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.


Real Doll Robots Are Coming

The New York Times released a video in it Bits series featuring the Real Doll maker Matt McMullen and his operation in southern California. The video, made by Zackary Canepari, Drea Cooper and Emma Cott, is masterfully made and presents McMullen, C.E.O. showing his latest attempts to make the dolls more realistic.

Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 7.35.51 AM

Watch the segment here. My favorite part of this video is when a robotic doll head, placed on a table, separate from a body, is repeatedly projecting its tongue out of its mouth and then retracting it, while the robotic voiceover talks about the uncanny valley.

I visited this facility recently and got a tour of their operations. The team is surprisingly small, and the process was thrilling to witness.

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.

Review Essay in Public Books, “The Erotic Doll: A Modern Fetish”

This mannequin in Marcel Duchamp’s 1966 piece, Étant donnés (“Given”), took over ten years of casting and molding with layers of wood, plaster, calfskin, and paint. Critics commented on the doll’s odd lack of labia, and her surprisingly shallow—unfuckable—groin. Composite, almost Frankenstein-esque in assembly, this doll is one of many specimens in Marquard Smith’s intriguing book, The Erotic Doll: A Modern Fetish. Smith teases out the history of these sex objects to provide a thorough genealogy of today’s erotic mannequins. Duchamp’s piece crafts a visual synecdoche for the work of Smith’s book, which invites readers to look as though through a peephole upon the history of sex with inanimate things.

Duchamp’s mannequin is a painstakingly constructed blend of anatomical accuracy and sly distortion. The product looks quite real, yet is marred by unnatural genitals and perpetual facelessness. She is positioned stiffly in the foreground while the background glitters with lively trompe l’oeil. Photographs render the distant scenery of trees and sky; the waterfall is made of hardened glue and shimmers as if with flowing water; and the clutched lamp gives off light. The erotic doll is clearly not alive, yet her similarity to a living being, what Smith refers to as “verisimilitude,” is compelling and uncanny. This example, like others throughout the book, presents erotic objects as assertive and demanding, confusing boundaries between the agency of dolls and lovers. Are these objects insistent? Even if lifeless, do they require some response or direct their lovers’ replies? Smith insists that we must think with andthrough things in order to see how inanimate objects constitute us as animate agents.

<i>Mannequins</i> (2008). Photograph by Franck Chicot / Flickr

Mannequins (2008). Photograph by Franck Chicot / Flickr

The book begins with the Greek myth of Pygmalion. The sculptor, desperate for a wife but fearful of unfaithful women, carves a statue, embellishes it, and falls in love with it. Through his sexual idolatry, the statue, Galatea, comes alive. The story, an apt origin myth for the erotic doll, also influenced scientific ideas of sexual pathology. Early sexologists Iwan Bloch, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and Havelock Ellis incorporated the myth into scientific terms such as “Pygmalionism” to refer to the pathological urge for autoerotic frottage (genital rubbing and non-penetrative sex) with statues.

The mythos of the Pygmalion character—the desperate, desirous maker enchanted by his inanimate love-object—echoes throughout Smith’s history. She is inorganic and therefore static; she is made by the master and brought to life by his love for her. In this sense, her thingness troubles some contemporary notions that consider ideal sex to be incompatible with powerless submission. This normative sex is thought to be be the product of consent and the source of mutual pleasure with an equal partner—or at least an equally living one. But the Galatean doll offers physical pleasure in the allure of creation, domination, and possession.

Marcel Duchamp spent years crafting and re-crafting his limp and loveless mannequin, using both his lover and his second wife as models for various parts of the body. He wasn’t the first: some 50 years earlier, the artist Oskar Kokoschka commissioned a dress- and doll-maker, Hermione Moos, to create a life-size mannequin in the likeness of his former paramour, Alma Mahler. He spent roughly a year in correspondence, accompanying his letters with numerous paintings to instruct Moos on how to properly render his beloved. As Smith details, Kokoschka’s obsessional descriptions were filled with repeated, neurotic requests to make the mannequin more voluptuous and furry. Kokoschka celebrated the monstrous final product in 1919 with a party for its arrival and unveiling. He was so troubled by its failure to mimic his lover, however, that he ended the event with the unceremonious beating and beheading of the doll.1 A neighbor is said to have called the police to report the savage torture and murder of a woman.

At first glance, the failure seems to have been one of verisimilitude: doppel-Mahler just wasn’t realistic enough to substitute for the original. Indeed, Kokoschka wrote to Moos to give an “account of deficiencies,” complaining, for example, that “the outer shell is a polar bear pelt, suitable for a shaggy imitation bedside rug rather than the soft and pliable skin of a woman.” In this light, the doll seemed to be an unequivocal erotic failure. Yet we need not rely too heavily on a psychoanalytic approach of the sort that Smith encourages to recognize that the doll was in fact a success as an erotic fetish. Spurned by his former lover, the artist commissioned a substitute for Alma with which to ritualistically enact his domination and ownership of her. He exorcised his desire through her destruction.


In a more contemporary account of erotic perversity, Smith discusses RealDolls, a brand of bespoke sex dolls that start at $5,499. More specifically, Smith emphasizes the conundrum of how to appropriately treat these objects. Some employees of Abyss Creations, the company that makes RealDolls, have expressed concerns about the misuse of their products. So-called iDollators (those who buy, use, and sometimes marry RealDolls) have customized dolls for pedophilic fantasies or subjected dolls to sadistic sexual violence. This might sensibly provoke a moralizing reaction: who would treat a sex doll with such disrespect? But Smith gently chides us that the “sex doll is, an object [sic], I repeat not, a woman.” So why does it matter if she is used to satisfy pedophilic fantasies or subjected to violence? The doll’s indifference to cruel treatment contrasts with the doll’s obvious attempt to look “real,” what Smith calls her “will-to-verisimilitude.” These dolls present a paradox for us, namely “that there is both more to a sex doll than sex and nothing more to a sex doll than sex.”

Thinking of RealDolls as entitled to the same respectful treatment we might wish for organic women is somewhat absurd. It does not change the dolls’ “absolute object-ness,” but it does allow Smith to illustrate his argument that dolls have the potential to distort logics of desire because objects come to act upon us through our action upon them. iDollators and RealDoll users report that this “high form of masturbation” is nevertheless “very life-like.” As one user has it, “I’m pushing on it and all of a sudden it pushes back.” Some users imagine their dolls to have rich inner worlds and even marry them, so great their sense of intimacy despite the fact that the dolls “provide zero companionship.”

Following Smith’s lead in this book-as-peephole, I return to Duchamp’s imagery with one last observation. Duchamp’s pale, freaky mannequin with legs forever spread-eagled is not uncanny and disturbing because her will-to-verisimilitude succeeds. Indeed, she is obviously fake. Rather, the mannequin disturbs because her limited realism betrays a widespread Pygmalionist fantasy that goes far beyond the pathological desire for frottage with statues. It is a common perversity: a male, heterosexual fantasy of creating, dominating, and erotically possessing a sex object—even to the point of violent destruction.