From the Internet of Bodies to sex robots, dramatic advances in sex tech could end up redefining human nature
Remote sex can be beneficial to people with physical mobility problems. Sexbots can be used to treat sexual dysfunction and help teach how to become better lovers
Gurugram: Everyone and his uncle knows about the Internet of Things (IoT). For instance, you could be on a work trip to Berlin and be able to get the dog food dispenser at your home in Bengaluru to serve a meal to your beagle, after the sensor on Bruno’s collar has alerted your smartphone that he is unusually restless. This, while the self-driving car you are travelling in, and which has access to your calendar, is texting your client that traffic is heavy and you may be late for your appointment by ten minutes.
The IoT has been coming for the last decade or so, and is still supposed to be just round the corner. So while we wait for it to arrive and change our lives, welcome to the Internet of Bodies (IoB), a term coined by British body technologist Ghislaine Boddington. You are now back in your Berlin hotel room after a hard day’s work and in the mood for love. You squeeze a bracelet on your wrist and your partner, asleep in Bengaluru, feels an urgent amorous touch on his wrist, and wakes up. He video calls you and you tell him that you want sex. You have an interactive clitoris massager and he has an interactive penis stroker. You follow each other’s gasped-out instructions, he controlling your device and you his, by tapping or swiping on your own devices, and bring each other to climax. The IoT scenario is not yet reality, but the IoB one is—you can do it today. This is teledildonics, or remote intimacy technology, and it is developing at a scorching pace.
There’s a vast array of technology products out there for geographically separated partners, from “smart" vibrators that can be controlled remotely through mobile apps, to connected pillows that let you hear your faraway lover’s heartbeat when you are both in bed, and long-distance kissing devices (we have consciously refrained from giving any brand information, except in one case, in this article). In the near future, advances in haptic technology (which simulates the sense of touch) will enable users to feel their distant partner’s body during lovemaking.
The next frontier is brain-computer interface (BCI)—using thoughts to make machines, say a robotic limb, perform tasks. In June, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University in the US developed the first-ever non-invasive mind-controlled robotic arm. Right now, it can perform only the simple task of tracking and following a computer cursor. But a breakthrough has been made, and the possibilities are limitless. Will humans one day be able to achieve brain-to-brain connections? Where our bodies can use BCI to bond with the sensations of other bodies, however far off? It would take the concept of intimacy and the resulting sensual pleasure to a whole new level. All one would need is a stable 5G connection.
Immersive sex content
In online virtual worlds, users can create custom avatars to work out their wildest fantasies without fear of exposure or judgement. Some sex toys can now be connected to the users’ avatars, so that they can have more immersive experiences and feel the sensations as the avatars have sex. In the coming years, as the technology behind haptic sex toys and virtual reality (VR) become more powerful, the line dividing “real" sex with someone in your physical space and virtual sex in online worlds with computer-generated entities may disappear.
In VR, once the user puts on the clunky headset, everything seems absolutely real. But VR has been lagging in the touch-and-feel department—the transmission of sensation through VR gloves is poor. But now, South Korean scientists claim to have developed a fine lightweight glove of silicone with sensors on the thumb, index and middle fingers, that can imitate the physical sensation of handling, prodding or stroking a host of different materials. When this technology is commercially available—perhaps a couple of years from now, it could revolutionize the VR sex industry.
The concept of “sex robots" is hardly new. In fact, if one starts from Roman poet Ovid’s story of the sculptor Pygmalion who carves an ivory woman that he then falls in love with and wishes into animated life, the fascination with man-machine intimacy—and the idea of sex dolls—goes back two millennia.
Companies are racing to create fully functional sex robots or sexbots. Sexbots are all female currently, but we will almost certainly have male sexbots in the not-so-distant future. Available models are capable of only a few facial expressions, eye movements and rudimentary lines of conversation, but they are getting better by the day. The most advanced one is US firm RealDoll’s Harmony, which can crack jokes, talk dirty, make realistic noises during sex, and comes with self-learning software that remembers facts from earlier conversations to provide better companionship.
