Intimacy is being technologized for a long time now. Will further technologization of human sexuality take way of increasingly sophisticated hardware and more authentic sex robots, or will it be focused more on virtual reality? We asked about these questions British cyberneticist Lynne Hall, who works both in the field of theory as well as in applied development.
Despite all the effort of making technology and science more open for women, there are still not many women specialists in robotics and cybernetics. Is my observation right? Why do you think it is so? Are social robotics a feasible way to change this situation?
There are more women involved in social robotics, however, there are still many more men than women. Computer Science is a masculine discipline. It has been mainly constructed by men and has values, approaches and attitudes that can be unattractive or even toxic for women. For example, Tech Entrepreneur culture is often not effective nor attractive for many women.
Notably, some things that could have been CS have migrated elsewhere. For example, social media and digital content have escaped to media, design and marketing where there are more women.
Social robotics, similar to other fields where there are more women in Computer Science, seems somehow of less value or relevance than more male-dominated areas. For example, in the UK REF labels / keywords for papers, areas such as social robotics, affective computing, etc. are not within the list.
However… I am not sure why more women have to be engaged in CS. We don’t very often encourage men to get involved in professions where women dominate. Perhaps women will be more engaged in what comes next – once the infrastructure ready.
Are sexual robots, or robots as possible life companions able to "negatively affect" traditional relationships in any way or can this question even be put this way? What are the arguments for those concerned about some form of contamination of human society by machines? Are the times when we will be "allowed" to marry some very sophisticated machine anywhere near?
This view of technology as harmful has been ever present. The view is often a fear of change, a desire for life to stay the same and is often one generation trying to stop change as the next generation emerges. However, this change, of robots as life (sex) companions isn’t going to happen anytime soon and perhaps is grounded more in science fiction than what people would want or will be able to have technologically.
I do not believe that we will have humanistic sex robots in the near future. Not if they are meant to have significant movement. The hardware is heavy, noisy, gets hot, etc. The most successful social robots are not very lifelike at all. There are some great examples of lifelike sex toys such as Real Doll – but this is a doll – it is not stuffed with mechanics. People have relationships and ‘love’ their dolls – however, it is a niche sexual sub-culture rather than a prediction of the future. The doll does not love back – and the development focus in sex dolls is towards them being social rather than skilled sexual partners or active in any physical way.
I am not convinced that we will have robots as life companions. Instead I think our homes will take on the role of companion using multiple devices to support us across many elements of our lives. One of these devices could be a sex robot. However, this will not be companion-like it will provide functionality probably tied to a VR experience. Just as the robot hoover does not look like a maid, nor will our sex robot look like a gigolo (or at least the hardware won’t).
Does a sexual robot need to be able to show emotions, to function socially? Is there any research on the question? Do „human users“ prefer for their robot to have its sexual functions separated from its emotional functions? And do sexual robots even need to look like humans at all?
I would suggest that sex robots will be composed of sex toy components such as fleshlights or wearables – such as a bodysuit incorporating ultra haptics / sensory feedback. Experiencing the sex toy will be via a VR headset / rig with a VR experience where the person will participate in the narrative and interact with their VR lovers.
It is likely that as part of their VR sex experience many people will want to experience a social and emotional connection with their virtual lover. This will be possible using a conversational agent and the VR lovers along with the technology providing the experience will feedback data and learn how to improve the experience.
Do you think there will be any reason left for the huge pornographic industry to exist when sexual robots will be authentic enough and ready for everyday interaction?
Definitely. I also think that the scenario where sexual experiences occur in VR along with sex toys / wearables offers a huge opportunity for the pornographic industry. They could produce a wide range of narratives and experiences – offering a range of sexual partners and cultures really enhancing leisure sex. This could offer an alternative to the dominant VR experiences of games involving killing and adventure, to experiences about pleasure and sexual enjoyment.
How wide is the research on sexual robotics nowadays? It seems to me that it is a quickly evolving academic field, but when it comes to „real material“, don't you still suffer from a “lack of data" so to say?
There is some research on sexual robotics. However, there are technological challenges that we have not yet solved for the creation of a humanoid sexual robot.
In particular, whilst penetrative sex may be easy to develop in VR and the related sex toy components already exist, there is little research on how we create a realistic, sensual human mouth or enable a robot to kiss. There are researchers working on this and on olfactory and gustatory interfaces – but it is very early days. There may be lots of research in technology companies perhaps or in collaboration with the porn sector, however, in academia research is frequently about speculation – what sex robots might be and what the societal implications of that might be, rather than focusing on how to develop the technology that would enable technologically enhanced sex.
There is plenty of data about sex, with significant research in human sexuality and physical / sensory responses, along with sex toys already collecting data in our connected homes. Plenty of data on what people are purchasing to support their sex lives.
A key issue for sexual robotics is to move away from the science fiction robot trope of robot as pseudo-person. Instead of one big bit of technology that encompasses everything instead the goal should be specialised components / wearables and VR as the activity space.
Do you think that people will, in a situation where everyone is sexually satisfied by sexual robots, virtual reality or other forms of new sexual encounters formed by new technologies, finally have those ideal, harmonic relationships?
We will enjoy new ways to experience sex.
It is likely we will have some form of hardware connected to VR providing sexual activities with virtual experiences. These spaces and the hardware components will also enable us to have sex with other people as well as virtual characters. This would support relationships where partners are not co-located. And would allow casual, virtual hook-ups that could be safer than meeting in person.
Each of these new approaches to engaging in sexual activity will have positives and negatives, they will work for some people and not for others. There will be fear of harms, of addiction and with the media typically focusing strongly on these, this negative view could dominate. But, it is not correct, with home-based techno-sex offering control, safety and enjoyment in novel ways of experiencing sex.
Whilst sex has some impact on ideal and harmonic relations, it is rarely a key factor for disharmony with money, work, family, etc. more likely culprits. However, if more people are sexually satisfied, perhaps it is more likely that they are happier and thus perhaps society overall would be more convivial.
Lynne Hall is a Professor of Computer Science and a member of the British Computer Society. Her research focuses on UX design and evaluation, especially on issues of immersive experience, user trust and the impact of technology on education.