Sexbots vs Carebots

Aviva Rutkin, writing for New Scientist wrote a piece last week prodding at the moral panic around sexbots and arguing that there is a substantial disparity between titillating reporting on sexbots and their actual manufacture, sale and future use. I really appreciate that she ends up connecting the viability of home robots with the moral and material valuations of different kinds of labor.

To get there, she takes us on a journey that begins with the dazzling appeal of reporting on sexbots. Not only are sex robots “recession proof” as objects – or so says sexbot maker Douglas Hines – but the headlines sexbots (and their moralistic condemnation) can garner are no doubt providing endless thrills for analytics-obsessed journalists.

Yet notwithstanding the dazzling appeal of reporting on sexbots, sex is not likely to be the only kind of home robot. Care robots are coming onto the market, albeit their emergence is rather slow, and their designs are embarrassingly somewhere between cuddly and uncanny.

But public opinion is not falling in step. People are still unsure about (or downright uncomfortable with) outsourcing care for the elderly and children to machinery. And how interesting that is, or perhaps it’s just absurd, given that this kind of work is some of the least respected and lowest paying work.

Read below.

Why granny’s only robot will be a sex robot

Not Like Us is Aviva Rutkin’s monthly column exploring the minds of intelligent machines – and how we live with them

A robot bear to care for you


Douglas Hines started out with what sounded like a nice idea.

In the early 2000s, the former Bell Labs engineer was busy caring for his elderly father and building his own technology business. That’s when he first came up with the idea for a companion robot: a machine that could look after his dad and keep him in touch with the outside world via webcam.

Hines started working on a prototype, but ran into trouble finding financial and legal support for the project. So he gave up, and instead turned his attentions to Roxxxy, a life-size sexbot dressed in filmy black lingerie (“always turned on and ready to talk or play!”). That gambit was far more successful. As Hines deadpanned in an interview with IEEE Spectrum in 2010, adult entertainment is “recession-proof”.

Hines’s story is a good allegory for the wider landscape of care robots: five years later, sexbots, though not yet exactly flying off shelves, have stoked enough cultural interest to inflame a widely covered campaign to ban them. Meanwhile, care robots for the elderly remain stuck in sociocultural purgatory. They’re the flying skateboards of the service industry: always predicted, always trotted out as an example of the future, perpetually just out of reach. It’s time to admit that the problem with this vision isn’t the technology. It’s us.

On the surface, the fates of sexbots and carebots should not be so divergent. Both are mechanised stand-ins for roles that are typically undervalued and ill-treated in society, with neither ethically straightforward to replace. Neither will work without a robot that can move around on its own and do some heavy lifting. Both would work even better with some level of social or emotional intelligence built in, to better respond to human needs.

Where are all the robots?

It’s especially curious that the carebot revolution has not taken place, in light of how direly we need it to. In the UK, the number of citizens over the age of 65 is expected to surge by 12 per cent by 2020; and the number of over-85s by 18 per cent. Reports have identified care for the elderly as one of the fastest-growing roles in healthcare.

It’s certainly not a lack of robots that’s causing the hold-up. A bevy of recent prototypes includes Toyota Research Labs’ Robear to lift people out of bed, wheelie bot Zenbo, which can call for help in an emergency, and the seal pup Paro, which takes on the emotional labour of fuzzy companionship. In a demo video for Robot-Era, a project recently piloted in Italy and Sweden, “friendly machines” pick up groceries and mail, relay video calls, take out the rubbish, provide reminders about medication, and take their owners’ arms as they stroll down the street.

But how well will these sell? Not very, if you believe surveys. It seems that people don’t like the idea of carebots looking after their vulnerable relatives. Of more than 25,000 people questioned in a 2012 survey of attitudes in the European Union, 60 per cent thought robots that care for children, the elderly and the disabled should be banned outright; and 86 per cent said they would be uncomfortable with one caring for their children or parents (though many more were OK with the idea of a robotic assistant and even a surgeon).

In a separate poll of people in the US, 65 per cent of respondents across all ages agreed that it would be a “change for the worse” if robots became the primary caregivers for the sick and elderly.

Why the squeamishness? We generally look forward to robots doing the chores for us, from answering emails to picking apples to defusing bombs, tirelessly, cheerfully, with uniform precision. (The word “robot”, in fact, is derived from the Czech word for forced labour.) It’s quite all right for a machine to carry out such demands, from the trivial to the tawdry.

On the surface, carebots look like mechanised butlers, too. However, in difficult moments they flip the script – asking us to relinquish control, human connection and our fantasies about ourselves.

Complex dilemmas

Every day, carebots will run into hundreds of small moral dilemmas: their owner decides not to take today’s prescribed medication; she keeps leaving the stove on, or wandering out of the house and down a street heaving with traffic; or he commits a crime in full view of a watchful mechanical eye, as in the film Robot and Frank, in which an ageing thief recruits his carebot as an accomplice.

