When you’re growing up certain songs have a habit of sticking in the mind. For me, one of those songs was Connie Francis singing “Robot Man“, where Connie expressed her pining for a mechanical man, having concluded that the real flesh and blood kind were a waste of space:
“I want a robot man to hold me tight
One that I can count on every si-ingle night
He wouldn’t run around like other guys
I wouldn’t have to listen to his alibis
Three decades later Sarah Connor said as much the same thing in James Cameron’s sci-fi blockbuster Terminator: Judgment Day, only a little more eloquently. Observing her son, John Connor, building a rapport with the terminator robot (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent back from the future to protect him, she said to herself:
“Watching John with the machine, it was suddenly so clear. The terminator, would never stop. It would never leave him, and it would never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there. And it would die, to protect him. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice. “
Actually, the notion of robot love is becoming a serious issue. In Spike Jonze’s recent Oscar nominated (Best Picture and more) movie, Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a lonely man in the final stages of a divorce who falls in love with Samantha, his newly acquired computer OS billed as the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system. “It’s not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness,” runs the fictional advert for the Samantha OS. Siri, eat your heart out!
Meanwhile, the front cover of this month’s Sunday Observer Tech Monthly supplement shows an iRobot style android in post-coital embrace with a beautiful young woman, with the headline “Would You Make Love To A Robot?”.
Last November I ran a session during the London Science Museum’s fabulous Lates event, titled Robot Love: Sex & Relationships With Our Mechanical Playmates. We had a lot of people queuing up to get in, not least because it was one of the featured events, which shows that this is a topic of more than minor interest for many people.
Using on screen sci-fi examples which ranged from one of the earliest fembots, Maria in Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis,
through to the deliciously dangerous Number Six in the Battlestar Galactica reboot (played by the equally delicious Tricia Helfer),
and don’t fret ladies; I also featured Jude Law as Gigolo Joe in Stephen Spielberg’s AI.
I explained to my Science Museum audience that the idea of the robot as companion, lover or sexy siren has a longstanding pedigree in science fiction. And one of the themes that ran clearly through the sci-fi examples I uncovered was that robot lovers carried an element of danger and duplicity; you couldn’t trust them entirely not to try to kill you (and anyone you cared about).
The Valerie 23 episode from The Outer Limits reboot exemplified this. Here we have a female robotic companion who turns into a robot lover and then into a “hell hath no fury than a [robot] woman scorned”, a robotic version of Glen’s Close’s Alex in Fatal Attraction.
And in Eve of Destruction (a movie about an attractive female robot who just happens to have a nuclear bomb ticking away inside of her – this could lend new meaning to the phrase “she exploded in anger”) – which I also featured, we get to see what happens when one man’s penchant for oral sex gets mixed up with spitefulness and serious genital mutilation when he unwittingly tries to make out with a mechanoid.
But these examples are merely a reflection of the general unease we have about AI and robotics technologies, namely will they be driven by an impeccable logic to begin killing humans (as V.I.K.I the Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence controlling the robot population explained to the Will Smith character in the movie I, Robot)? Further examples of this are: the Skynet computer AI network in the Terminator series; Yul Brenner’s unstoppable gunslinger in Westworld; and Archos the newly created AI in Daniel H. Wilson’s novel Robopocalypse (soon – hopefully – to be a Spielberg movie).
Interestingly, Robopocalypse features a romantic relationship between an elderly Japanese man and a fembot who, because of her love for him, turns out to be the saviour of mankind (indirectly). Incidentally, the Japanese connection in Robopocalypse is not by accident; most of the developments in the area of robotic companionship are taking place in Japan, no doubt driven by the pressures that an increasingly aging population in Japan bring on that society’s ability to provide care and companionship for the elderly in future.
What is clear though is that real life robotics and sci fi robots are nowhere near in the same place. If you’re looking for a real life equivalent of Pris from Blade Runner, or Kelly Le Brock’s super sexy artificial woman created by those testerone-primed teenagers in Weird Science, then prepare to be very disappointed.
But why in any event – you may ask – would any sane person prefer Metal Mickeys (or Michelles) to flesh and blood human beings?
Well in the arena currently called “sexual preferences” we find all kinds of odd behavior. We’re familiar with stories of bestiality that circulate from time to time, some of which are true (I remember in 2004 watching a UK Channel 4 documentary called “Animal Passions”, which gave new meaning to the phrase “heavy petting”).
But it doesn’t stop with our furry friends. Just ask Robert Stewart (left), convicted of public indecency in 2007, exactly what was he was doing caught half naked with that bicycle in Ayr in South West Scotland?
Or ask Karl Watkins – what exactly was it that you were doing with that pavement in Redditch, UK, in 1993 after being reported seen lying face down on the pavement with his trousers around his ankles?
