Luke Robert Mason: So, firstly, thank you for being here. There's some people in the room who remember this place when it was currently a strip club, so this is a very appropriate venue to talk about sex robots.

My name is Luke Robert Mason, and firstly I would like to thank Lights of Soho, who firstly agreed to have an event called "Fucking Machines" in their venue. And secondly I'd like to thank our sponsor Bondara, who unbelievably, went, "Sure! Why don't we sponsor this event?" Bondara.co.uk, who sell well…I am sure you can imagine, given the theme of tonight's [Audience member: "Sex toys!"] event.

Alright. Clearly a customer.

So welcome to our very first, but hopefully not our last, Virtual Futures Salon. And it's the Virtual Salon. The first Virtual Futures Conference occurred at the University of Warwick during the mid-90s, and to quote its cofounder, it arose at a tipping point in the technologization of first-world cultures. Whilst it was often portrayed as a techno-positivist festival of accelerationism towards a posthuman future, the "Glastonbury of cyberculture," as The Guardian put it, its actual aim behind the brushed steel, the silicon, the jargon, the designer drugs, the charismatic prophets, and the techno parties was much more sober, and urgent.

You see, what Virtual Futures did was it cast a critical eye over the phenomenal changes in how humans and perhaps nonhumans engage with emerging scientific theory and technological development. This salon event, and hopefully this salon…series? (Fingers crossed.) completes Virtual Futures Conference's aim to bury the 20th century, and to begin work on the 21st. So, together, let's begin.


Luke Robert Mason: We are here to talk about fuck­ing machines. In London, on a fog­gy evening, on a Tuesday, for yet anoth­er debate about fuck­ing machines. Another curat­ed dis­cus­sion under­lined by our own human inse­cu­ri­ty about ver­sions of us in sil­i­ca. Fucking anthro­po­mor­phic fuck­ing machines. Machines that fuck us. And let’s face it, machines are already fuck­ing us, or so we seem to be told.

Robots will kill us. Robots will take our jobs. Robots will be our sal­va­tion. Robots won’t under­stand us. Robots will under­stand too much about us. Robots will not empathize with us, we will empathize too much with robots. Robots will sur­pass us. Or…robots will be too dumb to serve us. Robots will not be us. Robots will be too like us. Robots will learn to be a bet­ter ver­sion of us. Robots will fuck us, and per­haps, we will fuck robots.

That’s if they don’t kill us.

There is such a strong reac­tion to killer robots, so why not sex robots?” is exact­ly the ques­tion being asked by the 2015 Campaign Against Sex Robots. But this cam­paign is not sim­ply about iden­ti­fy­ing whether human might once again become obso­lete. And it’s not mere­ly about the redis­tri­b­u­tion of labor from the 40 mil­lion sex work­ers world­wide to an army of sex robots. This cam­paign isn’t real­ly about pre­empt­ing anoth­er West Coast, Silicon Valley mass dis­rup­tion of the wealth that is gen­er­at­ed (and it’s $186 bil­lion) in the mar­ket that is pros­ti­tu­tion. This pan­el, per­haps, won’t be about the Uberization of sex. Of course, if it was the app would obvi­ous­ly be called Luber.” You could get a Luber X…X…X… And of course there would be a ride-sharing option.

The Campaign Against Sex Robots is about a hard­er rub, an increas­ing fric­tion, a point of ten­sion. So let me give you the cli­max that you want. Sellers of sex are often seen by the buy­ers of sex as things, not rec­og­nized as human sub­jects. Sex robots as objects enforce this nar­ra­tive. Which means we have some ques­tions to answer.

Are those who engage in human-to-robot sex­u­al rela­tion­ships inter­est­ed in sex­u­al engage­ment with the arti­fice, with an arti­fi­cial human on its own terms? Or, do they desire a stim­u­la­tion with a sim­u­la­tion of human-to-human sex­u­al rela­tions? What becomes expect­ed, what becomes cod­ed, and with this cod­i­fi­ca­tion of sex will we start to see a datafic­tion of plea­sure respons­es?

Are orgasm pat­terns unique? Are they impos­si­ble to dupli­cate? Is your sex­u­al response the ulti­mate bio­met­ric iden­ti­fi­er? (Forget fin­ger­prints.) Does our bio­log­i­cal sex­u­al pro­gram­ming make us help­less dur­ing the sex act? Do we find our­selves in that moment just respond­ing to stim­uli? Well, doesn’t that remind us of a machine?

When did per­sons become things and when do things become per­sons? How will human/robot rela­tion­ships change our expec­ta­tions of human-to-human rela­tion­ships? Do we want to be machines? Do peo­ple want to be opti­mized fuck­ing machines? Once you go tech, is there any going back?

So, if you have your WD-40 handy… So to answer some of those ques­tions and many more are our esteemed pan­el.

