Engineer-inventor Douglas Hines adjusts the head of his company’s sex robot, Roxxxy. Photo by ROBYN BECK / AFP
In 2016, Dr Ian Pearson—a leading futurist known for his 85 percent accuracy record—projected that sex with robots would be more common than sex with humans by the year 2050. A year later, a survey by research data group YouGov suggested that almost half of Americans thought having sex with a robot would become common practice within the next half-a-century.
Things have only heated up since then. In 2020 the needle moved a little closer to a future dominated by sexy robots, when coronavirus lockdowns isolated people under state-sanctioned house arrest and the adult doll industry experienced an unprecedented sales boom. Some vendors reported twice as many weekly purchases compared to pre-pandemic levels, and fielded requests for all manner of personalised tweaks and modifications—including one model without any genitals, one with a tail, and one with three breasts.
With each passing day it becomes harder to argue against the probability that our future will be co-inhabited by sexbots, where all manner of kinks and fantasies can be fleshed out via custommade, silicone-based humanoids. But who stands to benefit most from this brave new world, and who is most likely to be left behind?
Or, to put it another way: how egalitarian is the emergency industry of sexual robotics?
According to Dr Nancy S. Jecker, a bioethicist at the University of Washington School of Medicine: not nearly egalitarian enough.
“Today’s sex robots are sexist, racist, ableist, ageist and heterosexist,” she tells VICE World News by email. “They tilt towards users who are young, able-bodied, heterosexual and male. But in the future we need to reimagine them as products for older, disabled, primarily female clientele, and to offer them with a range of sexual orientations and social functions.”
Societies around the world are ageing, Dr Jecker points out, and as people live longer they face heightened risk of chronic disease and disability, which in turn puts their sexual functioning at risk. And yet despite stereotypes and social stigma, a 2007 paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that many people engage in sexual activities—including intercourse, oral sex and masturbation—well into their 80s and 90s.
“It should come as no surprise that sex robots are not pitched to older people, but these technologies should be designed to help older people maintain sexual function,” she explains. “Supporting someone’s ability to be sexual is part of respecting their identity and dignity as a person. And the non-voluntary absence of sex from someone’s life is not just a bad thing, it’s a threat to identity and dignity.”
As a group, however, older people also tend to be more frail and less agile, with more porous bones and less muscle mass. And for that reason, it’s important for manufacturers to design sex robots in a way that minimises the risk of injury.
Soft robotics is one promising development in this area: replacing hard, metallic surfaces of traditional robots with softer, pliable materials. A soft robotic hand, for example, can gently close itself around an object and grab hold of it, making it safer for older and more fragile users.
“Just as service robots are being designed to assist older individuals with functions such as eating, dressing and bathing, they might be designed to assist with social functions, serving as sources of affiliation and sexual partnership,” says Dr Jecker, who this week published an article on the topic in the Journal of Medical Ethics. And she isn’t the first to suggest that robots might significantly improve the sex lives of older people with disabilities.
Earlier this year, researchers Eduard Fosch-Villaronga from the Netherlands’ Leiden University and Adam Poulsen from Australia’s Charles Sturt University published a paper in which they outlined three major ways in which sexbots might benefit people who are older and/or living with a disability: those being sexual, emotional, and educational purposes.
Like Dr Jecker, Fosch-Villaronga and Poulson similarly argue that sex robots could provide a safe environment for older adults and persons with disabilities to explore their sexuality. Additionally, they list off a series of detailed examples as to how current sexbot models might facilitate such sexual experimentation.
“Rocky, an android sex robot, can actively penetrate a user with a vibrating penis,” they point out in the Paladyn Journal of Behavioral Robotics. “[Or] a user could penetrate Roxxxy, a gynoid [female] sex robot [who] is capable of … moving back and forth from the user … [This] affords the user the ability to penetrate the sex robot without having to move at all, or very little, which may be beneficial for physically impaired users.
“A female or male sex robot with a massaging sexual orifice to stimulate a male user’s genitals, like Xiaodie and Roxxxy have, could cater to the needs of a fragile user,” they add. “Alternatively, a robotic arm, such as Gabriel2052, to help with masturbation could help.”
For less intense sexual encounters, Fosch-Villaronga and Poulson point to certain models of sexbots that can produce slightly gentler expressions of intimacy: those with internal heating systems to make their bodies feel warm like a human, for example, or those with exoskeletons that enable them to walk alongside the user, or hold hands. Physical sexual pleasure is important, of course—but it is these more subtle simulacra of human companionship that constitute what Dr Jecker describes as the “deeper” function of sexbots.
And it’s one that may become far more important now and into the future as the risk of infectious diseases like COVID-19 isolate elderly and vulnerable people even more.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, people who are 65 and over face by far the highest risk of becoming seriously ill and dying, and they are under the strictest quarantine and physical distancing requirements which leads to social isolation and loneliness,” says Dr Jecker. “[But] sociable robots can be sanitized and offer a safe means of interacting with older people.”
“In the future, we will unfortunately face more emerging infectious diseases—and sociable robots of the future will have an even bigger role to play, serving as carebots, friendbots, and sexbots.”
Advertisers have cottoned on to this “companion” element in recent years, and started leaning into the possible function of their dolls as “carebots” and “friendbots” as well as mere “sexbots”.
The aforementioned Roxxxy, made by engineer Douglas Hines, can be programmed with multiple personalities, and was designed based on the idea that “sex only goes so far—then you want to be able to talk to the person”. Another sexbot made by the Chinese company AI Technology, meanwhile, is advertised as a “real AI you can talk to”—while at the same time boasting an 18-centimetre deep vagina and a 16-centimetre deep anal cavity.
Regardless of the services offered by the various different sexbot models, however, the suggestion that non-human sexual partners ought to target people who are older and/or disabled has rankled certain commentators in the past.
A 2017 report by the Foundation for Responsible Robotics described the proposed use of sex robots for the elderly in care homes as a “controversial suggestion”, and stated that “there are ethical concerns here about how this might impact on the dignity of those who may not understand what they are being offered and also about the deception of the vulnerable with severe dementia.”
That same year, a separate report published in the BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health journal cautioned that “sexbots might provide ‘companionship’ for the lonely, mentally and physically disabled, the elderly, or those who find intercourse traumatic, though this justification requires a change in meaning of ‘companion’ from a living, interacting person.
“It also seems patronising,” they added, “to argue for a ‘lesser’ sexual experience when most people with disabilities can form mutually satisfying relationships.”
Whether or not they’re strictly needed by older adults or those living with disabilities, however, Dr Jecker insists that at the very least the sexbot industry should be more inclusive in the design and marketing of its products, making an express effort to support the emotional health and wellbeing of these demographics while at the same time helping counter ageism and stereotyping.
“Sex robots need a makeover,” she declares. “With assistance, older adults can continue to be sexual in ways they value [and] robots can be an important tool to help them maintain sexual health.
“Rather than leave older people who struggle with impaired sexual functioning to fend for themselves, societies should take reasonable steps to help.”
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Via Vice News