Sex & Relationships

Invasion of the SexBots: What Happens When Sex Dolls Combine With Artificial Intelligence?

How will the collision between sex and technology affect our love lives?

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Matt McMullen has been selling sex dolls since 1996. In the past 20 years, he’s sold over 5,000 of his RealDolls. Recently, he decided to pivot the business. As Winston Churchill once said, “To improve is to change.” But where do you go when sex dolls are your sell? If you’re McMullen, the answer is simple: You build a sex robot.

McMullen calls his new project RealBotix. For now, he’s looking to design a robotic head system that can be attached to the dolls’ silicone bodies. In an interview with Fusion he explained, “What we’re trying to do is create an artificial intelligence that is user-customizable in the same way that the dolls are customizable. So you would pick fundamental personality traits that appeal to you, be it shy, outgoing.”

One potential client has been pressing for a RealBotix to play chess with.    

McMullen told the New York Times, “I want to have people actually develop an emotional attachment to not only the doll being the robot, but the actual character behind it. To develop some kind of love for this being.”

According to his predictions, RealBotix could become commercially available in just two years. So yes, the future of sex is drawing near. And with it comes a long list of fears and fantasies.

The dicks are all right… right?

McMullen has released a line of male RealDolls. He’s even provided five different styles of penises to choose from. Still, the sex robot audience seems to be predominantly male. Most of the dolls McMullen sells are decidedly female. Sure, there are other sexbots in the mix specifically designed for women’s pleasure. But there’s something about a dildo machine that seems slightly less accessible and far more porny than the robotized male-masturbation aids out there.

That doesn’t mean guys get off altogether easy. Those who have seen the movie Teeth are familiar with the fears that deep, dark cavernous holes can inspire. And while a blowjob machine certainly sounds like fun, it might leave some men asking, "Do I really want to put my dick in there?" If the vagina dentata myth sounds scary in the flesh, a robotized version would be downright terrifying.

If you skim through the instructions for the AutoBlow, the world’s first blowjob robot, you’ll come across lines like, “WARNING! Read safety instructions first! To reduce the risk of bodily injury, carefully follow these instructions."

“The Autoblow2 is an electrical appliance. Do not use it in or near water or bodily injury or death may occur."

Bodily injury? Death? Not exactly experiences the average masturbator wants to encounter when trying out a new technique. And in the unavoidable event something does go wrong, certainly no one wants to go in penis first.

That said, there is one area of concern that sexnological advances could really help: STDs. So long as you aren’t passing your toys around to anyone and everyone who expresses interest, you’ll be practicing one of the most promising forms of safe sex just short of abstinence. And, of course, no risk of pregnancy either.

Sex doll, I love you, but you’re creeping me out

Unlike the AutoBlow, the RealDoll offers a lot more than a robotic imitation of dismembered lady bits. It’s the whole package. Customers can select hair color, height and breast size. They can even choose what they want their doll’s labia to look like, and what pubic hairstyle they should sport. But while these details can help convey a sense of realism, they fall short of seeming entirely “real.” And that middle ground tends to creep people out. It’s known as uncanny valley, and it’s been a huge obstacle for sexbot manufacturers. How are we supposed to connect with eyes that don’t blink? Mouths that don’t move?

Masahiro Mori, a former robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, first introduced this concept back in the ‘70s. When applying the notion to prosthetics, he writes, “One might say that the prosthetic hand has achieved a degree of resemblance to the human form, perhaps on a par with false teeth. However, when we realize the hand, which at first site looked real, is in fact artificial, we experience an eerie sensation. For example, we could be startled during a handshake by its limp boneless grip together with its texture and coldness. When this happens, we lose our sense of affinity, and the hand becomes uncanny.”

For now, McMullen’s vision seems to be the closest thing to a full humanoid robot we have. But there’s still a long way to go before they escape the “almost human” effect. “Sex robots are going to require multiple disciplines to come together, from nanotechnology to replicate non-uniform textures of skin, to an AI complete with natural language understanding,” says journalist AV Flox.

At the moment, the RealDolls can’t even stand on their own, which means maneuvering them isn’t easy. Some weigh over 100 pounds.