And the first pan­elist I would like to intro­duce is Ian Pearson. Now, Ian Pearson is a futur­ol­o­gist at Futurizon. And the ques­tion, Ian, that I want to ask you, because real­ly as a futur­ol­o­gist you’ve been on the fore­front of see­ing how these inno­va­tions might occur and already are occur­ring. And I just want­ed you to give us and our audi­ence the kind of lay on the land, before we start fan­ta­siz­ing about the future of sex robots. And I just want to know what you’re already see­ing in the terms of the mar­ket for VR and sex robots and per­haps AR. I know you were kind of piv­otal in writ­ing the research report of our spon­sor Bondara [turns to audi­ence:](Bondara, I men­tioned them.) So, I won­dered if you could share some of those find­ings with us.

Ian Pearson: Yeah, I mean, the report I wrote for Bondara was very much near-term tech­nol­o­gy, and it was quite restrict­ed to sex toys and things like that, real­ly. But we’re already start­ing to see the begin­nings of VR. People are very aware of what you can do with VR, I think. And we’re also becom­ing aware of what you can do with aug­ment­ed real­i­ties. So I see a future not very far away where you throw away the Oculus Rift real­ly clum­sy head­set, which real­ly isn’t that much bet­ter than the ones we were play­ing with in 1991, and we replace it with active con­tact lens­es so you could be in bed with one per­son and you’d see some­body total­ly dif­fer­ent right in front of you, and you don’t have to have the big clum­sy head­set. And you can change who you have sex with every five sec­onds, if you so desire.

So you can change the phys­i­cal appear­ance of the per­son you’re play­ing with. But it goes much fur­ther. We’re already start­ing to see the begin­nings of what I call active skin.” It’s a tech­nol­o­gy from about fif­teen years ago, but we’re now start­ing to see the very first pro­to­types of mem­branes that you can stick of the skin’s sur­face. And they’re being designed pri­mar­i­ly for med­ical rea­sons and sports mon­i­tor­ing and things like that. But actu­al­ly those same mem­branes can vibrate. You can put poly­mer gels in them, you can stim­u­late those and make them con­tract. That allows you to cre­ate a vibrat­ing mem­brane.

The next gen­er­a­tion of that is putting devices right into the skin’s sur­face and you can link right through to the ner­vous sys­tem. And instead of your wrist obvi­ous­ly you can do that in your gen­i­talia, and we will very soon have the Internet of Genitalia, where you will be able to stim­u­late elec­tron­i­cal­ly across the net, from the cloud—you’ll be able to record an entire sex act and replay it and all of the fun and the sen­sa­tions. But not only your own sen­sa­tions, even­tu­al­ly that will be the oth­er person’s sen­sa­tions as well.

Because the next thing that hap­pens fur­ther down the line from that is that we start link­ing direct­ly into the brain as well—and again that’s begin­ning to hap­pen a lit­tle bit. We’re start­ing to see the first inter­faces hap­pen­ing today. And it won’t be very long before you can actu­al­ly be in the oth­er person’s ner­vous sys­tem, feel­ing how much plea­sure you’re giv­ing them, and that direct feed­back might actu­al­ly help some of us men to do a bet­ter job when we’re stim­u­la­tion our part­ners. And of course you’ve now got the more accu­rate GPS as well, so we can actu­al­ly find the cli­toris. So there are some advan­tages with this new tech­nol­o­gy.

But hav­ing that direct feed­back, I think when look at hav­ing sex with a robot, you should assume that that robot has a direct link into your ner­vous sys­tem. It’s not just a penis with a thruster behind it, or a peri­staltic sheath. It will actu­al­ly be able to direct­ly stim­u­late the nerves inside your body, direct­ly stim­u­late the nerves inside your head, and to cre­ate the sen­sa­tions that you would have in any kind of sex act.

And that means that you can then share that across the cloud. You could have any num­ber of peo­ple shar­ing the same body dur­ing that sex act. You can record any aspect of it, you can replay any aspect of it, you can com­plete­ly cus­tomize it. And in the same time­frame we’re also start­ing to see the robots them­selves becom­ing arti­fi­cial­ly intel­li­gent, because that is also mov­ing for­wards. None of this hap­pens in a vac­u­um.

AI is mov­ing very rapid­ly towards the point of machine con­scious­ness, and those smart machines that we might see in the next ten years will demand their own sex lives. They will demand the same rights that humans have, even­tu­al­ly. And we will expect to have com­put­ers redesign­ing sex, and as they get fur­ther and fur­ther into our brains we will find that we’re design­ing exter­nal exten­sions to your brain capa­bil­i­ty which allow you to redesign sex with extra gen­ders, extra sex acts… You know, the stuff we do today will seem pret­ty rou­tine and yes­ter­day, not very far in the future.

Mason: So will robots learn how to have sex by watch­ing us?”

Pearson: I think that they will very quick­ly ana­lyze what they can find on the Web and think, Well yeah, that’s fine. That’s what biol­o­gy does. Now where can we build on that? Let’s take those same ideas and run with them. And what could we design which is far more fun? And how could we roll that out?”

