Sex and Robots: An Interview With Dr. Kate Devlin

By JP O Malley on at

Whenever the words "sex" and "robots" find their way into the mainstream media, the narrative tends to be more farcical soap opera than a reflection of reality: where a histrionic and sensationalist tone dictates the terms of the conversation.

Kate Devlin experienced this first hand back in 2016, following a speech she gave at the Second International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots.

Yes,that's a real academic conference (now into its fourth year) so don't laugh. The senior lecturer at the Department of Computing at Goldsmiths University based her talk on an article she wrote a year previously. That went viral, suggesting that there may be some benefits in using sex technology to help assist the day-to-day lives of marginalised groups such as the elderly, or those with a disability.

Not long afterwards, however, Britain's great bastion of conservative social mores, the Daily Mail, ran an article with the headline: “Sex robots could be used in old people's homes”.

“I got completely misrepresented [in that article],” the 41-year-old explains from her home in London, with a tone of caution, while also laughing at the absurdity of mindless-moral-panic.

“I was talking about care-companion robots, which are already out there in use,” Devlin adds, “and I mentioned there could be a sexual function to these as well.”

At any rate, the market is already one step ahead of Devlin's suggestion.There is now a number of companies across the globe promising the rather odd prospect of humans having sexual intercourse with machines.

Devlin explores this subject in a playful and humorous manner in her recently published book, Turned On: Science Sex and Robots.

Readers are given a warning fairly early on, however: sex robots don't fully exist just yet, and it's only in the last year that they are making the transition from lifeless dolls to robots who can think, talk, flirt, and even seduce their horny and lustful human counterparts.

But for now it's all still a bit of a pipe dream.

For starters, the technology is still in its infancy, as Devlin explains. “This is all so niche. There is maybe a handful of people world-wide producing these [robots]. And they are not actually shipping them yet.”

“The sex robots in China, for example, tend to be dolls with some moaning noises, but some of them don't even have AI. So it's all very basic.”

“The robotics just isn't there yet,” Devlin goes on. “The AI might get better,but the ability to build human-like-robots on such a niche scale – with such limited technology – means it probably won't happen any time [soon].”

The tone of the conversation today is jovial, lighthearted, and humorous. Mainly because Devlin doesn't believe there is much concern for moral panic: sexual mores won't be altering any time soon. Moreover, the probability that robots will “fuck us to death” – as this publication suggested two years ago – is just very unlikely in the near to medium future.

“This subject is surrounded by huge amounts of tabloid hype and panic. People are generally scared of technological progress. And so when you suggest their most intimate experience – sex – might be replaced by a robot, that is a massive threat. So it's understandable that there is fear.”

But even at their preliminary stages, what do these work-in-progress-sex-robots actually look and sound like? Researching her latest book, Devlin met face-to-face with two of them: Harmony and Samantha.

“Harmony is made by a company called Real Doll in the United States,” Devlin explains. “This sex doll company has been making high end sex dolls for about 14 years now. And they have made a robot that is one of the doll's bodies.”

“It doesn't move from the neck down, but it's got an electronic head, and [Real Doll] has given [Harmony] an AI personality. So this doll is aiming for a kind of flirty sexual interaction.”

Samantha, meanwhile – built by a Spanish man called Sergi Santos – is essentially a garage built sex robot.

“Samantha has some in built robots and sensors to the arms and breasts. The idea is that you would have to woo her, and be nice to her; and eventually you could give Samantha an orgasm.”

Given that robots – for now at least – possess no sentient feelings, or anything even remotely resembling human consciousness, having sex with them involves no level of legal consent.

Devlin points out that certain anti sex robot campaigners have begun making an argument that suggests encouraging a culture where humans can freely have sex with robots – without consent – could see such a situation transforming into human society. Devlin, however, disagrees.

“The idea that people will buy a sex doll or robot, just so they can act out a violent sexual act on it doesn't really add up. In fact, the evidence points to the opposite.”

She says it's important to make a couple of distinctions when looking at this issue. Firstly, drawing a firm line between sex dolls and sex robots. Sex dolls are lifeless, mannequin-like creatures. They have been on the global sex toy market for quite some time. Sex robots, meanwhile, are still a work in progress.

“If we look at the current sex doll market, the people buying those are treating them really well. Not least because they are spending £5,000 on them.But they are very respectful of the dolls also.”

That said, there is some evidence to suggest that there are probably a handful of individuals in “the sex doll community” who are aggressive towards dolls, Devlin admits. However, there is no major evidence that this would ever spill into real life.

“For example, rape is a very popular sexual fantasy in [human] society, but [that fantasy] has no bearing of what people do or carry out in real life.”

It's also worth making parallels with the computer game argument here, “where concerns are made that video games violence will lead to real world violence.”

“The evidence clearly shows that has not been the case.”

Another question that has come up continually around the discussion of sex robots is: what is the possibility that childlike sex robots will emerge on the current market?

“There are small dolls being made that are child-like size,” Devlin admits. “And they often get described as a miniature version to take up less space in your home.”

Indeed, paedophiles are already making inroads to get their hands on these sex dolls. As Devlin points out, it's still a grey area, legally speaking, and needs to be tightened up to change with the times. In 2017, for example, there were a number of convictions in the UK for the importation of child-like sex dolls: with the National Crime Agency (NCA) monitoring imports closely.

Devlin notes that the NCA seized 123 dolls in just one year. However, the UK law – as it presently stands – has no specific legislation to deal with this scenario. Consequently, it is relying on antiquated customs laws to prosecute and convict those who are importing the dolls.

Still, the numbers are extremely low. “This is a very small proportion of what is going on overall in the sex-doll market,” Devlin points out.

And, just like most narratives that accompany sex robots, headlines tend to drive the story.

So, besides the histrionic cries of tabloid sensationalism and conservative moral panic, there really isn't a whole lot to be worried about. For now, the kinky world of sex robots is a cult camp with a niche audience, and it looks set to remain that way.

“Ultimately, humans are very good at seeking out other humans, and it may be that there is a path for intimate technologies.”

“But it won't be via these robots, it will be using technology to connect with other humans.”

Featured image: Harmony from RealDoll