NSFW, sexually vivid, and touches on sensitive socio-political topics.
You’ve been warned!
TL;DR (part 1)
- If your partner has sex with an extremely realistic sex robot that’s indistinguishable from a human, would you consider that cheating? The line is blurrier than you may think.
- The confluence of materials science, robotics, AI, and AR will likely lead to ultra-realistic sex robots.
- When silicone valleys cross the uncanny valley, I speculate such an event to be socially pivotal enough to label it the third sexual revolution.
- History provides hints to help us better understand just how disruptive sexual revolutions can be.
- Spearheaded by the introduction of the birth control pill in 1960, the second sexual revolution led to monumental changes in laws and social attitudes on: female sexuality, marriage, abortion, the role of women in society, gender identity, and even the human condition itself.
Part 1 (this post)
- 1. Would you consider that cheating?: a dialogue between friends
- 2. Silicone valleys crossing the uncanny valley: brief overview of the technological enablers (hardware and software)
- 3. The power of the pill: throwback to the second sexual revolution and its colossal societal changes
- 4. Precursors to the third sexual revolution: increasing access, adoption and acceptance to porn aided masturbation, sex toys, and the psychology of dating apps.
- 5. The third sexual revolution: posing more questions than offering answers on aspects such as loneliness, sexual asymmetries, androidism, parenting, ethics, transhumanism, and more
- 6. Fourth and beyond: virtual reality, brain-machine interfaces, and where to from here
1. Would you consider that cheating?
Guy: If your boyfriend secretly masturbates would you consider that cheating?
Girl: No. Of course not. Even if he tries to keep it secret, I know he does it anyway. Besides, I masturbate too. Everyone does right. Even when you’re living with a partner. But I wouldn’t like it if he preferred it over me all the time.
Guy: Right. What if he’s thinking about someone else while he’s doing it?
Girl: Well if you put it like that it sounds bad. But when you’re masturbating to porn that’s technically thinking of someone else right. So I guess it’s fine.
Guy: Yeah if that was cheating that’d be Orwellian Thoughtcrime right?
Girl: I mean, people can live out their fantasies in their head. But as long as they don’t action them, no one gets hurt.
Guy: What if he’s thinking of your best friend while masturbating?
Girl: Pretty sure that’s crossing the line.
Guy: But you just said thinking but no action is okay.
Girl: Well it’s not cheating but it’s crossing the line. It means his feelings for me aren’t sincere.
Guy: What if he’s thinking of his ex while masturbating? Is that cheating?
Girl: Well labeling it as cheating might be a bit excessive, but I sure wouldn’t like it. I don’t think that’s a meaningful question. Cheating or not, it’s crossing the line.
Guy: Okay fair enough – crossing the line. But how is the ex scenario different to the best friend scenario?
Girl: Well you can move on from someone but still look back and appreciate the moments you had with them. Having said that though, I don’t think it’s healthy to be thinking of an ex in a lustful way when you’re in a relationship with someone else.
Guy: What if he uses a sex doll. You know, like the ones they filled a baseball stadium with during coronavirus lockdowns. Is that crossing the line?
Girl: Sex dolls are just glorified sex toys so that’s fine. I use a vibrator and I don’t consider that cheating.
Guy: Because it’s not real?
Girl: It’s a tool. A masturbation aid. It’s not a person. It’s not real.
Guy: What if the sex doll was so technologically advanced that it’s indistinguishable from a real person. It looks real. It feels real. It moves like a real person. So real that it’s no longer an object that you do something to. It does things to you too. Like in Ex Machina or Westworld.
Girl: It’s still not real though.
Guy: Okay what exactly do you mean by not real? As in it’s not made of organic matter?
Girl: As in, it’s not natural. It’s artificially manufactured.
Guy: Well what if instead of silicone, it was made of tissue-engineered human skin. Even the bones, the hair, the blood – it’s all artificial but the bioengineering is so advanced you wouldn’t be able to tell. Even going as far as synthesizing the bodily fluids. Texture, temperature, and even the smell. Like a Replica in Bladerunner or a clone in The Island.