What mistakes will be acceptable, and which will be grounds for a recall? Will there be limits to a bot’s responsibilities? Or will their charges have to submit to their power?

In the paper “Granny and the Robots”, Amanda Sharkey and Noel Sharkey at the University of Sheffield, UK, point out another drawback to life with a robo-caretaker: it’s lonely. Putting a carebot in place of a human might deprive many of one of their few opportunities for regular social contact. Such isolation is linked to poorer health outcomes, such as a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. It could also make people feel plain dehumanised – ripped of their dignity, a vulnerable object to be lifted, fed or prompted at intervals.

“If the human rights of the elderly are to be respected as much as the rights of other members of society, it is important to ensure that robots introduced into elder care do actually benefit the elderly themselves, and are not just designed to reduce the care burden on the rest of society,” write Sharkey and Sharkey.

Or, as one person put it recently in The Guardian, being left with a carebot is just “another way of dying even more miserably”.

There’s another reason that carebots might not sit comfortably with us: they don’t jive with our flattering visions of ourselves. Looking after another human being is hard work. It’s physically and emotionally taxing, occasionally messy, and can be boring and thankless. It’s also among our lowest-paid jobs. There’s an expectation that this work is a kind of calling, performed out of love or a sense of service by a friend or family member, or at least a compassionate and conscientious worker.

The reality is a harsh departure from that ideal. In elderly care homes in the US, people are more likely than in the wider community to be subjected to emotional and physical abuse or neglect  – one in 10, according to some reports.

Carebot dystopia

No one looks forward to a carebot dystopia, in which machines exercise dubious moral power over people. But the alternative, too, can be discomfiting: robots turning out to actually be preferable to human aides. It doesn’t reflect too well on us if our future seniors opt to live in a non-human ghetto, with whatever glitches and lack of contact, over the prospect of abuse by bitter and angry staff.

“We need to think of automation as a political question,” said Lucy Suchman at Lancaster University, UK, speaking at a White House workshop on artificial intelligence in New York City on 7 July. “What grounds are there to believe that a robot can engage in the work of care?” Work like this is difficult for a machine to master because of its nature: heterogeneous, open-ended, and often reliant on the ability to interact with others.

Rather than jump to robotic substitutes, we could think of other ways to sate society’s growing need for workers who care for the elderly, such as revaluing the work involved. “The fact that you get paid a huge amount of money to write code and you get paid nothing to take care of people’s children is not a reflection of the relative skills,” said Suchman, “but rather a reflection of the valuation that we make of those jobs within a particular political economy.”

We should ask whether there are really not enough people to do those jobs, or whether it’s just that those roles have been devalued, she added.

The problem closely parallels the idea of using robots for childcare. New parents are expected to extol the joys of parenthood and gloss over the drudgery, even though the experience is a proven drag on personal happiness. Tireless devotion is considered a virtue, one that the vast majority of us cannot attain; leaving a child with just a human nanny carries an undeserved social stigma of neglect, even though for many it’s the only practical solution.

What would the neighbours say if they heard that little Jimmy was left with a machine while mum went out for a well-deserved drink? It may not be fair, but it’s not unimaginable. That’s a tough norm for a shiny new robot to break down.

Leaving a loved one in the care of a machine will look tantamount to admitting that we have other things we’d rather do – that all humans have things they’d rather do. Like, maybe, spend time with our new sexbot.

So while sex robots already have enough of a built-in audience that people are fighting over whether we’ll marry them or ban them, the future for care robots is looking a lot murkier. Unlike with sex robots, we don’t know what we want from them.


Object Solutions Gets Written Up

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In addition to my academic research I also collaborate with the tremendous Ernesto D. Morales on a design fiction project called Object Solutions.

We got written up in the Daily Beast! Check it out here, “What if ‘The Onion’ Made Drones and Sex Toys?” by Rose Eveleth. 

Future of Sexbots: On Podcast Fast Forward

Stellar journalist, Rose Eveleth interviewed me along with two other sex robot and sex futurist experts, A.V. Flox and Madeleine Ashby, for her podcast Flash Forward.


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This week we have three experts helping us think through how we get to sex robots, and what we do when we get there. A.V. Flox is journalist who covers the intersection of sex, law and technology. She is very skeptical of all the sexbot hype, and says we have a long way to go before we’ll see anything remotely like an actual sex robot. Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and futurist who’s been a guest on the show before. A few of her books involve sex robots, and she thinks that before we get anything human we’ll start to see cartoony looking forms. And Shelly Ronen is a sociology PhD student at NYU who studies sex and sex object production. Ronen says that it’s possible we won’t demand full-on humanoid robots, but instead be totally satisfied by less human-like machines.

