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Love and Sex with Robots (conclusion)

July 14, 2009

Part two of Love and Sex with Robots (the sex part) is well researched and less prurient that you might think.  There’s as exhaustive a history of “marital aids,” sex studies, and changing attitudes and laws around sex and prostitution as you would expect from a book that served as the author’s Ph.D. thesis, with a wealth of stories that would make good books on their own (or at least jumping off points for novels):

A postwar German sex doll, “Bild Lili,” was based a “lewd cartoon character” popular in Germany at that time…and was said to have inspired Ruth Handler in her design for the original Barbie doll.

In the 1930s, a man named (wait for it) Ted Peckham “became famous in New York society…for being able to supply presentable men who would satisfy the desires of his largely wealthy female clientele” (with a charge for “overtime” after midnight).  Peckham’s business thrived, skirting the law until he was finally convicted in a Capone-style twist of “running an employment bureau without a license.”

And I can’t help but see a historical novel in the slight details available in the story of Captain Henry Nicoll, hanged in England in 1833 for a crime unnamed in the press save as one “heinous, horribly frightful and disgusting.” 

His name became known to the public during the investigation relative to the death of the unfortunate boy Paviour, who was lately, it was suspected, so inhumanely murdered by a Gang of Miscreants.  He was also spoken of, as being concerned with a Captain Beauclerk, who destroyed himself while in Horsemonger Lane Gaol, some months ago.

Levy lays out the case for a future in which attitudes about sex are more relaxed than they are today, drawing on the changes since the days when, for instance, men could be hanged for being gay and “fallen women” were unrecoverably damaged goods.  He convincingly draws on the Japanese experience with robots to suggest that robots for hire for sex aren’t far off in our own culture (though he also notes that in places like Arkansas, holy rollers are still trying to ban old-fashioned vibrators) – although, as a story in yesterday’s New York Times suggests, the current bad economy is doing the robotics industry in Japan no service. 

He’s a little fuzzy in his interpretation of studies about what men and women want from sex – men just want pleasure, women want emotional connection; no wait, women’s sex drives are not as overwhelming as men’s, but they can be just as powerful; well, actually, men do report wanting intimacy too when they hire prostitutes for “the girlfriend experience.”  Levy suggests that our future sexbots will be coded with the ability to mimic affection, and that just as the clients of sex workers engage in a willing suspension of disbelief when they pretend that the sex worker is at least a little fond of them, so too will we suspend our disbelief with robots and choose to think that we’ve “reached” them emotionally and earned their respect and/or affection.  This ability to suspend disbelief will be aided by advances in everything from facial expression technology to “haptics,” i.e. the sense of touch, which will make us feel like we’re really seeing and touching a “person.”

He’s on solid ground discussing the practical aspects of, oh let’s call it sexbotics:  the usefulness of robots in sexual surrogacy, the ability to find sexual services without the consequences of blackmail or STDs (just think how many Republican careers could be saved!), the marriage-saving possibility that a man, or woman, in a sexually unsatisfying relationship could find a safe, so to speak, outlet (well, unless the spouse doesn’t see the difference between robot cheating and floozy cheating), even the somewhat disturbing idea of rapists and other would-be sex criminals taking their aggressions out on machinery rather than people.  There are all kinds of interesting legal kettles of fish opened up here – could a spouse claim adultery in a divorce case if the “named party” was a sexbot?  Do we want to let pedophiles have robots to abuse or should this be banned, in case it stimulates them more towards the real thing?  For that matter, would we want robots to report abusive partners as a “red flag” indicating future abuse predilections towards people?  Is it “prostitution” under the law if the hired partner isn’t a living being?

What kind of resistance would mass-marketed sexbotics meet with?  Could this be the salvation of the gays, as holy rollers everywhere turn their attention to the devil in the machine as their new crusade?  Levy doesn’t address the moralistic obstacles and objections to come, other than to vaguely wave “the march of progress” over them like a magic wand, his stories of the fading away of the “normality” of hanging gays and stoning adulteresses proving that times will change.  One can only imagine a Butlerian Jihad of sorts at least being attempted by the opposition forces.

Levy cites numerous studies that prove how computers lower inhibitions – whether it’s people being more honest on a survey about sex or drugs when it’s taken online, vs. when a researcher asks them in person, or how much more likely we are to access porn or cruise for anonymous partners or shop for sex toys from behind the safety of the “mask” of the screen, no raincoat required.  Could the availability of sexbots for sale or rent presage a second Sexual Revolution?  We’re already accepting robots in our lives in more and more personal ways, Levy notes:

Having robots take on the role of partner in relationships with human beings is a natural continuation of the trend in robotics research and development that has already passed through various stages:  from industrial robots to service robots to virtual pets to companion and caregiver robots for the elderly.  The next stage in this trend is the design and construction of partner robots, sufficiently humanlike and sufficiently appealing in various ways to be considered as our true partners.

There’s no doubt that many people will be satisfied with a robot lover – the person physically unattractive to most others for whatever reason, the socially retarded, the bitterly disappointed and emotionally injured, the elderly person who doesn’t want to have another romantic relationship after the loss of a long-time companion.  But I can’t see the “marriage” thing happening here – as I said in the last post on the book, the whole point of marriage as a legal institution is to confer legal benefits, and until AI is indistinguishable from HI, there is no need for marriage – unless, some day, “partner maintenance insurance” becomes an employee benefit next to partner health insurance. 

Also, technology can’t trump chemistry – the human hormonal and pheromonal system will always respond more powerfully to the stimuli presented by other human bodies than to a machine.  The power of sexual desire, plus the power of the human imagination, will allow many people who would otherwise not be sexually fulfilled to find more happiness with a bot than they would have otherwise with, or more to the point without a person.  But there are so many other factors in human attraction that can’t be cloned.  The other day in the airport I was walking behind this guy – young, handsome, surfer-looking dude, about six foot four, big smile, great skin, deep tan (not scary nut brown or tanning booth orange, but just right), and all these little golden hairs on his forearm just magnetizing my eyes.  No doubt technology will someday be able to clone all these physical features in a machine, but they can’t substitute for the power only this guy could have over my imagination, the life I was imagining for him, the unattainability of him, a passing face in an airport, the talismanic power of his youth and beauty and lifestyle, the desire I felt being not just sexual but the desire to be part of that sunny world, to be young again.  I know all too well that the robot version wouldn’t trip my trigger the same way – something essential to the attraction would be missing, regardless of the excellence of the engineering – the life force would be missing, the essence of physical attraction.

Robots are tools.  And we develop relationships with our tools, be they computers or cars or smartphones.  We attach to things, grow fond of them, because they have qualities which prompt attachment – they are reliable, attractive, fun.  We mourn them when they break down or are lost or stolen.  And we will mourn robots when we come to attach to them, too.  But not in the same way we mourn animals or people, who are lost forever.  Robots can be backed up, personalities rebooted in other bodies.  Real loss will come when (like some people) we lose them because of diminished financial circumstances, but (also like some people) they can be regained when those circumstances improve.  Just as nothing’s ever deleted on the Internet, so our digitally customized tools are recoverable when proper procedures are followed.  And just how long would we love the beautiful surfer who never gets old, never gets wrinkly or stooped over, forever young and golden – how long does that keep its charm, when so much of the power of youth and beauty, of passion itself, is its transitory nature?  What happens to the urge to seize the day when the day can be repeated ad infinitum, any day you choose?

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