What will a bond between man and machine accomplish?

In a video put together by the New York Times, McMullen explains, “You want to have that illusion that she’s actually talking to you… that’s she’s got sentience.” He explains that a customer who sexually engages with a doll wants to believe “she actually likes it.”

Of course, “she” is a doll. And her “liking it” isn’t going to take a very animated form. But obtaining an illusion of consent could help people unable or unwilling to participate in partnered sex feel like the experience is within reach. In its crudest form, a sex doll serves as an unresponsive vessel for someone else’s orgasm; an elaborate tool designed for a form of masturbation. But a robotic sex doll could bring with it a sense of engagement. It’s the difference between having sex with yourself and having sex with something else. Or as one RealDoll owner explains, “It’s the difference between being alone and lonely.”

But that fine line of consent has some folks worried. It’s no secret that sex robots are almost always introduced in female form. And there are concerns that their use will develop in a way that reinforces “disturbing human lived experiences.”

The Campaign Against Sex Robots asserts, “The vision for sex robots is underscored by reference to prostitute-john exchange which relies on recognizing only the needs and wants of the buyers of sex, the sellers of sex are not attributed subjectivity and reduced to a thing (just like the robot).” They also note, “We believe the development of sex robots further sexually objectifies women and children.”

There are already some products on the market to back up this claim. A disturbing amount of silicone sex aids are advertised with phrases like “little girl” and “virgin.”

Fortunately, it’s not always so sinister. Some men who are interested in pursuing artificial companionship seem to do so mainly to combat loneliness. As one doll owner explained to a BBC documentary crew, “It’s certainly better than going without any female company at all,” adding, “The dolls have improved my quality of life. Immensely, really.”

McMullen says the RealBotix could help create “a very simplistic feeling of, ‘someone cares about me.’” That’s a feeling few can go without.

In his book Love and Sex with Robots, David Levy imagines that by the year 2050, human-robot marriages will be pretty commonplace. In his interview with Fusion, McMullen revealed that some RealDoll owners have already made legal arrangements for their “girlfriends” in the event of their death. 

Is there any going back?

We’ve reached a point where we’re capable of accepting different degrees of sexuality. If you don’t believe me, just check out the long list of orientations online dating platforms now offer to users. I can’t say for sure, but I’m pretty positive the term “heteroflexible” was once listed on approximately zero dating profiles. When sex robots hit the scene, will they bring a new wave of vocabulary with them? Robosexual? Homobotic, perhaps?

And if people do start self-identifying accordingly, is there any going back? Is shacking up with a sex robot something you can do casually? Most would assume it’s not. But those who do feel it’s possible to bounce around the spectrum would be wise to think about the problems it could present. People can already hand-select the physical attributes they want in a doll. If we get the technology down, they’ll be able to custom-design a personality to boot. Like your women shy? Sassy? No problem! It’s all in the coding. But how is the average person supposed to compare to something perfectly crafted to meet one's every desire? And could a bot user later readjust to life with a real human woman capable of expressing sadness, or anger? Someone who introduces an element of unpredictability?

When asked, McMullen told Fusion, “I don’t think a doll can replace human interaction, with A.I. or without, but I do think there are probably cases of people who, either by choice or by circumstance, cannot have a real relationship. And so in that case, maybe the doll is going to be that replacement, but I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong with that.”

He makes a point. I can’t imagine a future where people bounce between real people and robots the same way they do blondes and brunettes. Those destined to go down the robot path are probably already members of a very specific niche community. Either that or they’re extremely rich people looking to expand their toy collection. The Realbotix head will cost around $10,000. The full body will most likely range from $30,000 to $60,000. That’s far more money than the average person would spend on sex with a real person.

But for some, there is a point to paying up. As author and RealDoll owner David Mills has said, "My fundamental personality conflict is that I really like women but I don’t like to be around people.” In one interview, McMullen explains, “We really look at this as much more than being just a sex doll. We’re looking at all the ways this could be used as a companion.”

“For some of our customers, just having the dolls in their house makes them feel not as lonely as they did before.”

Carrie Weisman is a writer focusing on sex, relationships and culture.