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It might seem creepy to some but developments in artificial intelligence mean that intimacy with robots is not just the stuff of science fiction

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Kate Devlin isn’t fazed by talking about sex in public places. Taking a break from marking her students’ work, she’s come to the Prospect of Whitby, a pleasant waterside pub near her home in Wapping to discuss her new book Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots and isn’t concerned that we’re in earshot of a middle-aged couple who are enjoying the views of London’s docklands from the terrace.

“It might not even be about sex – it might be intimacy, it might be about companionship.”

Devlin, senior lecturer in the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London, has been involved in human computer interaction for over 10 years. And despite her love of puns – “Everything you think you know about vibrators is a phallusy” is just one example from her book – the intention behind her work is serious. Rather than the mechanics of how to actually build sex robots, it’s the ethical questions about the development of artificial intelligence (AI) that first whetted Devlin’s appetite for the subject of the intimate relationships we have, or could have, with machines.

“I was looking at people trying to build artificial intelligence and trying to mimic human attributes,” Devlin says. “What attributes should we be putting into the machine, and what shouldn’t we? What happens if we make machines that are influenced by the same kind of things that we as humans are influenced by – things like sex?”

Aged 42 and from Northern Ireland – “quite a conservative place to grow up” – Devlin isn’t the first academic to explore the field of sex and robots. Her own book builds on, and critiques, the work of David Levy, for example, whose Love And Sex With Robots put forward the idea that by 2050 human robot marriages would be acceptable. Despite “some raised eyebrows” from fellow academics when she started down this research path, says Devlin, “a nice little community” has developed in the area of “AI ethics”, a field that is now being taken more seriously.

Robots of one kind or another have been around for years, mechanising all kinds of tasks that humans used to do, from car manufacturing to bomb disposal. Most don’t look human, but think of a “sex robot” and it’s likely you’ll conjure up an image of a human, usually a female shaped, highly sexualised android that apes human behaviour.

“People have been thinking for years about creating the artificial lover who will look like your perfect partner,” says Devlin, who documents in her wide-ranging book how, for example, in the Greek myth about Laodamia, a woman commissions a bronze likeness of her dead husband and is caught “interacting” with it. “But it’s only in the past couple of years that people have tried to build them. And humans are really bad at building human like robots so we’ve ended up with these unrealistic, pornified, highly sexualised overgrown Barbies. You couldn’t mistake them for human.”

The pornified Barbie robots to which she refers are created by companies such as Abyss Creations in the US, which have been producing the sexualised silicone RealDolls for years. They have now started using animatronic heads and AI applications to develop “robots” such as Harmony and, most recently Henry, the Ken to Harmony’s Barbie. But these are a long way off from the “synths” seen in Channel Four’s science fiction drama Humans however, in which synthetic humanoid androids begin to gain consciousness. For a start Harmony can’t – yet – stand or move her limbs, and she certainly doesn’t have the ability to think for herself.

“There have been big advances in machine learning, which is essentially working with lots of data and doing a lot of processing on it to generate new patterns,” says Devlin, but adds, the day when we see human-shaped, self-aware androids truly interacting with us is a long way off, if it ever comes at all.

“There are people who say we will never get a machine that will think for itself. Others say we just haven’t found the right way of doing it.” Devlin admits to being on the fence. “It might happen and if it did we might not recognise it. It might be a different type of consciousness, a different type of sentience that we don’t recognise.”

And ultimately, she says, despite the tabloids getting “over excited” about the prospect, the sex robot in a fully workable form is never going to be a big thing. Impressed as she was by the detail that goes into the current RealDolls, as described in her book when she visits Abyss Creations, it’s a niche community that uses them and it’s unlikely that the mechanised versions will ever reach a mass market.

Still, whilst we may not be getting a sentient, artificially intelligent lover anytime soon, in terms of our relationships with machines, there’s a lot more to explore. Devlin is interested in how we form bonds with our technology. “People treat the [current] AI as if it knows what it’s doing,” she says. “So you get people having conversations with Alexa, Siri and things like that.

“What happens if people form more and more intimate bonds [with technology]? Will that benefit us? Is that something to worry about?”

Devlin cites the work of Julie Carpenter, a researcher whose PhD thesis looks at the use of robots in the US military. She reports on teams who form close attachments to the bomb disposal robots they work alongside, who admit feeling angry and sad when their robots are destroyed on the battlefield, even going
as far as holding funerals for them.