Mason: Do you think the mod­els that are some­times freely avail­able on the Web, do you think they’re the best mod­els from which robots should be learn­ing how to…?

Pearson: I think robots…well, they can learn some­thing from human beings, but that’s the start­ing point—I see that very much as a start­ing point. And when we’re look­ing at evo­lu­tion­ary AI devel­op­ment, you put in every­thing you know about how to pos­si­bly do it into an evo­lu­tion­ary engine, and then you let it exper­i­ment and dis­cov­er for itself. And that’s the best mod­el, I think. We could…I mean, just like the Bynars invent­ed the holodeck on Star Trek you know, the AIs that we have in ten, fif­teen years’ time will redesign the whole of the sex­u­al expe­ri­ence for human beings and find far bet­ter ways of pro­duc­ing sex­u­al stim­u­la­tion. So today we might think of typ­ing Ctrl-Shift-O for an orgasm…it’ll be a lot more fun than that as we go into the future.

Mason: I now want to go to Kate. So Ian’s kind of giv­en us the range of pos­si­ble futures for both our own bod­ies, human bod­ies, being aug­ment­ed by it sounds like inter­nal vibrat­ing chips. But you’re very specif­i­cal­ly focused on this Campaign Against Sex Robots, and I want­ed you to explain for the audi­ence who may not know what the Campaign Against Sex Robots is, just a lit­tle bit about that cam­paign and the rea­son why you’re in defense of the sex robots.

Kate Devlin: Yeah. I’d like to say, I’m against the Campaign Against Sex Robots. So my back­ground is in human-computer inter­ac­tion and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. And I think this cam­paign is incred­i­bly short-sighted.

So, it was start­ed by two aca­d­e­mics, Kathleen Richardson and Erik Billing, and their main thrust, as it were, is that sex robots—and it is sex robots as they exist today; they do exist and they are basi­cal­ly mech­a­nized sex dolls. Sex robots as they exist today, and as they see them devel­op­ing, are essen­tial­ly objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of women. It will lead to anoth­er form of sex work that is essen­tial­ly an anti-feminist move­ment.

And I can see where that is com­ing from, but how­ev­er I would say that that it is not the case nec­es­sar­i­ly and that we should nev­er ever try to shut down tech­nol­o­gy that’s in its infan­cy. And so what I’m inter­est­ed in is say­ing well, we can see where this is going. We know there is an appetite for this. We know there’s demand for these sex robots.

But why should they be focused entire­ly on this very het­ero­nor­ma­tive male view? This is an era when there is so much explo­ration going on of sex­u­al­i­ty, of gen­der iden­ti­ty, and there’s a lot of very con­tentious issues being dis­cussed. I mean, you don’t want to get into one of those debates on Twitter, right? I’m stay­ing well away from them. And I think that sex robots—robots in gen­er­al but specif­i­cal­ly sex robots—provide us with kind of a blank can­vas to start explor­ing those things. And that just to say ban all devel­op­ment” is real­ly shortsighted—it sort of reeks of moral pan­ic. We’ve got an oppor­tu­ni­ty here to take that tech­nol­o­gy and start to explore what it means to have a cer­tain sex­u­al­i­ty, what influ­ence sex has on our brains—so the cog­ni­tive approach­es, the social approaches—and our own iden­ti­ties. And we can explore that in terms of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence and in terms of how we actu­al­ly make a robot that can feel desire, that can have a sex­u­al­i­ty. And, does it need to have a par­tic­u­lar gen­der? Does it need to have a par­tic­u­lar sex­u­al­i­ty? So I think these are all ques­tions that if we were to ban sex robots we’d be shut­ting down this dis­cus­sion.

Mason: So just, if you do want to get in a flame­war on Twitter over the next hour and a half, we’re tweet­ing on #VFSalon. But Kate, I do want to ask you— You said you sort of under­stand where that desire and the fear against sex robots comes from. Where does it come from?

Devlin: Well, I think that any­body that would sort of have any kind of dec­la­ra­tion of them­selves as a fem­i­nist, myself includ­ed, we do not want to con­tribute to any­thing that in any way harms women. So I can see that there is that reac­tion that it may objec­ti­fy women, yes. I think that applies to lots of things. Like porn. Like sex work. But again, this is some­thing that is very very nuanced. It’s some­thing that requires a lot of explo­ration and debate before we just auto­mat­i­cal­ly say, No, that should not hap­pen.” And that is some­thing that I don’t feel I could auto­mat­i­cal­ly take a stance on. I think it needs a lot more explo­ration, and ban­ning some­thing out­right is not going to give us that explo­ration.

Mason: Thank you, Kate. And Trudy, you’ve kind of been at the fore­front of these debates. I love being able to tell peo­ple I know the UK’s lead­ing cyber­sex­pert. Which is always a great way to open a con­ver­sa­tion, and maybe close a con­ver­sa­tion in a bar.

