The subject made me pick up Kate Devlin’s new book, Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots. Maybe it made you click on this review. It’s drawn hundreds of thousands of readers to Devlin’s previous writings on the subject, despite the fact that — as we learn about halfway through the book — sex robots aren’t really a thing yet.
At least, not in the sense of the cinematic fantasies that populate movies and TV shows from Metropolis to Austin Powers (above) to Ex Machina to Westworld. We’re not even quite there with the artificial intelligences that seduce men in Electric Dreams, Her, and Blade Runner 2049. Turned On, then, is both a guide to the state of the art and a primer on the questions we ought to be asking about where this trend is heading.
It certainly is a trend, and one that’s taking on increasingly tangible form. As Devlin details, multiple companies around the world are competing to advance the art of the sex doll, combining animatronics with the kind of rudimentary A.I. found in your countertop smart speaker or dashboard voice assistant.
Quickly as the state of the art is advancing, Devlin doesn’t think we’re remotely close to the kind of gynoid who could actually be confused with a real woman — or android who could be confused with a real man, and now you’ve learned the first lesson of Sex Robots 101. It’s also one of the most important, thinks Devlin: just because sex dolls to date have been mostly female-shaped for male customers doesn’t mean they will, or should, continue to be.
Although Devlin muses on the philosophical implications of a far-distant future where artificial intelligence, embodied in sex robots among other appliances, will have advanced to functional sentience, she’s more concerned in the here and now. You can’t buy a fembot, but you can buy a vibrator that connects to your smartphone and features a camera at the end (“yes,” clarifies Devlin, “that end”). What if it was hacked? No, really.
Smart sex toys, writes Devlin, are already here, and they promise to be a much bigger part of our lives in coming years. Actual humanoid robots will continue to advance, but you’re not likely to find one under the Christmas tree (alluring as that image is) within your lifetime. An as-yet-undreamed-of device to stimulate you in creative new ways? Devin herself just presided over Sex Tech Hack II: The Second Coming, and she’s hoping someone will soon prototype a “sex duvet made from soft and strokeable fabric that vocally rumbles as it’s touched.”
Sorry, did you come here for sex robots? Devlin’s book is an informative and readable primer on the subject, although it could benefit from a more focused presentation: Turned On has a lot of, so to speak, intellectual foreplay regarding the foundations of artificial intelligence, the philosophy of consciousness, and sex with statues in ancient history.
Of course, there is a lesson in patience here. Sex robots themselves, Devlin notes, don’t just want to get straight to the good part. Why bother with silicone flesh if you don’t want to cuddle a little bit?
P.S. to the author: Actually, Isaac Asimov did write about robots having sexuality, in at least two cases involving human women having relations (or at least romantic fantasies) with androids. Check out the story “Satisfaction Guaranteed” (1951) and the novel The Robots of Dawn (1983).