But artificial intelligence (AI) will improve sexbot capabilities swiftly. Imagine an AI-powered sexbot which comes with a choice of personality types that a man can download into it, and which can, over time, learn—and keep learning—to discern his likes and dislikes, and respond to all his moods in an unquestioning and always-approving manner. Plus she obediently fulfils his every sexual demand any and every time, and can access a vast cloud-based database to adapt and upgrade herself to provide him the exact type of sexual pleasure that his body uniquely demands. And she is a perfect cook. Isn’t that the ultimate fantasy for many men?
Robots and relationships
The most fundamental truth about technology is that it is neither good nor evil. It is simply what it is. Only its nature of use and consequent effects can deserve moral judgement. Simulated VR environments can offer a safe and effective way to explore social issues and teach young people about potentially risky scenarios. Remote sex can be beneficial to people with physical mobility problems. Sexbots can someday be used to treat sexual dysfunction and help teach people how to become better lovers to human partners.
But, like everything tech, it’s complicated. The first scientific validation of the notion that humans can empathize with robots came in 2015, when researchers at Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan asked people to view images of humans and robots in painful situations, such as having their hand injured by a knife, and studied their electrical brain signals. The brain activity showed that the participants felt a similar level of empathy for humans and androids.
A 2016 survey of British young adults aged 18-34 years found that 26% of them were willing to date a robot, as long as it looked like a real human being. Indeed, we may already be seeing the rise of “digisexuals" who prefer cyber—and not human—love and sex lives.
Is that good? David Levy, British AI and robotics expert, thinks “sex robots will be a great boon to human society". His logic is that the main reasons people fall in love could equally apply to human-robot relationships. For instance, people tend to like other people who are similar to themselves in one or several ways—education level, attitudes, common interests. AI will be able to simulate all of these characteristics. Another common reason for falling in love is knowing that one is liked by the other person. It will be possible one day for AI to simulate a liking, or a loving, for the robot’s human partner—and to spark the interest of the human in return. So what’s the problem?
The problem, some would say, is that Levy has broken love down to certain boxes to be ticked and behavioural patterns. This is a completely mechanistic view of what it means to be human. But that’s a debate that is unlikely to be ever resolved. Levy also asks us to think of the millions of people around the world who have no one to love and no one to love them. They could be lonely for a number of reasons, from physical ugliness to being painfully shy to a lack of social skills. For these socially challenged people, Levy writes in a piece in The Mail On Sunday, the question to ask is not “Why is it better to love or have sex with a robot than with another human?", but “Is it better to love or have sex with a robot or to have no love or sex at all?"
One of the leading voices on the other side of the debate is Kathleen Richardson, the British founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots. She argues that sexbots will encourage us to regard real human beings as no more than “things". Sex dolls, she says, are inspired by ways of relating that do not require empathy. By promoting and cultivating these objects, we are in effect promoting non-empathetic forms of living as adults. This could have dire consequences. “Mechanical dolls perpetuate ideas that are harmful to society—that sex is instrumental and not relational," she told the website futureofsex.net. “If you keep sex outside of reciprocity, you get rape and murder of women and children."
Levy and Richardson are at the two extremes of the discourse, and limit themselves to the impact of technology on our love and sex lives, but sex tech can perhaps impact other aspects too. If a person can fully control his love life, will it impair his ability to face hurdles in other areas of life? The world demands humans to face challenges, obstacles and failures, and learn from the experiences and be stronger. Will a “I-get-whatever-I-want" love life make us weaker in some way, less capable of dealing with setbacks, and more prone to life dissatisfaction and depression? Some psychologists have begun raising these fears.
In December 2014, the writer Margaret Atwood wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times on a robot-crowded future, in which she mused about technology and sex. “Will remote sex on demand change human relationships," she asked. “Will it change human nature? What is human nature, anyway? That’s one of the questions our robots—both real and fictional—have always prompted us to think about. Every technology we develop is an extension of one of our own senses or capabilities. It has always been that way. The spear and the arrow extended the arm, the telescope extended the eye, and now (a) kissing device extends the mouth. Every technology we’ve ever made has also altered the way we live. So how different will our lives be if the future we choose is the one with all these robots in it?"
Atwood, who has written several dystopian novels, and is also the inventor of the LongPen, a remote signing device that allows a person to write in ink anywhere in the world via the internet and a robotic hand, did not answer the question. No one has the answer. As she says: “What is human nature, anyway?" All we know is that sex technology could profoundly change it.
Sandipan Deb is a former editor of Financial Express, and founder-editor of Open and Swarajya magazines.