But I want to ask you what you’ve seen over the last sort of fifteen-plus years. (Trudy’s only twenty-five.) Is there some­thing more nuanced hap­pen­ing here? Is there… Where’s the reac­tion com­ing from? Is it com­ing from our vis­cer­al reac­tion to anthro­po­mor­phic robots that look like us? Or do you actu­al­ly think there’s maybe a desire to have sex with robot­ic things and objects?

Trudy Barber: I think… Well, hav­ing been involved with this sort of research and these kind of themes since about 1991, I’ve seen var­i­ous ele­ments of sex and vir­tu­al real­i­ty. I’ve seen remote-controlled vibra­tors and dil­dos and all sorts of stuff. I’ve seen the sex dri­ve actu­al­ly becom­ing part of the dri­ve for inno­va­tion. And I’m quite inter­est­ed in the way that with all this tech­nol­o­gy, with the access to the Internet, with all these things, is that we’ve total­ly now divorced the sex act with pro­cre­ation. And its now sex act for plea­sure.

So we’re deal­ing with dif­fer­ent types of enter­tain­ment, Sex as enter­tain­ment, sex as plea­sure. Therefore the doll becomes the toy. I mean, women have been using vibra­tors instead of men…or, as men—well, with men or what­ev­er, for mil­len­nia. And it’s kind of an inten­si­fi­ca­tion and an ampli­fi­ca­tion of all of this? And I think that the way that we are in love with our technology—like Latour dis­cuss­es the idea that we have a love of our tech­nol­o­gy, we are embrac­ing it, we become part of our technology—that it’s inevitable that we will want to have sex, or just have plea­sure with the tech­nol­o­gy. You know, the videos of peo­ple unwrap­ping their iPads…it’s fetishis­tic, its so sexy. Everything with tech­nol­o­gy is sexy! And that’s why we want to have sex with robots—it’s why we want to be the robots.

Mason: Samsung or iPhone user?

Barber: Ooh, I’m a Samsung.

Mason: Alright, so Steve Jobs is not to blame?

Barber: No it’s not Steve Jobs’ fault, no.

Mason: So you men­tioned Trudy, this sex dri­ve is often a dri­ve for inno­va­tion. What do you mean by that?

Barber: Well I think it’s a dri­ve to cre­ate some­thing new. The sex dri­ve tra­di­tion­al­ly” was to pro­cre­ate, to cre­ate new life.” And now we’re doing it in a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent way, with dif­fer­ent ways of look­ing at tech­nol­o­gy, with dif­fer­ent ways of being cre­ative in a more open sense rather than just being human. And that’s where it becomes real­ly dif­fer­ent. That’s where hav­ing sex with robots, hav­ing sex with your tech­nol­o­gy— You can have an Onahole that you attach to your iPad and you can you know, have a quick old go with that whilst your doing your Skyping with your girl­friend or what­ev­er. It’s more of an exten­sion of McLuhan’s extension[s] of man, it’s the exten­sion of our very sense of being, I think. And some peo­ple feel real­ly alive in that orgas­mic moment, and I think we’re still all search­ing for that. So, I think the sex robot is part of our evo­lu­tion. I mean even bud­gies will have sex with a plas­tic budgie in their cage. It’s some­thing that’s kind of innate in being alive.

Mason: There’s a rea­son for the, as I think you’ve phrased it, the randy budgie.”

Barber: Yeah. Yeah, the randy budgie.

Mason: It comes from, real­ly, the iso­la­tion of the budgie, is that it?

Barber: There is the iso­la­tion­ism. There is also the… I mean, I’m quite inter­est­ed in how a lot of the stu­dents I look at when I’m in an aca­d­e­m­ic envi­ron­ment, where every­body is like, in their iPhones—they become iPhone or mobile phone zom­bies. And they become part of this sense of self that is so squashed in, and so in a cor­ri­dor, that it’s only inevitable that this kind of behav­ior with your machine takes on dif­fer­ent ele­ments of the self and squash­es you in. So it’s a whole dichoto­my of just express­ing plea­sure and also express­ing a sense of self.

Mason:So we’ve seen…and I should ask you Dan, have we seen these sort of nar­ra­tives appear per­haps in sci­ence fic­tion? You’re a senior lec­tur­er in Literature at the New College of the Humanities, where you look at how sci­ence fic­tion nar­ra­tives both lead for­ward into the future and reveal some­thing about us and what it means to be human. I want to ask you, have you already seen this kind of nar­ra­tive play out before, in fic­tion?

Dan O’Hara: Well to start with, um—

Mason: Was there anoth­er ques­tion I was sup­posed to ask?

O’Hara: As my stu­dents can con­firm, no we don’t talk much about sex robots.

Mason: Eighteen grand a year and there’s no…?

