Human-robot relationships: The rise of the sex robots

A sultry voice says ‘touch me’, while your hands touch her warm body. She murmurs and moans and you can fold her legs to all sides. She is a sex robot, and depending on your preferences you can buy her for thousands of dollars from Japanese, US, Korean or Chinese companies. 

Humans will be marrying robots as soon as 2050, predicted robot-expert David Levy ten years ago in his book Love and Sex with Robots: the evolution of Human-Robot Relationships. The arrival of super-realistic dolls this year brings us astonishingly close to this moment. If a sex doll can already seduce people to have sex with her, then we are only steps away from real human-robot relationships.

Android pleasure

‘Homo-robo’ relationships have always fascinated people, but recent years there was a strong upsurge of interest for it. The movie Lars and the Real Girl, Her, and the TV series Humans, Black Mirror and the popular robot-western Westworld, all explore the boundaries of co-existence with robots. In Westworld, some morals are being tested: Can we, humans, abuse robots for our own pleasure? And in Black Mirror, a lonely and pregnant widow breaks through her own taboos and buys a robot that looks and acts exactly like her former husband, as a substitute for her deceased lover. In all these stories, the existing boundaries of the interaction with robots is explored, to sometimes result in what we now perceive as ‘absurdist’ situations.

But the idea is not that absurd anymore as it used to be before we had computers. Robots in human form can nowadays climb stairs, paint, and make music, and virtual reality sex is already one of many options to choose from. Fantastic, right? But before we start an immediate mass production of sex robots, robot experts warn that it is wise to consider the effects of robots on human society and create some ethical rules. Robot-sex could change our vision of love and intimacy, with its promise of eternally available pleasure. Would singles ever come out of their room to go on a Tinder date when they can have sex and a conversation with a robot? And would sex with fellow humans still be attractive, when a stunning doll could be available every day without having a headache? 

Automated sex toys

It all started with some innocent dildos that vibrated on batteries. These vibrators became a mass-production, with its vibes exactly programmed to give the right stimulation. With the blow-up doll being a popular sex toy, especially in Asian countries, it didn’t take long before people started to combine the two pleasures into automated blow-up dolls. The development of robotics fuelled the imagination of many and the first talking sex-dolls were soon to be underway. The 17th century Dutch sailor men who used sex-dolls made of clothes were one of the first users and would be astonished to see how realistic the dolls have become these days. An interesting fact is that these Dutch sailors started selling the dolls to the Japanese, and so the Asian desire for the blow-up doll might, funnily enough, have a Northern European origin.

Vaginas that vibrate and feel smooth, a warm voice that mutters encouragement, and a stunningly realistic body with soft synthetic skin that warms up when you touch it, is what the sex-doll industry already offers. Matt McMullen, artist and owner of sex-doll company RealDoll, who is on the forefront of robot-development, stated recently in an AMA on Reddit: "I think the sex industry is headed for the integration of a lot of new technology. AI and VR, to name a couple. Teledildonics as well."

Teledildonics are the newest sort of vibrators, which let long-distance partners ‘feel’ each other in real-time via data-enabled devices. Ken Boesem, employee of sex-shop Little Sisters in Vancouver, notices that an increasing amount of people are interested in these devices: "We’ve seen the advent of toys that come with a device-connected wireless app that allows couples to adjust vibe settings and intensity for play by long distance." Boesem is not surprised that people nowadays are more into robotics. "People expect adult toys to advance along with everything else. There’s no reason, really, that sex dolls can’t be just another fun toy that’s part of someone’s toy box and, in a sense, they are simply the modern incarnation of inflatable sex dolls, which has been around for nearly a century."

Although teledildonics and sex robots are still part of your toys nowadays, within a few years your sex robot can be somewhat more than a toy and walk out of that toybox with a little artificial intelligence. US-based company RealDoll is on the forefront of developing robots with Artificial Intelligence and its team of professional artists produces 300-400 realistic sex-dolls a year. Owner McMullen is aiming on releasing a doll with a robotic head on the 20th anniversary of the company in 2017. Dolls can already be purchased starting from 4,770 dollars (but with customized dolls starting from 8,620 dollars) and clients can personalize their own doll by choosing different doll-characters, vaginal positions, and leg flexibilities. 

Artificial Intelligence

An artificially intelligent robot will be able to have full conversations with you and react like a real human being. Researchers are working on robots with a synthetic skin, embedded with electronic sensors that will let the sex-robot boast physical responses to human touch and guide the human to its peak. But how far are our high-tech developers in developing human-like intelligence? Microsoft co-founder Paul Ellen thinks we still have a long way to go in making the artificial intelligence equal to the human brain. He states in MIT Technology View that: "While we have learned a great deal about how to build individual AI systems that do seemingly intelligent things, our systems have always remained brittle–their performance boundaries are rigidly set by their internal assumptions and defining algorithms, they cannot generalize, and they frequently give nonsensical answers outside of their specific focus areas."

