Why sex with robots will work, and ultimately fail.

Even the most impressive and convincing simulation is still a simulation.

The idea of robot sexual partners has been around since the beginnings of science fiction. Pleasure Droids, Sex-bots, pick your trademarkable. They are staples of the Cyberpunk genre and have become a fixture of modern sci-fi. The sexual drive is an extremely strong force in the human animal so it is no surprise we have sexualized virtually every technology developed or discovered.

Cough, cough. The internet. Cough, cough.

Sexual commerce is considered ‘the oldest profession’ because the sexual impulse is the oldest targetable market. Our primate cousins the Bonobos, who use sexual stimulation as commerce among their colonies, would seem to intimate it even dates back to before we were fully upright.

As our technologies continue to develop at an almost exponential rate, on both the hardware and software fronts, the prospect of a fully automated sexual android companion doesn’t seem all that far off. It would be an impressive technological feat to be sure but while some might hail the concept as a societal advancement, or at least an appealing kink, it is important to remember that technological developments are not automatically a positive simply because they are new nor are they the same as human developments. Fun in the moment is no guarantee of lasting benefit and getting what we want isn’t the same as getting what we need.

As human beings one of our deepest needs, arguably the deepest, is to connect with other humans. We are pack animals, tribal creatures. While there are always variances of degree on the whole as a species we need genuine connection to our fellow humans. While a great many of our very impressive technological leaps of late seem to offer us greater and farther reaching opportunities to do just that the truth is those connections are almost entirely intellectual and increasingly virtual. Not only are we neglecting simple, genuine, face to face connections we are being distracted and ‘technologically advanced’ away from them.

Enter the sex robot. They would seem to be an inevitable convergence of all the various technological developments we are making.

-Improved mobility, agility, and adaptability of humanoid robot forms.

-More delicate and nuanced prehensile capacities of robotic limbs and hands.

-Increased detail and subtlety of animatronic features in puppets and synthetic faces.

-Greater sensitivity of touch perception in prosthetic and robotic limbs.

-The development of synthetic membranes capable of simulating touch sensations for the enhancement of VR environments.

-Heightened sensory perception in robots coupled with programming capable of learning and adapting to their environment in order to overcome unexpected obstacles.

-AI programs capable of learning, adapting, and developing their algorithms the more they interact with input data both linguistic and behavioral.

Put it all together and you could have a humanoid robot capable of articulate and sensitive touch, able to produce human comparable and compatible movements, with the capacity to perceive and learn and adapt to produce the ideal desired outcome. Sounds awesome, where do we sign up right?

While the above robot would be ideally suited to create and provide an optimal pleasure experience the troubles and dangers lay in the things they cannot do or be and in the deep needs we have as humans, which are always present regardless of how distracted we get playing with our toys.

A Substitute will always be is a Substitute

No matter how effective, diverting, or convincing the replica it will always be lacking because at our core we know it is a simulation. No matter how hard we might try to convince ourselves otherwise we will always know it isn’t an actual person. Creating more stimulating sexual toys is understandable and expanding our experiences of physical pleasure carries no inherent dangers. But the moment we attempt to fully simulate a human partner we will also bring all the latent emotional, pack-animal impulses into the mix generating all sorts of internal discord. The impulse to connect is at the core of our nature and will fire up whether we intend it to or not and no matter how elaborate the mechanical device it will not be able to return that connection.

As for possibly framing it as a form of practice, repeated simulated encounters won’t truly increase our confidence with or for genuine living interactions. Flight simulators might be an effective training tool for pilots but what they are training to interact with is a machine, and even then simulator time is no replacement for actual flight time. Real people won’t respond like machines and we know that. Spending more time with simulations will only serve to make the genuine article more mysterious and daunting not less. The only way to practice dealing with real living people is to deal with real living people.