O’Hara: Well, maybe if there’s spe­cial request. Yeah, of course, we have seen these nar­ra­tives before and they tap in very direct­ly into the kind of social sit­u­a­tions that Trudy is describ­ing. If you think back to Mary Shelley, and the most famous exam­ple, Frankenstein’s mon­ster. Frankenstein’s mon­ster learns how to be human from imi­tat­ing and lis­ten­ing to humans. But what Frankenstein’s mon­ster wants in the end is a Mrs. Frankenstein, a sim­i­lar being to him­self.

But there are lots of more recent exam­ples, and I think most rel­e­vant is Isaac Asimov in the 1950s. There’s a nov­el called The Robots of Dawn which fea­tures a human­i­form robot, Daneel, with which one of the char­ac­ters in the nov­el has a sex­u­al relationship—an illic­it rela­tion­ship, in fact regard­ing this robot as her part­ner, as her hus­band.

The inter­est­ing thing about that sto­ry is the back­drop to it, the soci­ety in which it hap­pens. And it’s a soci­ety in which human con­tact, touch, has become taboo. And there’s lots of inter­est­ing sci­en­tif­ic work on touch becom­ing taboo. Increasingly, we’re find­ing it more and more dif­fi­cult to touch each oth­er.

But then the most recent exam­ple, I sup­pose, is the one that you know…I spe­cial­ize in the works of JG Ballard, so every time there’s a news sto­ry about some­one get­ting arrest­ed for hav­ing sex with trac­tors or bicy­cles, my Twitter feed is just kind of a del­uge of these sto­ries.

Mason: Oh that’s the rea­son.

O’Hara: Yeah, absolute­ly. And of course Ballard wrote this famous nov­el in 1973, Crash, which you may have seen the Cronenberg film of and is famous­ly thought to be about peo­ple deriv­ing sex­u­al excite­ment from hav­ing car crash­es. But Ballard added a caveat. He famous­ly, or not famous­ly enough, said, Actually that’s not what I was doing in the nov­el. What I was inter­est­ed in is peo­ple get­ting sex­u­al­ly excit­ed by the idea of car crash­es.”

In a way that’s much more dis­turb­ing. And one of the things that’s miss­ing from the debate, as I see it gen­er­al­ly, is just how much sex is hap­pen­ing in the mind, just how much sex is about being stim­u­lat­ed by ideas as much as mechan­ics.

Mason: [to Trudy Barber:] Did you see that in any exam­ples that you came across? Is it 80% fan­ta­sy, 20% tech­nol­o­gy?

Barber: When I did my PhD I had the priv­i­lege of study­ing a group of peo­ple who were play­ing around with ideas of gen­der but they were also what I would call tech­nofetishists.” They real­ly loved their com­put­er kit. They loved going online. And this was in the late 90s.

And what they did was they cre­at­ed their own serv­er, they built their own serv­er. They also ordered a whole load of sort of med­ical stim­u­la­tion equip­ment. And what they did was they would have one per­son vol­un­teer to put on all this kit. So it would be things attached to the nip­ples, and the gen­i­talia, var­i­ous areas all around the body. It was kind of like Stelarc real­ly, but it was homegrown—this is the oth­er thing that’s always inter­est­ing about this. And they were con­nect­ed to a serv­er. And the peo­ple who were part of this group invit­ed oth­er peo­ple from around the world to con­nect on this serv­er and stim­u­late this indi­vid­ual.

Now, while the indi­vid­ual was being stim­u­lat­ed, in their head they were… Well, the guy was prob­a­bly Dave, but in his head he became Stephanie. And I sort of stud­ied and watched Stephanie being trans­formed into Stephanie just pure­ly through this whole con­nec­tion.

So you had a group of peo­ple that were absolute­ly pas­sion­ate about the kit, but they were also pas­sion­ate about giv­ing plea­sure to Stephanie,” and Stephanie expe­ri­enc­ing her trans­for­ma­tion, maybe psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly in her mind—well definitely—but also after­wards she felt that she was a woman from that expe­ri­ence.

Mason: And that’s a human-to-human con­nec­tion medi­at­ed by the tech.

Barber: Yeah, by the tech­nol­o­gy, and it was all home­grown, it was garage stuff in 1998.

Mason: But then, Kate, what hap­pens if there is no human feed­back? The issue with sex robots is the ques­tion of whether these things are going to be arti­fi­cial enti­ties that are aware they’re arti­fi­cial enti­ties, or we’ll have a dri­ve to make them look, sound like us—more anthro­po­mor­phic. There’s been men­tion of not just women but chil­dren as well, to cure pedophil­ia?

Devlin: Right. This is one of the areas where sex robots requires a lot of inves­ti­ga­tion to work. Because in terms of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, one of the big goals of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence is to cre­ate a system—a cog­ni­tive system—that behaves like a human. It’s not the only goal but its a big one. The idea then being that then you will you have this sen­tient machine that can feel, that can desire, that can express emo­tion.

