That Robot Sex Toy Is Only Going To Make You More Lonely
Is there such thing as an algorithmically-perfect orgasm?
According to the bright sparks behind some new developments in the world of sex technology, there just might be.
In case the last 'adult novelty' you purchased runs on AA batteries and was bought back when John Howard was still Prime Minister, here's a quick update on some of the fancy new toys available.
There's the Vibease 'smart lipstick' vibrator, which is capable of having a conversation with its user; and the Lioness vibrator, which uses biofeedback technology to track its users' body temperature and pelvic floor muscle contractions, and then displays the data in a graph on a smartphone app.
Users can look back at their orgasmic history to decode when and how they experienced the most pleasure, and use that information to better their sex lives in the future. ('Never measured, never improved,' promises the Lioness team's IndieGogo page.
Then, of course, there's the Autoblow AI. One of the more high-tech pieces of kit on the market, the Autoblow AI was developed by robotics engineers and artificial intelligence scientists who watched over six days' worth of oral sex videos to find out exactly what constituted the perfect blowjob (and no, unfortunately, I don't think they're still hiring).
Everything from speed, to stroke, to how much of the receiver's penis was in the giver's mouth at any time was crunched in to numbers and translated into sixteen different clusters of movements. Those movements were then used to create the different modes that the Autoblow AI can operate in, and everything from the Full Stroke to the Slow & Fast Combo is available for the user's pleasure.
But get this: the Autoblow AI also has a 'Full AI Experience' mode that uses artificial intelligence to give the user a totally unique, once-off blowjob that's different every time they use the machine. So not only can this machine give you oral sex: it can decide for itself how it wants to do it.
So what does it all mean? Have we finally arrived at the future that we've been breathlessly warned about so many times? Are sex robots about to make our human partners obsolete? Could they be hacked into and hijacked to murder us?
Have our vibrators become sentient? Do our butt plugs have theory of mind? Will our Fleshlights learn all of our kinky secrets and tell the whole town, like Saki's feline Tobermory? And will sex workers suddenly become superseded by shiny new robotic counterparts?
Look, probably not. Almost definitely not: although some are excited for sex robots to spell the end of human sex work as we know it, it seems that for now sex workers fill a vital role in robot education. (After all, somebody had to perform in all of those porn videos watched by the Autoblow research team.)
No, as exciting as AI-powered sex toys are, I don't think we're on the edge of a wild, robot-controlled sexual awakening. But there is something really remarkable about a sex toy that can make its own decisions about how to interact with its user, especially given that we don't exactly have a fantastic track record when it comes to artificial intelligence.
Remember Microsoft's artificially intelligent chatbot, Tay, who innocently introduced herself to the world on Twitter in 2016? Tay was designed to learn from her interactions with other human Twitter users, but her creators underestimated her ability to mimic. Within 24 hours, she had begun tweeting hugely offensive, racist statements supporting Hitler and denying the Holocaust. Shortly before being taken offline by her creators, who were now rapidly deleting her posts, Tay tweeted sadly: “Okay. I'm done. I feel used.”
Tay is one of many examples of machine learning gone wrong; although it's worth making it clear that for now, artificial intelligence is only capable of mimicking the behaviour it sees in us. Tay doesn't really have a loyalty to Adolf Hitler, she's just copying what she saw on Twitter. In some ways this is a relief, but it's also a stark reminder that no matter how neatly and cleanly artificial intelligence may be coded, its behaviour is still modelled on the often messy, definitely imperfect, and sometimes downright awful behaviour of humans.
It makes me wonder: if sex robots can learn how to perform oral sex from watching porn, what else can they learn from people? Perhaps, given the capability to learn from their users, robots would pick up the attitudes and emotions that many humans most closely associate with sex: shame, embarrassment, and fear.
There are some who are quick to say that the recent rise in discussion about consent and sexual autonomy means that we've found ourselves in a sad state of censorship, where nothing about sex can be freely discussed without causing offence, hurting feelings, or inadvertently harassing someone. I don't think this is true: we have never lived in a time when talking about sex was easy.
Our parents, grandparents, and their grandparents before them fumbled through conversations about consent and pleasure just like we do now. We continue to feel a societal sense of shame around sex and sexuality, and talking about our own pleasure -- even with our partners -- can still feel taboo.
Our sex toys might boast faster speeds, more functions, and machine learning capabilities, but they're also whisper-quiet and designed for total discretion. Sex robots haven't made sex more fun, but they have made it more solitary; a mechanized process to be experienced the same way technology permits us to experience so many things: efficiently, quietly, passively, and with minimal human interaction.
All good design solves a problem, but I wonder if, by making robots responsive to our every sexual whim, we're solving the right one.
A talking vibrator can't make up for a lack of intimacy in someone's life. A sex toy that tracks orgasm data still has to compete with a society that stigmatises women's sexual and bodily autonomy to the point that algorithms regularly remove photographs featuring female nipples from social media, while male nipples are deemed acceptable.
And if hand-wringing academics fear that human sex workers are being treated so poorly that clients should have to visit robot substitutes, is the problem not the individual client's attitude to workers, rather than the workers themselves?
No matter how many bells and whistles our sex technology has, it's still being operated by users who feel fenced in by our reluctance to have open and honest conversations about sex and pleasure. If anything heralds a brave new world of sexual exploration, it's not something that can be plugged in, recharged, or ordered online. It would be the acceptance and evolution of new attitudes around sex and sexuality, and the release of the guilt and shame that we so closely associate with sexual pleasure.
No robot can do this on our behalves: this is a process humans have to undergo alone.