Together the three of them walk us through all the things we might have to sort out before and after the rise of the sex robots. How do you keep them clean? Where do you store them? What happens if they break? What will they look like? How do you handle the uncanny valley? Who should use them, and how does their existence impact sex workers?

You can read an optimistic take on sex robots in the book Love and Sex With Robots by David Levy and you can find more on Levy’s outlook on robots here. Levy is optimistic about sex robots — not only does he think they’re coming quickly, he also thinks they could have some very positive impacts. On the other side of the table is the Campaign Against Sex Robots. You can guess how they feel about these devices, and their argument is generally summed up here. Essentially, they feel that prostitution is bad, and sex robots would be a form of prostitution and encourage it, therefore sex robots are bad. This is an argument that many people disagree with, including sex workers who point out that many of them enjoy and would like to keep their jobs.

Plus, we have to make this a lot sexier before it will work for most people:

To top everything off, here are some fun fact about our long tradition of wanting to create and love female robots:

  • Robots were originally assumed to be male. The 1920’s science fiction play R.U.R. that gave us the word robot also gave us the term for a female robot: a robotess.
  • The term “gynoid” (which you don’t see quite as much anymore) was coined by the writer Gwyneth Jones in her 1985 novel Divine Endurance.
  • The term “fembot” first shows up in 1976, in a script for the show The Bionic Woman.
  • Brigitte Helm played “Maschinenmensch,” the female robot in the iconic 1927 movie Metropolis. Apparently her costume was extremely uncomfortable, and other actors would apparently slip coins into various openings out of pity for her. She used those coins to buy chocolate.

Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth, and is part of the Boing Boing podcast family. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Broke for Free. The illustration is by Matt Lubchansky. The music for our various sex robot commercials was by Alaclair, Strong Suit and BoxCat. The voice for the Hadaly commercial was Jaya Saxena, whose writing you can find at The voice forMargot’s Discount Closet Solutions was Mike Rugnetta, who has a podcast called Reasonably Sound that you should absolutely listen to. And the voice convincing you to buy a Leopold was by Brent Rose, who is currently driving around America in this crazy high-tech van. You can follow his adventure at and on Instagram @brentdangerrose.

If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.

And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways you can do that too! We have a Patreon page, where you can donate to the show. But if that’s not in the cards for you, you can head to iTunes and leave us a nice review or just tell your friends about us. Those things really do help.

That’s all for this future, come back next week and we’ll travel to a new one.


The (Fictional) Future of Love

Can Product Design Save Sex and the Modern Relationship?Inverse header

I was recently interviewed by Yasmin Tang for Inverse magazine. She wanted to know about my collaboration with Ernesto D. Morales, on our design fiction project.

OS’ “The Future of Love” initiative, which just kicked off, is intended to be a genuine inquiry into the everyday inconveniences that diminish romance and a search for products that might augment it. Ernesto D. Morales, the company’s founder, isn’t saying technology can solve all matters of the heart, but he does think it’s worth exploring. He posed the following question to Inverse: “How will we know what changes driven by technology we prefer or don’t prefer if we don’t think about what those could be?”

Take a second and read that again. It’s a reasonable point.

The project involves our generating ideas for objects that solve relationships “problems” through extreme user-centered design with a twist. We bend the laws of physics, rules of chemistry, social norms and common sensical ideas of what is sensible or cost effective. And voila, we will generate objects that are solidly within the realm of innovation and somewhere in the borderlands between real lived experience and science fiction reality.

For Ronen, there’s no debating that technology can offer solutions to relationship woes. It did so just 50 years ago: “The internet and the cell phone are the automobile of the 1990s-2000 youth generation,” she explained to Inverse, referencing the legacy of “Make Out Point” and the need for private spaces. Her question is how to examine the incidental romantic benefits of consumer tech in order to understand what new products with more direct benefits might look like.

In a sense, the technologies here are the questions themselves and the legitimization of technological inquiry into romance. Marital aids aren’t the talk of Silicon Valley, but in many cases they provide the service advertised. Surely there are other things we can do and products we can build — products that don’t vibrate, but do help us get in tune with each other.

This summer we are hoping folks will help us by suggesting “problems” for us to ideate around. Help us out here.

Read the full Inverse piece here.

What I’m reading: Why The Future of Sex is not Necessarily a Sex Robot

Fast Company lays out an astute observation. Why is this that futurists like David Levy are telling us the future of sex is a fembot when women are the largest sex tech consumers?


Read the article below



For quite a while now, the “future of sex” has had a mascot: A sex robot, like Roxxxy TrueCompanion [NSFW]. Or maybe it’s a disembodied female voice, like in the Spike Jonze film Her, allowing an awkward man to have a virtual girlfriend. It could be the future of sex is just a mild upgrade of Lars and the Real Girl, where Ryan Gosling carries a doll around; or a Star Trek-like scenario where holographic paramours realize our every fantasy.