But even with­out bring­ing that into it, even with­out that sen­tience, you get issues when say, some­one makes a child robot, a child sex robot, okay. This is obvi­ous­ly some­thing that would be very con­cern­ing. Because we know there’s already laws against obscene mate­r­i­al fea­tur­ing chil­dren, even if that is gen­er­at­ed by a com­put­er. There are laws against that. What hap­pens then when some­one makes a child robot as a sex robot? What hap­pens if they make an ani­mal robot as a sex robot? And there’s a prob­lem with law and pol­i­cy. It doesn’t—it can’t keep up with tech­no­log­i­cal advances very well. And so that needs explor­ing, that needs exam­in­ing as to what hap­pens when things break social taboos or break legal areas, legal issues. And I think that’s an area that requires work.

Mason: Ian, is there anoth­er issue? You said some­thing about the squea­mish­ness or maybe the uncan­ny val­ley when it comes to sex robots? Do you think as a futur­ist we’ll ever over­come that?

Pearson: Yes and yes. There is an uncan­ny val­ley, def­i­nite­ly. If you make a robot which looks a lit­tle bit human­like but not very, then a few fetishists will enjoy play­ing with it, just like the plas­tic inflat­able doll. Most of us will think, Oh, I’m not doing that. That’s just a pre­tend thing. I want a real human being.” Most of us are faced with the uncan­ny val­ley and opt for the human being. That is real­ly a tech­no­log­i­cal progress thing. Eventually we’ll get to the point where you can make a com­plete­ly con­vinc­ing robot doll.

But the oth­er side of it is that you can do an awful lot of that in the vir­tu­al real­i­ty space. You can do a lot in the aug­ment­ed real­i­ty space. So you could be look­ing at that plas­tic inflat­able doll, but what you’re see­ing in your eyes is a com­plete­ly life­like human being. And you can also do—you know, with the active skin relays, if you like to call them that, you could make it feel exact­ly like a real human being as well. So what you can with the phys­i­cal tech­nol­o­gy is a lim­i­ta­tion. But you can make up an awful lot of that with the aug­ment­ed and vir­tu­al real­i­ty.

And that brings us back, actu­al­ly, to the objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of women. I think this is a prob­lem. You get objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of men as well but most of us men don’t care. It doesn’t wor­ry me at all if some­body objec­ti­fies me, but you know, some women wor­ry about it. But if I’m walk­ing up Regents Street back to the train sta­tion this evening, if I’m wear­ing aug­ment­ed real­i­ty con­tact lens­es and I could look at every sin­gle woman I’m walk­ing past and see exact­ly what she behaves like in bed, exact­ly what she looks like naked, and I can down­load all of the stuff off the net of exact­ly her sex­u­al expe­ri­ences and stuff, that is the next gen­er­a­tion of objec­ti­fi­ca­tion. And we’re head­ing there at a heck of a rate of knots. This is a prob­lem. I’m not sug­gest­ing that we can’t solve it, but the lawyers will not be able to keep up and I’m not entire­ly sure that soci­ety will keep up. And a small per­cent­age of peo­ple will not find it easy to bal­ance the two and lead a hap­py, bal­anced sex­u­al life.

Mason: So to Ian, and also to all the pan­el, what is going to stop that, and equal­ly, who then owns the datafi­ca­tion of your sex expe­ri­ence?

Pearson: I don’t know. It depends how we build it. I mean, at the moment it could be any­body, under any cir­cum­stances, in any part of the world. You know, some kid in a teenage bed­room could be writ­ing this with no con­trol by the author­i­ties what­so­ev­er. It appears on the net, everybody’s using it before any­body even thinks about debat­ing it and mak­ing laws about it. It’s already main­stream cul­ture. And that’s the speed of tech­nol­o­gy devel­op­ment now.

Barber: And prob­a­bly some­body will want to mon­e­tize it. So can you imag­ine, you’re in the mid­dle of your cyber­sex dream with your arti­fi­cial doll and sud­den­ly Pepsi!; advert comes up at the appro­pri­ate moment, through your—

Mason: Gillette, the best a man can get. Yeah.

Barber: Yeah. Can you imag­ine that fright­en­ing future, that everything—actually our sex­u­al plea­sure becomes entire­ly part of the cap­i­tal­ist mon­e­tiz­ing part of plea­sure? Even worse than it is now.

Mason: [to Kate Devlin:] The cam­paign about sex robots and the way in which David Levy talks about sex robots is already draw­ing par­al­lels to pros­ti­tu­tion—

Devlin: Yep.

Mason: —and, per­haps you could explain for this audi­ence at least David Levy’s view­point.

Devlin: David Levy’s work, he’s one of the earlier…did some of the ear­ly research on sex robots, and saw it very much as being a sex work econ­o­my, with robots tak­ing the place of sex work­ers. Which is what the Campaign Against Sex Robots has sort of been try­ing to com­bat, this idea that it will lead to fur­ther objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of women.

I don’t know that his vision is nec­es­sar­i­ly some­thing that will nec­es­sar­i­ly come true. It may, but I think we have the chance to shape that. And I think there’s a lot more tied into it than just will these robots take the form of sex work. Sex work is a much more nuanced debate to be looked into rather than say­ing a robot will come along and it will replace the sex work­er.