Ellen writes that artificial intelligence-researchers are just beginning to theorize how to implement the complex phenomena that give the human brain its unique adaptability. The self-reflectivity and sensitivity, that are essential to higher-level thought, are especially difficult to implement in robot brains because they are learned through experience. There is still a lot of research to be done, and it is not even sure if the robot dolls ever can reach the level of human intelligence.

Romantic love

Even if the robots don’t talk and behave like humans, industry experts think that people will be able to be attracted to them, sexually and romantically. RealDoll owner Matt McMullen states that sex-robots "should be kept far enough away from superrealism". He hopes that the dolls can "arouse someone on the intellectual emotional level, beyond the physical, and create in someone a ‘kind of love for this being".

Humans are known for their anthropomorphism; they tend to show or treat animals, gods and objects, as if they are human in appearance, character or behaviour. This love expresses itself in the admiration of animation characters, animals, dolls and robots.People tend to fall in love with people who are similar to them, writes David Levy for the Mail on Sunday. So as long as the robot or animal gives humans the feeling that they have something in common and that there is a mutual liking, they can develop romantic feelings for that creature. 

Trudy Barber describes in a research article named ‘For the love of Artifice’ how certain subcultures from Japan and Korea show their love for human-like creatures in the form of ‘techno-fetishism’. In these fetish cults, people express their admiration for their favorite characters in the form of cosplay or masking. In cosplay, people dress as their favourite character, and in masking, they try to look like a doll by putting an artificial latex suit on. Barber argues that this behavior demonstrates that sexual feelings for animated or android creatures is already inherent to humans.

Gender issues

However, not everyone welcomes robots and ‘techno-fetishism’ with open arms. Scholars have been elaborately discussing what form the use of sex robots should take.

Academic Kathleen Richardson disregards the androids altogether and started a ‘Campaign Against Sex Robots’, because "the development of sex robots further sexually objectifies woman and children", she writes on the website. In an interview, she states that "Relational robots and artificial intelligence are just a logical step of a corporate capitalist worldview that sees little difference between persons and things and wants to keep commodifying humans and their relationships to make money." She believes that the production of sex robots should be stopped, because it further reduces human empathy.

Right now, the form and gender of the most advanced dolls is undoubtedly female, due to the demand of porn-watching and doll-buying males. Kate Devlin, one of the organizers of the Second International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots, warns in an article on robo-ethics that "we should avoid importing existing gender and sexual biases into future technology", but also that we "should be cautious not to import established prudishness". She warns that people should not prohibit the use of sex robots before they even come into existence.

Devlin argues "machines are what we make them", and that we can decide on "new approaches to artificial sexuality" ourselves, by creating an ethical framework.

Indeed, if designers keep making dolls that look like skinny Barbies with big lips and pointy boobs, a specific image of women will be propagated. To change this image, developers of sex-robots can use their designing power to make a more universal love toy.


Questions about looks, purpose and use of sex-robots are to be considered by robot-developers and law-makers. Are we going to regulate what the sex-robots will look like? Shall we keep them as sex toys and treat them as machines, or create them as half-humans and give them morality? How far do we go with this artificial intelligence? Should robots be given a sense of morality so that they sense physical signs of fatigue or distress from their owners?

Another ethical issue is the trade of sex robots: A Japanese company produces child sex robots to "help people express their desires". Do we want these kinds of dolls to be freely available on the market? Some experts argue that we could use plastic robot surrogates as a way of therapy for sex offenders or even to use them as substitutes for child and adult sex workers. Companion and care-robots already proved successful in some elderly houses of Japan, and are seen as an important therapeutic tool.

"Androids have high hygiene standards if handled properly, unburden human sex workers of both genders and have a constant availability", argues Oliver Bendel in his article "Sex Robots from the Perspective of Machine Ethics". However, this constant availability of sex can have implications for society.

Imagine a world where everyone has a sex robot to satisfy their sexual desires. What would happen with the world? The Futurama episode ‘I dated a Robot’ (see below) explores these moral questions and shows us a futuristic doom scenario. The episode questions if anyone would ever come out of his/her room when sex robots exist. The reproductive act between humans would be eliminated and babies wouldn’t be born anymore. Is all civilization not just an effort to attract the opposite sex?

Futurama - Don't date robots from John Pope on Vimeo.

This doom scenario is undoubtedly a rigid way of looking at it, but just as the availability of internet and social media changed social relationships, the mass-production of sex robots can drastically change the way we look at sex and intimacy.

However, humans might still be attracted to each other, even if robots come into play. Robots could be a new form of love partner, and function as a nice addition to the bedroom. 

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