot being an ideal partner? Will we program robots with self-doubt, and what would that mean for human-robot relationships?

TC: How do you feel about the argument raised in books like Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together that as our behavior and expectations evolve alongside our technology, people are experiencing less intimacy and more loneliness?

LGD: I think technology is a symptom of this, and not necessarily a cause. Technology is not entirely built to be friendly towards community building and relationship building.

My problem with books like that, while I don’t think they’re always entirely wrong, I think one of the points that a lot of these arguments are missing is that technology is not a monolith. Technology is not a single, static phenomenon, it can be used to do many things. It can be used to push people farther away on a personal level, but it can also be used to bring people closer. A lot of relationships are evolving. Technology is utilized in vastly different ways in the service of vastly different desires.

Ethan Ryan

Ethan Ryan loves humor, horror, and pop culture. His work has been published in print and online.

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