Mason: So the issues that come specif­i­cal­ly with that— I mean, some of the research that I know Ian’s focused on, men are the chief buy­ers of sex, and females are the chief buy­ers of the toys. But both are sort of mas­tur­ba­to­ry objec­ti­fi­ca­tion expe­ri­ence.

Devlin: This is a chance to bring them togeth­er, real­ly. So you have sex toys and you have sex work as sep­a­rate ideas. A sex robot is this blank can­vas still, it’s still in its infan­cy, why can’t we have sex robots that appeal to just more than the straight male? I think there’s just so much scope to do this. Who says a sex robot has to look human even, I mean? It could be any­thing. There’s no lim­it here. We don’t have the phys­i­cal lim­its when it comes to this sort of thing. We’re not tied to a human depic­tion, we’re not tied to any kind of bina­ry.

Mason: Well that idea of the sex robot could be any­thing… I know that some of your work in the phi­los­o­phy of tech­nol­o­gy, Dan, focus­es on sort of non­hu­man agency, and per­haps we won’t be desir­ing things that look and feel human, but entire­ly dif­fer­ent tech­nolo­gies. You know what I’m lead­ing to?

O’Hara: I do.

Mason: So Dan was the co-founder of VF. You are the hard­est per­son on the pan­el. This is Socratic method. And his stu­dents are sit­ting there going, I know exact­ly what’s going on here.” Talk about biobots Dan!

O’Hara: Alright. Actually I want to lead back to the Asimov thing again, that Asimov sto­ry. The think that’s inter­est­ing about the robot in that is that it’s com­plete­ly humanoid. And you can’t dis­tin­guish between these robots and humans, oth­er than for the fact that they obey slight­ly high­er moral stan­dards than humans do. Which is a love­ly idea. And that’s the mod­el that we’ve always tak­en, and that’s the mod­el we’re think­ing of right now when we’re talk­ing about humanoid robots. And that’s the mod­el also for AI: human-like cog­ni­tion.

Except…that’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly the direc­tion in which research is going. Because many robots are not mov­ing toward humanoid forms, and they’re not mov­ing towards even mechan­i­cal forms like Pepper or Terminator, as your most famous exam­ple. But they’re mov­ing towards soft­er forms, what Rudy Rucker called wet­ware.” So we’ve already start­ed to have robots made from sprayable foam, or inver­te­brate rub­ber robots, or indeed pro­gram­ma­ble chem­i­cal gels.

Now, that’s a kind of world of mixed mate­ri­al­i­ty, where you might need a pro­gram­mer to pro­gram dig­i­tal­ly, but you’re also talk­ing about some­body who’s able to pro­gram the DNA of some­thing that’s half liv­ing, half mechan­i­cal. And this kind of mixed world, if that starts to inter­sect with sex robots and you have pro­gram­ma­ble chem­i­cal gel robots, you’re mov­ing away from sil­i­con and towards silicone, and that rais­es…

Mason: But then that’s not an arti­fi­cial human—

O’Hara: It’s a whole new [crosstalk] kind of ball­game.

Mason: It’s arti­fi­cial life.

O’Hara: It is arti­fi­cial life. Yeah.

Mason: Then what would it mean to have the sex­u­al act with some­thing that could be a-live” or liv­ing.”

O’Hara: Well let’s assume that it’s life, first of all, in a nat­ur­al sense, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly in an AI sense, because not every­body agrees that we’re ever going to get AI. We’ve got AI at the moment, but its pret­ty stu­pid. You know, you think of your GPS or sat­nav sys­tems or what have you. And that’s the sort of lev­el of intel­li­gence of robot that you can look at to have sex with. Its not very entic­ing is it?

However, if there’s a cer­tain nat­ur­al com­po­nent to that, that can evolve and grow and change in itself, then we’re talk­ing about some­thing slight­ly less pre­dictable, and we’re also inter­est­ing­ly, in con­nec­tion with the Internet of Things” wor­ry that if these robots are net­worked… You know, orig­i­nal­ly we used the phrase com­put­er virus” as a metaphor from biol­o­gy. There’s no real virus­es. But if you’re hav­ing sex with a bac­te­r­i­al quasi-bio-hybrid thing… We start to see the metaphor becom­ing lit­er­al again. Now, I don’t want to scare any­one…

Barber: Spot of rust, dear.

Mason: Spot of rust. Well, obvi­ous­ly wet­ware for a rea­son, in that case.

Ian, I want to jump back to you if I can. What are these things going to look like, at least in our short term? So I know the Bondara report you were involved with said that vir­tu­al sex would be here, and it would be as casu­al as porn by 2030. By 2025, robot­ic sex toys would be avail­able for the wealthy. By 2035, sex toys will inter­act with vir­tu­al real­i­ty. And by 2050, robo­sex may over­take human sex. I just won­dered where those trends have emerged from, and what you think’s going to dri­ve some of those trends.

