/ 12 February 2008

Are robots the sex partners of the future?

“In the mood for a little skin-to-skin?” coos a lover slipping between the sheets.

“Not tonight,” mumbles the partner, turning around. “Just make it with the robot, if you want.”

A kinky sci-fi fantasy? Love and lust in the 23rd century? Not at all, says David Levy, a PhD in gender studies and artificial intelligence and author of Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relations.

By mid-century, predicts the 62-year-old expert, getting it on with an electronic femme fatale or a superstud sexbot will become an accepted part of the human landscape.

“Think of it: great sex on tap, 24/7,” he says, adding that people may even fall in love with their hard-wired sex slaves.

Not everyone embraces Levy’s vision of a future where humanoids guarantee satisfaction in bed along with pre-programmed post-coital conversation. But many agree it is on the cards, given exponential leaps in computer power, progress in mimicking human muscles and movements, and headway in artificial intelligence (AI) software to replicate emotions and personality.

“Already today, the best quality synthetic voices cannot be distinguished from human voices,” Levy says, adding that some artificial skins now rival the smoothest of baby bottoms.

Last November, researchers at Waseda University in Japan unveiled a robot, named Twendy-One, that can cook, talk, obey verbal commands and use its soft, silicone-wrapped hands — each equipped with 241 pressure sensors — to interact with humans.

Even so, it will be a long time, Levy acknowledges, before we cannot tell the difference between human and humanoid.

The sexbot Gigolo Joe played by Jude Law in Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film Artificial Intelligence: AI, providing chat and emotional support as well as sex, is at least 40 decades away, he thinks.

Not all AI experts agree. “I don’t think we will have convincing ‘human-like’ robots” within that time frame, says Frederic Kaplan, a researcher at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Kaplan, who pushed the envelope of robot intelligence in programming the brain of Sony’s eerily adorable robot dog Aibo, also wonders whether we even want robots made in our own image.

“Human-machine interactions will be interesting in their own right, not as ‘simulation’ of human relations,” he says.

But Levy is convinced the demand is there, and that market forces will provide the financial drive to overcome any technical — or psychological — obstacles.

“It is only a matter of time before someone in the adult entertainment industry, which is awash in money, thinks, ‘Gee, I could make a pile of money,'” he says.

A company in Japan, Axis, has already produced the world’s first, rudimentary sexbot — for men.

Called Honeydolls, the life-size figures are made from surgical-grade silicone and resin, and equipped with voice-emitting sensors in each breast. Pinch the nipples, and Cindy (or Soari or Maria, depending on the model) will react with a squeal and whisper pre-programmed sweet nothings in one’s ear.

Customised MP3 audio files can be substituted for a more personal touch. Price tag: $7 000 (about R54 000).

Women, too, are bound to be lured to sexbots, contends Levy.

“I don’t think that women will be any less attracted than men — they may be more attracted,” he says, pointing to a worldwide surge in the sale of vibrators, boosted by the lifting of taboos, ease of purchase and media endorsement.

Levy, who once made a living organising chess championships, unusually wrote his book first and then tweaked it to present it as a doctoral thesis at the University of Maastricht in The Netherlands. The work has generated what he calls a “tsunami” of media interest since its publication last year and from an unusually broad spectrum of publications.

“In March, I will be featured in Scientific American, and in April there will be an article in Hustler,” says the futurist.

But what for Levy is a dream of endless sex without guilt or disease is, for others, a nightmare of bleakness.

“I think it is far-fetched to think that human beings are going to fall in love with robots,” says New York-based sexologist Yvonne K Fulbright, author of numerous books on sex and sexuality.

She acknowledges that sexbots will probably find a niche market, especially with men seeking to fulfil fantasies their flesh-and-blood partners might be refusing. “But there will be a real stigma attached to sex robots. People are still going to feel like losers if that is their last resort,” she says.

Fulbright thinks Levy is even further off-base when it comes to women. It is a huge leap, she says, to think that because women stimulate themselves with gadgets that they are going to embrace robot partners. “Women may say that they adore and love their vibrators. But they don’t mean that they are in love with them,” she says. — AFP