Girl: Yes but they were artificially produced. So no matter how real they look or feel, they’re still objects.
Guy: So the means of production matters more than the characteristics of the finished product?
Girl: Well, they don’t have consciousness.
Guy: Wait, have you even seen those films?
Girl: I have. I just don’t believe in machine consciousness. They’re just zombies with the illusion that they have consciousness.
Guy: Okay that’s a separate discussion.
Girl: Look it’s hard to draw a black and white line. Before I said thinking about others while masturbating is fine, but some thoughts cross the line. So I guess it’d be similar with sex dolls no matter how advanced they are. If he’s doing it with a doll purely physically with no emotional attachment I guess that’s okay.
Guy: But if he goes to a brothel and has sex with a prostitute, even if there’s zero emotional attachment, he sees her only as a sexual object, that’s crossing the line?
Girl: Of course that’s cheating if it’s with an actual person.
Guy: Okay and what if he goes to the same brothel and does it with a sex doll?
Girl: Why would a brothel…
Guy: There’s a brothel in Barcelona that has both prostitutes and sex dolls…
Girl: Sex with a doll at a brothel is okay. So long as he tells me first.
Guy: What if he goes to the brothel, and the owner tells him they now have newly arrived sex dolls that are so realistic they are indistinguishable from a human. Like I was saying before, Bladerunner-bioengineered-realistic. He’s so surprised that feels that he’s doing it with a real person, even though he knows that it’s a doll. He has sex with it and feels no different to him than having sex with a real human sex worker. His emotions were real. Is that cheating?
Girl: He can feel like it’s real, but those feelings aren’t towards a real person. It’s still just an object.
Guy: So masturbating to a real person in some instances is crossing the line, while having sex with a ‘fake person’ is not? Even though both his feelings and actions towards the sex robot are more pronounced than the former?
Girl: But when you say feeling, they’re feelings of lust, as opposed to love. How can a person feel that kind of love towards an unconscious object?
Guy: It’s possible. There’s guys in Japan that are literally in love with dolls, or even anime characters.
Girl: Well there’s always outliers. I’m talking about most people. But if he’s actually in love with the robot, then yeah that’s crossing the line. That’s cheating even.
Guy: Ah so sex with an unconscious object is cheating if the feelings of love were sincere?
Guy: Okay. What if, the sex robot is an exact replica of your best friend. The voice, the movement, the character. It’s even been fed her memories so you can talk to it and no one would be able to tell it’s a robot. Post-Turing test. Is that crossing the line?
Girl: . . .
2. Silicone valleys crossing the uncanny valley
2.1. The uncanny valley
We humans love to anthropomorphize objects and even conceptual ideas. Generally speaking, we like things that resemble a human but only up to a certain point. Cute can quickly turn into creepy. When something looks very similar but not quite similar enough to a human, we feel discomfort. For example, conflicting perceptual cues when a humanoid robot speaks but their lip movements or facial expressions don’t exactly match makes us uneasy. This is the uncanny valley.
There’s debate around the evolutionary reasons for why we feel this way: avoid proximity to pathogens from the dead, diseased, or mutated; reinforce human norms, distance threats to human identity. But we won’t go into that here.
What happens when sex robots become so advanced that they cross the uncanny valley?
Could silicone valleys be as technologically disruptive as silicon microchips?
Such an advancement could be brought about by a confluence of technological developments.
2.1. Materials science
Developing materials for sex robots goes beyond the silicone that covers a sturdy humanoid frame.
Making an object feel human is a pretty difficult engineering problem. Theoretically, if we really wanted to create something ultra-realistic, we could just grow real human skin via tissue engineering. But then there’s additional maintenance considerations, let alone economic and regulatory ones. And crossing the uncannny valley doesn’t necessarily mean having to reach 100% similarity, perhaps 95% may be enough.
Still, there’s much more work to be done to achieve human indistinguishability. Beyond getting the right material for surface texture, there’s also elasticity (how squishy it is), heat conductivity. As well as mechanical, thermodynamic, and even fluid dynamic durability. Then there’s also biocompatibility hygiene considerations as it’d be in contact with human fluids from the user. Synthetically producing the bodily fluids is difficult too (viscosity, odour etc).
