“We are summoning the demon,” Elon Musk recently said. The rich-beyond-our dreams futurologist was talking of the moment artificial intelligence realises it exists.
The release of Blade Runner 2049 – in which humanoid replicants, created for service, seek liberty from their biological oppressors – has coincided closely with a report from the Foundation for Responsible Robotics. The report endorses the creation of sophisticated, robotised sex toys – dolls designed to look and feel like a real person. They warm to the touch, their labia are 'perfectly' formed, they communicate their needs via AI algorithms. They could, the report says, herald a ‘revolution’ in the way we express our most animal selves.
The report is open-minded. Its authors suggest such cyborgian creatures could help those of us who struggle to develop relationships with flesh and blood. They could aid people in care homes, or who are dealing with conditions like dementia or physical disability. Proponents have gone further, suggesting sex robots can help rapists overcome their impulse to rape, or help paedophiles deal with their attraction to children. In broader society, sex dolls could help people in monogamous relationships in which the desire for the other has departed. They might allow us to express ourselves, to be our deepest selves, without fear of judgement or pity or embarrassment.
Early polling suggests we are receptive. From a large sample, a recent YouGov study found that 49% of Americans expect sex with robots will become commonplace over the course of the next 50 years. One in four adult men said they would consider going to bed with a receptive cyborg (less than 10% of women sampled said something similar). An early study, conducted in 2016 by the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, found that more than 40% of 263 heterosexual men in the country were interested in the proposition.
If the figures are to be believed, then they give succour to forecasts by futurologists that sex with robots will overtake human love-making by the midpoint of this century.
Sex dolls are not new. Dutch sailors are said to have used them as far back as the 17th century. It’s obvious that the newly responsive, networked sex dolls are crude prototypes of things to come. Take as an example Roxxxy, available from US company True Companion for £7,395, in one of 73 hair colours and with a range of eye colours and skin tones (the most popular is tanned with blue eyes and brown hair). If you so wish, you can choose from broad ethnicities like ‘African’ or ‘small Asian’. She can be a ‘party girl’ or a ‘submissive'. You can even choose the shape of Roxxxy’s pubic hair.
Roxxxy can be programmed to display different sides of her personality. This includes Frigid Farrah, who, to use the words of True Companion, is not "appreciative" when you "touch her in a private area". Frigid Farrah has created a storm of controversy – is Roxxxy’s manufacturer legitimising, and profiting from, rape fantasies?
Recently, at the Ars Electronica Festival in the Austrian city of Linz, Sergi Santos, an engineer from Barcelona, exhibited Samantha, a robotic doll programmed to respond to "romance". Samantha barely lasted the convention. She was broken to pieces by men roughly touching her. She was, Santos complained, treated just like an object.
The Roxxxys and Samanthas of this world may not last the ages but that’s not to say they will disappear. Indeed, they may be the earliest iteration of something that, in the near future, will become ubiquitous.
In the Far East, the South Korean government has publicly stated it plans to mass-produce enough networked robots to install one in every household by 2020. Manufacturing is scheduled to begin next year.
The Division for Applied Robot Technology at the Korea Institute of Industrial Technology has already exhibited EveR-1. Motors beneath the robot’s silicon skin enable it to hold a conversation, make eye contact, and appear to express emotions like joy, sorrow and happiness. Coincidentally, EveR-1 is designed to resemble a Korean female in her early 20s.
Critics have long argued over the representation of women in the original Blade Runner. Many of the women dramatised in the film are wholly defined by the men in their lives. They are remorselessly sexualised, and killed off without sentimentality. One such woman, performed by a 20-year-old Daryl Hannah, is referred to dismissively as “a basic pleasure model” soon after she is brutally ‘retired’.
Watching the film, it’s easy to forget that each of them is a replicant. The fully formed character that Hannah so vivaciously brings to life is another Roxxxy – just a more advanced version.
Can you objectify a machine, the film asks, even if that machine resembles a woman?
When fielding these questions, Ridley Scott, the film's director, has always leant on the idea of 'patriarchal technologies'. He may be on to something. AI bots are already being developed to dispassionately assess candidates for jobs, university places and bank loans. But scientists at Boston University wanted to test whether our own attitudes are prevalent in the programming – ghosts in the machine.
They trained an AI bot to read Google News. After consuming the news, the machine was tasked with a word association game. It was asked: “Man is to computer programmer as woman is to x”.
Without hesitation, the computer responded with one word: “homemaker”.
Maybe the demon is already here.