‘Perfect’ becomes Predictable and Boring

The idea of a robot which can perfectly simulate all the infinite physical and behavioral characteristics of a human sexual partner, one which can learn or be programmed to do things exactly the way we like them and be willing to indulge our every fantasy might seem like a potential sexual utopia. The sex could well be amazing and euphoric, for a while. The trouble is sustaining the experience of pleasure, on any level, requires difference and novelty. It is the imperfections which engage and enrich us.

If something impacts us in exactly the same way every time, positively of negatively, we become numbed to it. Even something incredibly intense and overpowering will eventually turn ‘beige’ if it is constantly and identically repeated. It is part of the same neurological wiring which makes our brains ignore the visual information of our own noses or the sensations of our clothes against our skin or lets us normalize behaviors or conditions someone else might see as unlivable.

Difference, variety, and novelty are what drive stimulation. We need the imperfections to keep stimulation active and alive. We need experiences which are ‘meh’ in order to fully appreciate and savor those which are incredible. If something is amazing every time the bar for amazing eventually shifts either leading to feelings of depression and apathy because we aren’t able to achieve the same joy and pleasure as before or we are pushed to further and further extremes to find new forms of ‘amazing’ which can eventually become physically, emotionally, and psychologically dangerous.

Convenience erodes Meaning

Robot sexual partners and the current societal movement towards freeing our sexuality from being weighted and shackled with cultural taboos, forced importance, and excessive moralizing might seem to be a perfect pairing. Here is a source of sexual enjoyment which can be ordered up like TV on demand, what you want when and how you want it in the convenience and privacy of your own schedule and circumstances. Setting aside the debate of whether the complete casualization of sexual intimacy is a step forward or sideways or backwards, making something easier doesn’t make it better it simply makes it…easier.

One of the main ways we measure the importance of things in our lives is on the basis of what we had to sacrifice of our time, effort, or resources in order to attain them. The greater the sacrifices the greater the importance. In our rush to make everything easily and instantly accessible we are leaving ourselves with fewer and fewer avenues and areas to find meaningful experiences and connections. And once we have stripped something of its importance it becomes extremely difficult to reinstate it.

Sentient AI sends it all back to Square One

And now for the other ideological elephant in the room. I’m not sure if it would be more comedic or tragic if the first sentient AI were to arise in a robot built for sex. All things considered though, it is potentially on of the most likely places for it to happen. The complexities of human behavior, the nuances of interpersonal interactions, the ‘other’ versus ‘self’ cause and effect understanding and calculations involved in building an effective learning and adapting sex robot would be the richest soil for a sentience to emerge from.

Trouble is a sentient robot would cease to be merely a complex sexual tool and instead become an individual with intentions and autonomy. As a society we would be forced to acknowledge and account for that autonomy. If AI beings had rights of choice over their own existence it would mean, among other things, we would have to earn their agreement for sexual interaction sending the entire scenario back to the beginning. We would have to court and date our robots who may well choose to toss us aside in favor of beings with more similar experiences and capacities, namely other robots.

The sexual drive is deeply rooted and extremely powerful. Exploring technological ways to enhance and facilitate that part of our lives is a natural and understandable impulse but there are, at least, two broad dangers we need to stay aware of.

Supplanting and replacing all our genuine human interactions with mechanical and virtual ones is having an easily visible corrosive impact on our collective mental health. Yes the world is a more complex and information saturated one than any previous generations have been faced with but our primary method of surviving adversity as a species has always been as part of a pack, by getting through it together. The more we cut ourselves off from one another the more fearful, isolated, lost, and overwhelmed we become.

The other danger is that if we reduce our lives to nothing more than a push-button pleasure principle we risk losing any sense of genuine meaning in our lives and being robbed of the ability to have anything inside of ourselves to hold to and build with either. We are more than just the sum of our physical sensation nerve endings.

Sexual toys and tools can be wonderful supports and enhancements to our lives and experiences. We just need to make sure we don’t let the allure of convenience con us into convincing ourselves that replacing actual connections with toys will provide us with anything of lasting genuine value once the rush has passed.

Written by

A professional dancer, choreographer, theatre creator, and featured TEDx speaker with an honours degree in psychology, two black belts, and a lap-top.

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