“There are lots of these examples where people have these kinds of bonds with their technology even when they are perfectly aware that it’s just a machine,” says Devlin. There’s Paro, for example, a therapeutic robot in the shape of a cute seal pup, which has been the subject of numerous studies in care home settings over the last few years for its anxiety-reducing effects. In March this year, Brighton University concluded a study into the robot with the lead researcher saying Paro would soon receive medical device status in the UK for use with people who have dementia and learning difficulties.

With relationships already existing between humans and machines then, the idea of something more sexual, or at least intimate, is not totally unthinkable, even if it’s not with a physical object. Devlin notes how the film Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix develops a loving relationship with an operating system called Samantha, played by Scarlett Johansson, is “perfectly feasible”.

“Today you can have a relationship online with someone you have never met and you could be telling them all your secrets and talking to them all day and not know that it’s a bot,” she says. “Look at Google’s Duplex project, which was revealed a few months ago, where they have an AI that can phone someone up and make noises such as ‘hmmm, umm, yeah’, so it leads people to think it’s a conversation with a human.”

The idea of sexual contact between humans and machines is not without its critics, of course. The Campaign Against Sex Robots, established by Kathleen Richardson, professor of ethics and culture of robots and AI at De Montfort University, is calling for a ban of both AI lovers and sex dolls such as those sold by Abyss. Their objection is predicated on the fact that robots like Harmony objectify women and open the doors to all kinds of abuse, allowing men to perpetrate acts of violence on women-shaped robots, for example, that could then manifest into real-life violence against real women.

Devlin, who has debated the issues with Richardson in the past, and who writes about the campaign in her book, agrees with some of CASR’s objections, but doesn’t think a total ban on sex robots is the answer. “There’s no evidence base for a ban,” she says, “[and within] the sex doll community, there’s no evidence of harm.”

But another of CASR’s objections, the fact that robots in the form of children could be developed and used for sexual purposes, is an area Devlin agrees is a concern. “We know there are people out there who have brought child-sized sex dolls,” she says. “It’s currently illegal to import those into this country and people have been prosecuted for it.”

When there is regulation of the development of sex robots, it should be in this area, says Devlin. But while the production of these robots remains a threat, “it’s not a big threat. No one is going to admit to making these kinds of things. They are not going to be able to sell them publicly.”

Devlin also agrees with CASR that the current sex robot technology is driven by heterosexual, mainly white men and that they objectify women. Will that ever change? Yes, says Devlin. “If I have anything to do with it, sex tech is going to take on a new form.”

It was with this aim in mind that she started the Sex Tech Hackathon in 2016, an event, repeated in 2017, during which computer scientists and developers come together with artists, designers, sex toy manufacturers and musicians to develop new kinds of intimate technologies that didn’t look human at all.

“There were virtual reality experiences,” says Devlin. “We had people making shawls with sensors in that could trigger sensations on your skin.” Another of her favourites: “this other weird tentacle thing which curls around your arm”. She shows a video on her phone of a four-pointed starfish-like robot made out of pale pink silicone that is controlled remotely. “It fits around any part of the body,” Devlin explains. “It’s unisex, and someone else can control it or you can control it yourself.”

Apart from the physical pleasure that such technologies can bring, Devlin hopes future developments in sex tech will bring other benefits. “We can make things that enhance human relationships or even give people a relationship that they wouldn’t have,” she says. “It might not even be about sex – it might be about intimacy, it might be about companionship. There’s scope to do a lot of interesting things.”

She’s particularly interested in tech that could reach marginalised communities. “Surveys have shown people wanting to have sex in their eighties and nineties, and it’s not being facilitated when they move into nursing homes. People seem quite horrified at the idea that you might want to develop, not sex robots, but sex technology for older users. But why not?”

Devlin, diagnosed as bi-polar following a breakdown while researching her PhD, also sees possible applications to enable people with certain mental health conditions to explore intimacy. “We know that virtual reality has been used very successfully to combat social anxiety, for example.”

But she’s aware that even these kinds of developments will be controversial.

“You will get people saying human to human contact is the ideal thing and no one should be replaced by a machine. And that’s fine but there aren’t enough humans to go around. I’m not saying replace all the humans with machines. But if we have got a gap there and we can somehow bridge it with something constructive then let’s use that. It’s providing assistance rather replacing it.”

She ends her book on a positive note, where technology can bring people closer together and new communities can be formed, but the barrier to this is fear, says Devlin. “That fear of loss of control, that fear of loss of agency. People are really worried that they will get replaced by something, whether it’s a machine in a factory or a driverless car, or being replaced by a machine by your partner.”

Turned On: Science, Sex And Robots (Bloomsbury, £16.99) is out now

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