And then ask the 32 year-old man arrested in Westbury, Wiltshire, UK in 2008, what he was doing with that lamppost?
(Or maybe even question the Polish contractor caught in 2008 on his knees with a Henry Hoover vacuum cleaner in a hospital staff canteen, who later claimed he was merely “cleaning his underpants”).
In this light, the notion of robot love may appear (to some) less extreme than we would otherwise imagine. Certainly Douglas Hines, the self-billed “inventor of the world’s first sex robot”, a mechanoid doll named Roxxxy, thinks so and believes there’s a market out there for this sort of thing.
Roxxy is (it is claimed) the ultimate mechanical mate, the pinnacle of achievement in robot romance. Roxxxy – we are told – is the future in human-machine relations, though one look at Roxxxy might persuade us that if this is indeed the future then it’s not particularly one to look forward to.
In which case, I think we’re pretty much safe from seeing tabloid headlines such as “Brad ditches desperate Angelina for foxy Roxxxy” anytime soon.
There are however those who truly believe that human sexual relationships with robotic creations is inevitable. One such “believer” is Dr David Levy, author of Love & Sex with Robots. Here’s what Dr Levy had to say:
“My thesis is this: robots will be hugely attractive to humans as companions because of their many talents, senses, and capabilities. They will have the capacity to fall in love with humans and to make themselves romantically attractive and sexually desirable to humans. Robots will transform human notions of love and sexuality. I am not suggesting that most people will eschew love and sex with humans in favor of relationships with robots, though some undoubtedly will … Humans will fall in love with robots, humans will marry robots, and humans will have sex with robots, all as (what will be regarded as) “normal” extensions of our feelings of love and sexual desire for other humans“.
Actually I happen to disagree with Levy in certain key areas. I don’t think sex with Robots is going to become normalised any more than sex with animals or bicycles will; and just because something becomes possible doesn’t mean that it then becomes broadly acceptable, or even right. Nonetheless, I would concede that given the human tendency to explore extremes, it’s inevitable like it or not that as robotic technology develops, sex and relationships with robotic companions will move into the weirder fringes of the spectrum of human behaviour. With the “adult entertainment” industry always keen to “push the boundaries” and experiment with new technologies and “services”, there will always be a level of supply and demand for this kind of novelty. And to this extent maybe Levy’s arguments do have some merit.
Roxxxy aside, what we do see now though in the real world is a variety of developments in robotics and AI which suggest that the concept of robot companionship is coming ever closer to reality, as we can see from this video:
And even if the notion of sex with robots becoming an everyday thing might strain credulity, we are seeing the production of robots whose responsive and / or conversational capabilities are being developed to a point where the idea of having a robot companion or helper, as in the recent movie Robot & Frank, no longer looks far-fetched. The robot seal pups in the following video show how far we’ve come:
What lies ahead then? As the development of robotics and AI proceeds with increasing pace (witness Google’s recent entry into this market arena) we may wonder where ultimately the relationship between humans and robots will lead us? As certain governments – the US in particular – press ahead with the use of armed autonomous robotic systems for military purposes (“Killer Robots” as the International Committee for Robot Arms Control calls them) to “serve and protect” us, many believe we are flirting with danger. Yes, perhaps not the cataclysmic ending for humanity we see in the Terminator movie series, but nevertheless a world where the value of human life is not weighed but simply calculated.
So what happens then when we start flirting with robots? Yes, maybe for a few of us there might be the excitement or novelty of pioneering relationships with artificial lifeforms. But we already know what happens when sex gets cheapened don’t we? Especially when a price tag can be put on sexual encounters (e.g. prostitution), which inevitably will be the case with your Roxxxy Mk III purchased for $xxx.xx from Best Buy or online at Amazon.com. Is it at all surprising that despite the efforts of the 19th Century reformers, slavery is on the increase worldwide, in many ways due to the sex trafficking trade (Soroptimist claims that each year an estimated 800,000 women and children are trafficked across international borders)? The problem, as I see it, is that sex with robots also cheapens human life; maybe not as directly as killer robots do but nonetheless perniciously, and more stealthily than any unmanned drone. It is about how we value ourselves. And inevitably, how we value ourselves will affect how we value others. If a man can make fembots respond to him merely at the flick of a remote control switch, what will he come to expect from real flesh and blood women?
And there’s another way of looking at this too. What will this say about how we value robots? No, I’m not talking here about robot rights and the like; that’s for another day. But it strikes me that if, with all the billions of dollars investment in robotics and AI, our crowning achievement lies in making out with machines, what then does that tell us about human society and what we truly value? Still, many of us carry around with us in our pockets machines more powerful than the computers that sent men to the moon in the late 1960s – yes, smartphones – and what do we mostly use them for? Games and porn I suspect. Maybe that says it all then?