Whatever form it takes, the vision is clear: In the future, technology will cater to our every erotic whim—with or without help from human partners.

More serious futurists like David Levy have envisioned a more fleshed-out future for these female sex proxies, where robotic romantic partners are commonplace: Where human partners might struggle to figure out our needs and desires, robots will have the ability to monitor and analyze on the most microscopic level, enabling them to transform into our ideal partners. Others are predicting that virtual reality or teledildonics (a system in which Internet-enhanced sex toys enable lovers to stimulate each other remotely) allow us to have mindblowing sex with partners who are thousands of miles away. In many circles, these non-human lovers have become embedded as the cultural assumption of where sex is headed; serving as a sort of shorthand for the inevitable future of sex.

What is odd, however, is that the biggest proponents of this vision of future sex seem to be men—even though it is women, not men, who are the primary purchasers of sex toys, and thus the consumers most likely to literally take them home.

“After 37 years [in the sex toy business], women have always been our customer,” says Coyote Amrich, purchasing manager for San Francisco-based sex toy shop Good Vibrations. “That was the driving force of our business.”

For despite the hold popular predictions have on our collective imagination, they haven’t quite panned out in the marketplace. The remote sex device Real Touch [NSFW] ceased sales earlier this year, while sex doll companies like Real Doll and TrueCompanion remain niche concerns. An analysis of U.K. sex toy distributor LoveHoney’s sales data shows that, even as high-tech sex gadgets make their way onto the market, it’s still the century-old vibrator that holds consumer interest—18% of all purchases.

So what might the future of sex look like if it’s not a buxom robot-doll?

Instead of futuristic gadgets that remake the very notion of sex, Amrich predicts innovations that are more about improving on existing technology; making toys that are lighter, quieter, and stronger, as well as using better materials and with better battery life. Amrich also sees a future for toys that enhance the sex we’re already having, “creating ways for people to have enhanced intimacy and enhanced sensation.” As she sees it, there’s a great deal of potential in toys that allow us to up the ante and intensify sexual experiences we already enjoy. Where once a person may have given merely a blowjob, now we’ll have technology that’ll allow for an incredible blowjob.

But what sort of technology could allow for that sort of enhanced experience? Dr. Kristen Stubbs, a queer/pansexual roboticist who has a PhD from Carnegie Mellon and runs a crowdfunding startup for sexuality-focused technology, offered up one possibility. For Stubbs, the true future of sex toys lies in shifting the products from open-loop to closed-loop controllers. In layman’s terms, a device with open-loop control responds only to its on/off switch: You turn it on, it does its job (in the case of a sex toy, by vibrating), and that’s the end of the story. A closed-loop control, on the other hand, has sensors that provide the device with information about the outside world, allowing it to adapt its behavior as the situation requires.

In sex tech terms, closed-loop controllers could mean “a toy [that] could tell how aroused you are, or how close you are to orgasm.” For a single person, this might take the form of a vibrator that gets better every time you use it, learning how to pleasure you in the most efficient way possible. For products geared toward couples, this sort of technology could allow partners to get a deeper understanding of the things that really give their partner pleasure—and, potentially, enable the incredible, tech-enhanced blowjob that Amrich envisions.

Not that all women are down on the idea of sex robots. Annalee Newitz, the founding editor of sci-fi site io9, feels that robots have long been an object of sexual fascination, and will continue to be so for a number of people. But even Newitz sees this as a distant possibility, anticipating that within 10 to 20 years, we’ll have the “Google Glass of robot sex.” “Really clunky, barely usable, shitty interface, no apps,” she says. And even if robot sex fulfills its promise, Newitz acknowledges that it will likely remain a niche interest.

Like Amrich and Stubbs, she anticipates that most advances will predominantly serve to improve on, not replace, the existing pleasure products we enjoy. “A lot of technologies don’t really change that much. Like vibrators? They’re awesome. And we’ve had them now for over a century, because they’re awesome and they work.”
From that perspective, the future of sex toys looks more like the future of the rest of the consumer tech. If wearables truly take off, there’s no reason to think they won’t eventually influence the way we have sex. Newitz envisions a kind of “cyborg sex,” where the act is enhanced by small vibrators worn all over our bodies. Or, taking inspiration from video game controllers, perhaps sex toy manufacturers will begin incorporating EEG controllers into their products, allowing you to literally think your partner into an orgasmic frenzy.

A good general guideline for the future of sex tech? According to Newitz, it comes back to humans being a “tool-using animal.” “And so any time we have a tool, we’re going to use it for sex,” she says. Doubly so if that tool enhances sensation, or allows the body to explore experiences beyond its physical limits. The future might be tech-enabled, but, femmebot fantasies aside, not actually disembodied—if women have anything to do with it.