Alternatively, there could be a short-cut. If we’re designing sex robot materials for the purposes of pleasure, as opposed to Darwinian evolution which usually optimizes for energy conservation, we can leapfrog biomimetics and consider more ancillary options that may provide more pleasure than its natural counterpart. Such as a velvet or silk.
Robot: a mechanism programmable in two or more axes with a degree of autonomy. They consist of actuators (moving parts and parts that move them), a control structure (to be told what to do), and sensors (to sense and respond to environment). Typically applied in ‘4D’ jobs: difficult, dull, dirty, dangerous.
Robotics has come a long way, and the technology is probably mature enough for sex robot applications. So it’s probably more a demand-driven commercial feasibility question. I suppose you could feed an AI program millions of hours of porn and it could learn the various motions. If it moves, then safety becomes even more important.
Another aspect of making a sex robot feel real has to do with the information you exchange with it. Natural speech is an obvious one. You talk it, it responds accordingly, and even remembers what you said in previous interactions. But there’s a lot to accomplish to get it over the uncanny valley:
- What you say: records and transcribes your audio, and uses real-time natural language processing to respond accordingly.
- How you say it: augments paraverbal cues such as tone, pace, mumbling, pauses etc with what you said.
- Non-verbals: computer vision detects facial microexpressions, and body language.
- Memory and predictive capabilities. Over time, it learns what you like, and how you like it, and when you like things based on a variety of factors such as the time of the day, or what you ate, or how your day was etc.
- You could even let the sex robot collect this data about you outside of the bedroom. Talk to it around the house. Creepy right?
Much of this was depicted in Ex Machina. “Are you attracted to me?…Microexpressions. The way your eyes fix on my eyes and lips. The way you hold my gaze…”
Another challenge is computing power. To sense and respond in real-time that much data would probably require cloud computing. Meaning, extremely private data is being sent elsewhere. Imagine the blackmailing power if that got hacked.
Ultimately, this AI software component to sex robots could allow them to meet emotional needs, rather than just physical ones. This is a big deal as sex robots could transcend from being a glorified object into an entity that’s humans give genuine feelings of love and affection too.
2.4. Augmented reality (AR)
Another value-add for users with promiscuity fetishes is customisability. Owning multiple sex robots could be expensive, take up storage space etc. Maybe a user wants to mimic an interaction with a porn star they just saw online. Or they have a fetish for someone they actually know. Perhaps some rapid manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing could let a user specify the facial features, body shape etc.
Or maybe there’s just a leasing model.
But then I thought, why not just have a generic sex robot template and address detailed customization problems with augmented reality (AR). The user can just wear some AR glasses, or maybe by that time everyone has had cornea AR implants, or it could be projected from the ceiling like in Blade Runner 2049. (I really thought AR sex was my idea, and then the 2017 movie showed something very similar, only the ‘physical template’ is a prostitute.)
“I want to be real for you.” – Joi, Blade Runner 2049
Recommend you watch the scene here if you haven’t seen the movie.
Combine AR and deep fakes, a user gets a sex robot experience with a specific persona. This could be a porn star, or someone they actually know – like a crush. Imagine the psychological and ethical implications of such twisted realities.
2.5. Triple S-curves
To summarize so far, building ultra-realistic sex robots is difficult, but very possible if there’s an appetite for it. But going from concept to widespread adoption requires much more than solving engineering problems. There’s also commercial and social barriers too.
I visualize this as triple S-curves.
There’s typically a lag between the technology becoming available and raising capital investment and finding viable business models. Then it may take several years or even decades for a new invention to become widely available, accessible, and accepted in broader society.
VCs tend to shy away from sextech, but this may change over the next decade. The investment community seems to be more receptive to sextech with an emphasis on sexual wellness. I suspect this socially accepted framing will be a beachhead into increased investment.
While there is much to discuss about sex robot tech and sex robot economics, this essay focuses more on sex robot sociology. The next section takes a quick peek at previous sexual revolutions through a sociology lens.
