Robot love: The race to create the ultimate AI sex partner

We are a long way from realistic sexbots, but as they evolve, what ethical issues will arise?

“McMullen moves behind [Harmony] and flips a switch. He turns her on. Slowly her head lifts and her eyes open. Her body remains motionless: it contains no moving parts. All of the two-way interaction comes from the neck up. In Matt’s hand is the iPad running the app that controls Harmony’s AI, Harmony’s brains.”

In her new book Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots, Kate Devlin, a researcher in the fields of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and AI at King's College London, describes her first encounter with Harmony, the prototype sex robot developed at Abyss Creations in San Marcos, California by its chief executive Matt McMullen. Harmony has the lifeless silicone body of a sex doll but her head is 100 per cent robotic and comes equipped with an artificially intelligent brain of sorts so "she" can tilt her head towards you, blink, and hold a conversation (in a soft Scottish accent).

Harmony will be available to buy as a standalone robotic head ($8,000-$10,000) or you can also purchase the body ($6,000-plus), which is made of a flesh-like silicone, and has stainless steel joints that allow the dolls to be posed. Those who simply want to enjoy Harmony’s personality can get the app, which features the AI-powered chatbot in the guise of a customisable 3D avatar.


As Abyss Creations gets ready to ship their first RealBotix sex robot, I ask Devlin what buyers are hoping for: sexual release, a substitute for companionship, or something that they hope might love them back?


“I think there are kind of two kinds of people interested in sex robots,” says Devlin. “There are those who definitely want companionship, they are the people who buy sex dolls because they have this dream of a companionable life. There are people who get these sex dolls, dress them up, and even give them back stories and personalities. They play at having a life with a sex doll that represents a real woman.”

Then there are the fetishists, she adds. “They want to have sex with a doll. They are not interested in being with a real woman and they like the idea of the robotics and the programmable nature of it all. It says a lot about the idea of looking at women as something to be programmed.”

And in the interest of some sort of balance, there is a male sex robot in development at Abyss Creations. His name is Henry, and Devlin indicates that if the current male sex doll market is anything to go by, Henry is likely to be left on the shelf.

“The sex dolls we have today are very much a microcosm of the technology sector in that they are made by men for a default straight male audience. Maybe it is because no one has ever marketed these things to women or maybe women want something different for another reason,” she muses.

Social interaction with the doll is a stand-in for a real partner, even though some buyers are in relationships

If one (mostly accurate) assumption is that sex robots are being designed for men by men, then another assumption is that it is inherently creepy to own one. Although sex dolls, in various incarnations, have been around for quite a while, there is a stigma around their use, and making them high-tech and somewhat interactive may not change this. You’re not going to drop the purchase of a sex robot into conversation like you would with a new iPhone.

“There’s a lot of judgment about it and there is a big misconception that [owners] are all isolated people hiding away in their bedroom. That might be true in some instances, but what I find interesting is the community that has formed amongst sex doll owners. They chat to each other on online forums and go on holiday together, sometimes bringing their dolls along.

“Social interaction with the doll is a stand-in for a real partner, even though some are married or in relationships, but the doll is something they want in their lives as well. Some people even buy sex dolls just to pose them and photograph them.”


One sex doll owner recently hosted an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on online forum Reddit for those curious about the motivations for buying one. “It’s the closest thing you will get to a human. I have it set in the same way I used to cuddle with my ex. (I know – I’m so pathetic.) I honestly prefer using it as a cuddle companion rather than a sex toy.”

It partially explains why a handful of small companies around the world are so intent on incorporating cutting-edge technology, because they know there is money to be made by catering to the lonely.

As these dolls become more lifelike in appearance, movement and conversational interaction in the near future, there are legal and ethical considerations. In the event that a sex robot can behave in a lifelike manner indistinguishable from that of a human being, will they need to give consent? When it gets to the point of robots being so hyper-realistic, how do we then think about the ethics of engaging with robots for sexual purposes?

“We are just so far away from having a realistically human robot. At the moment there is only the RealRobotix one that doesn’t move from the neck down – it only has an animatronic face and you could never mistake it for human,” explains Devlin.

“We’re certainly not going to see realistic humanoid robots in the next few decades, but if we look at the stand-alone aspects of the AI without the body, we are seeing a lot of work where people are asking how it can be ethically addressed.”

We might never have machines that think for themselves. If we did then we absolutely have to rethink consent

Devlin gives the example of Google Duplex, which was demonstrated at the Google I/O 2018 conference. The audience was treated to a phone call made by an advanced virtual assistant that deliberately simulated the natural quirks of human speech including pauses and the hems and haws of filler words.

“Google showed that you could fool people into thinking that this kind of AI was a real person. I’m part of a large AI and ethics community of researchers and we are all very worried about the idea of deception. We feel very strongly that people should have transparency around what is real and what is not when it comes to AI.”

Meanwhile, when it comes to consent, she explains that you don’t need to ask a robot because it is just an object, a machine. “We might never have machines that think for themselves, we might never have conscious machines. If we did then we absolutely have to rethink consent. The fear comes from what happens if we ignore consent – if that spills into real life. We don’t have any evidence at all to suggest that is the case.”


But there is one sex robot designer out there who is looking to incorporate reciprocity into his creation. Sergi Santos is a Barcelona-based engineer who, alongside his wife Maritsa Kissamitaki, has created Samantha, a sensor-based computer system that he has adapted to work with existing sex dolls. Samantha can "feel" someone's touch, respond to positive interactions, and vocalise her approval when various sensors are activated.

I suggest to Devlin that this preprogrammed enthusiasm is somehow even creepier than a mute sex doll. She says: “It is an odd thing. His intentions were good but I’m not convinced he was going the right way about it.”

What is the right way to think about the future of sex tech? Devlin thinks it will and is already moving away from the female, seductive, hyper-sexualised robots we often see in sci-fi films and towards technology that will either connect humans for remote intimacy or serve as a proxy for intimacy but in creative ways. She has already investigated this by running the first-ever series of sex tech hackathons where technologists, creatives and academics got together to envision how technology might enhance sex and romance.

“We got 50 people together and they worked in teams of four or five for 24 hours to prototype new forms of technology for intimacy that moves away from the idea of a humanlike form. It was absolutely fascinating: we looked at things like repurposing and reprogramming existing sex toys so they respond to different things like music or hand gestures,” she explains.

Robot tentacles

There were also unique ideas such as soft robot tentacles that could curl around a body part while being controlled by someone else, or a sensory hammock that can inflate and squeeze or hug you, or even a shawl with inbuilt sensors for a mixed-reality environment where you see rose petals falling from the sky and “feel” them land on your skin.

For those worried that sex tech invariably means the downfall of humanity as people substitute interactions with sex robots for human intimacy, Devlin thinks this is unlikely. These robots will probably remain as niche as sex dolls. Meanwhile, we are increasingly comfortable talking to Siri and Alexa. Falling in love with an advanced AI voice assistant like Joaquin Phoenix's character in the Spike Jonze film Her is a more likely dystopian scenario.

“What I would like to see happen is to move away from this idea of a human form and explore what we can do in terms of wearable or immersive technology to create intimate experiences for people who don’t have anyone and want companionship or experiences the people can share mutually – for people in long-distance relationships, for example. Or even if your partner is away and you just want a hug,” says Devlin.

“I think that’s where the interesting parts of sex technology lie, not in this quite redundant human form that poorly mimics a real person.”