3. Power of the Pill
Sex is many things but it encompasses 3 aspects: pleasure, reproduction, and love. All three are interdependent and integral to the innate human condition.
“It’s about pleasure and social interaction with a thankfully necessary biological by-product.” – Adam Rutherford, The Book of Humans
By sex here I mean the act, not the biological dichotomy. (Note: Sex is binary and is biologically determined based on the type of reproductive genitalia at birth, while gender is a non-binary identity shaped by society and culture. Still debated, but out of scope for this post.)
Before we consider just how much sex robots could disrupt, or perhaps even displace human-to-human interactions, it is helpful to delve into the previous two sexual revolutions. Of course, history varies enormously by country so the scope will be limited to the US and comparably developed Western countries.
3.1. The sexual revolutions
The first sexual revolution manifested in the late 19th / early 20th century. Against the backdrop of railroad expansion, mass urbanization, electrification, popularization of rubber condoms, and the weakening power of religious institutions, traditional notions of sexual morality and the role of women in society were challenged. Gradually, women were no longer seen as household servants that please men, but as human beings with sexual desire just like men. Freud would call it libido.
Closely entangled with this was the first wave of feminism that advocated political equality. The right for women to vote (suffrage).
Then came the rise of TV, post-war consumerism, and unprecedented sensationalism. Advertisers quickly learned that sex sells. People from 1960 may be surprised with how sexually provocative 2020 is, but that would not compare to the shock that people from 1900 would get looking at 1960.
“I’m not supposed to according to my faith. But I believe sex is a really important part of a relationship and it brings two people closer.”
Then on 9th May 1960, one of the most pivotal events in the 20th century took place: the FDA approved Enovid, the oral contraceptive pill. The impact of this on our species cannot be over-stated.
Humanity has created a mass production chemical hack into one of the most fundamental mechanisms of biology. This tiny piece of norethynodrel, a synthetic progesterone, allowed humans to engage in a biological drive for sex without paying the biological cost of reproduction.
We’ve given ourselves the power to say “fuck you” to our DNA overlords.
Let that sink in.
While we indulge in constructing our own purpose and meaning of life – whether it’s happiness, leaving a legacy, or primordial redemption – the default “meaning of life” encoded in our DNA is to survive and replicate. DNA doesn’t care about our pleasure or pain, it just optimizes to make as many copies of itself. So much of our biological drive is fueled by this innate human condition. Such influences precede the sociological and cultural influences layered on top.
We were already giving a “fuck you” to DNA every time we used a condom. And since 1960, for the first time in human history, women were given a veto power over the reproduction of our species. That is a beautiful thing. But also a truly terrifying thing.
The pill paved way for new laws and social norms to be crystallized.
- 9th of May 1960: FDA approves the pill.
- Feminist ideas spread to the masses including: Feminine Mystique by Friedan (1963), Scum Manifesto by Solanas (1967), and Female Eunuch by Greer (1970). Leveraging on the slow but gaining momentum of earlier canonical texts such as The Second Sex by de Beauvoir (1949).
- 1967: Loving v Virginia case lifted interracial marriage bans
- Gay Rights Movement gains momentum from the 60s.
- 1971: the 26th Amendment was ratified in the US, lowering the legal voting age to 18.
- In subsequent years, and varying by state, a succession of new laws would be passed. This included changing the age of majority to 18 (legal age to have sex), and allowing a minor to choose or reject a particular health outcome without parental consent (mature minor doctrine).
- 1973: The famous Roe v Wade case led to a widespread legalization of abortion.
- No-fault unilateral divorce (divorce without specific wrongdoing such as adultery by either party) became legalized in many countries from the 70s onward.
Indeed, the pill was not the sole cause for all of these, but it’s hard to deny its contribution to the snowball that defined much of the late 20th century.
3.2. Female liberation, professional education and career
The pill drastically lowered the probability of unplanned pregnancy. Plus, as an extra safety layer, new abortion laws drastically lowered the legal and social consequences of unplanned pregnancy. Half of the population now had the practical option to pursue a professional career.
(Addressing potential causation-correlation fallacy: Analyzing the cross-cohort variation in pill usage and cross-state variation in changes in laws gives confidence that the pill was a causality. Also, increased admissions was not due to a higher admissions rate (from same number of applications) – it was due to a higher number of applications.)
While there’s controversy on how much this new labor market participation boosted the economy, one thing everyone can agree on is that it did decrease social inequality as women now had less barriers to unlocking their creative and intellectual faculties. Gender inequality and sexism persists to this day. But we cannot discount the significant strides in the 20th century.
3.3. Marriage and divorce
Best selling economics/psychology book Freakonomics opens by exploring the rise in violent crime in the late 80s US. They tried more policing. It didn’t work. By the early 90s, the situation was getting out of hand.
And then out of nowhere, crime rates plummeted. Politicians boasted about the efficacy of the police, but the data just doesn’t hold up.
The true causality came from Norma McCorvey (pseudonym Jane Roe) winning a landmark Supreme Court case against local district attorney Henry Wade to legalize abortion in 1973 (Roe v Wade). 1973 to early 90s: that’s the amount of years it takes for an unplanned baby to reach legal age. This is indeed a great outcome for society.
The pill and Roe v Wade also upended marriage and divorce rates.
Whether less marriages and more divorces is a good or bad thing is a complex matter.
On one hand, some argue couples continued to get into long-term relationships and co-habitate, just without the institutional tradition of the marriage contract. Divorce means two people that were unhappy together were liberated from each other, with much less legal hurdles (universal no-fault divorce), and social stigma than the pre-pill era.
On another hand, some argue that the pill gave rise to sexual promiscuity. This then led to increased contraceptive failure (remember the pill is not a 100% guarantee), which then led to increased single motherhood. Just as marriage rates plummeted since the early 70s. This then contributed to the growing Keynesian welfare state throughout the 60s and 70s.
Indeed, this is not a valid dichotomy, nor is it collectively exhaustive. But again, whichever way you look at it, the pill was a big deal.
3.4. Social disruption
So the pill enabled, or perhaps more mildly framed, catalyzed, the reconstruction of old rules and norms in countless facets:
- sexual morality: masturbation, pre-marital sex, interracial sex, promiscuity, sexual orientation
- marriage and divorce: less pressure to marry due to unplanned pregnancy
- parenting: choose when to have a child, or not to have a child
- women empowerment and family: no longer default to housewife, labour market participation, challenge traditional family structures
- feminism and gender equality: consciousness of systemic sexism
- gender identity: non-binary, distinguishing sex and gender
- LGBT increasingly acknowledged, accepted, and celebrated
These paradigm shifts that came at a phenomenal pace.
Meanwhile, it’s also important to remember what didn’t change.
The traditional family unit proved very difficult to displace.
Monoheteronormamativity – the assumption that the only type of relationship is a monogamous one between a straight man and a straight woman – persists in many parts of the world.
And despite deep concerns in the 60s and 70s about a growing hyper-sexualised popular culture, the current generation are not sex-craving machines.
And on marriage, while society has rewritten the meaning and form – away from the traditional Judeo-Christian sense of a formal union – it continues to resonate with the mainstream as a key pinnacle of a long-term relationship. Myself included.
“The second sexual revolution was more than just a change in sexual behavior. It was a shift in ideology: a rejection of a cultural order in which all kinds of sex were had (un-wed pregnancies were on the rise decades before the advent of the Pill), but the only type of sex it was acceptable to have was married, missionary and between a man and a woman. If this was oppression, it followed that doing the reverse — that is to say, having lots of sex, in lots of different ways, with whomever you liked — would be freedom.
But today’s twentysomethings aren’t just distinguished by their ethic of openmindedness. They also have a different take on what constitutes sexual freedom; one that reflects the new social rules and regulations that their parents and grandparents unintentionally helped to shape. – Sexual revolution revisited, Time
Either way, the pill changed a lot of things. And sex robots may change even more.
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Continue to Part 2:
Sex Robots: The Third Sexual Revolution (Part 2/2)
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This Person Does Not Exist: Deep Fakes and Synthetic Truth