Pearson: Yeah, what’s dri­ving my think­ing on that time­line is the stuff I’m observ­ing about the growth of AI. And it’s not all dig­i­tal stuff, there’s a lot hap­pen­ing in the ana­logue domain in AI devel­op­ment as well. And we will end up with com­put­ers which are very sen­si­tive to human emotions—that’s been a goal in R&D and IT com­pa­nies now for well over a decade. We’ve been try­ing to make com­put­ers more emo­tion­al and more recep­tive and respon­sive to human emotions—so pick­ing up the emo­tions of the peo­ple and direct­ly respond­ing to that is a big thing. And you can do it. We know how to do it. We know how to detect emo­tions and we have some of the AI skills to respond to that, and that whole field’s mov­ing on.

Also, peo­ple like Honda and Sony and all the oth­er big IT man­u­fac­tur­ers are des­per­ate­ly try­ing to make robots to work around our home, do phys­i­cal jobs, do the clean­ing. But they also want to make [robots] which are real­ly good at com­pan­ion­ship. And the best mod­el we have for that is to make it very human-like with nice per­son­al­i­ties and nice emo­tion­al respons­es. So we will get those robots. You’ll prob­a­bly buy one the same price as a rea­son­able price car. And you will have one in your house, which you might as well buy one that you fan­cy as one that’s pig ugly—

Mason: Well this is the prob­lem—

Pearson: —and then you will end up hav­ing sex with it.

Mason: But Ian this is the prob­lem that’s arisen and its part of the rea­son for the Campaign Against Sex Robots. If you buy Pepper now, which is a—

Devlin: Ooh, you can’t have sex with Pepper.

Mason: Well, you have to sign a clause say­ing—

Devlin: You have to sign a clause say­ing you will not have sex with Pepper. Pepper is a social com­pan­ion robot in Japan, and it’s specif­i­cal­ly writ­ten into the con­tract that it will void the guar­an­tee and null the war­ran­ty if you have sex with— Do not have sex with Pepper.

Audience 1: [inaudi­ble] ser­vice­able parts.

Devlin: Well, this is the thing. So, com­pan­ion robots exist. We have com­pan­ion robots in the home, beyond just the robot vac­u­um clean­er. You know, big in Japan. And so these things are already there. We have assis­tant and health­care robots, and there’s a big EU dri­ve to explore this. There’s a whole new ini­tia­tive about com­pan­ion robots and care robots. And so it’s about how those are going to be exploit­ed. And if you have to actu­al­ly write that into the clause then evi­dent­ly someone’s been try­ing that some­where, okay. There’s def­i­nite­ly—

Mason: There’s a rea­son for that.

Devlin: There’s a rea­son they’ve writ­ten this in. And I think while it may be unpalat­able for com­pa­nies at the moment to explic­it­ly state that they are going to go down that route of research, I think it’s inevitable that they will. Although, it’s tak­en Dyson six­teen years to pro­duce a robot vac­u­um clean­er so don’t hold your breath for a Dyson one any­time soon. But I think that it’s unavoid­able, yeah. I agree with Ian on that.

Mason: But there’s no clause against the suc­tion on a robot…

Devlin: I would not like to speak for Dyson, I haven’t looked at the small print.

Mason: I’m not ask­ing for me, just FYI. But Trudy, is it going to be pro­duc­tized or is there going to be a whole sort of open source, DIY move­ment? Some of the things you talked about are the semi female-shaped objects and DIY fuck piñatas.

Barber: Oh yes!

Mason: How could we for­get the fuck piñatas?

Barber: There are peo­ple who have made their own arti­fi­cial woman out of bits of paper and card­board and a rub­ber glove. Oh, you just would not imag­ine.

Pearson: Damn, I hadn’t thought thought of that.

Barber: Behave. One of the things that you were talk­ing about just made me think…when you think of the future and all these sex robots and every­thing that could be cre­at­ed, a lot of the pop­u­la­tion is going to be a lot old­er. Now then, we’re going to be los­ing our part­ners, they’re going to die. So will there be a way of actu­al­ly having—you know, the robot per­son­al assis­tant or helper—that could rep­re­sent the part­ner that we’ve had for twen­ty years or some­thing? And could we say oh um, I want— Say that I’ve got the love­ly Ed as my part­ner. Could I have the love­ly Ed as he was ten years ago?”

Mason: Oh, Ed.

Barber: No no no, this is if we were like sev­en­ty or eighty. Do you see what I mean? Do you see what I mean? You could, tech­ni­cal­ly say, if you over­write it with some­body—

Ed: [Unclear:] You do real­ize I’m a robot, you haven’t owned me—

Barber: Damn! I mean, you could have long-term rela­tion­ships when they die, your part­ner dies, and you’ve got this new tech­nol­o­gy, this robot­ic tech­nol­o­gy, are you going to say, Actually I don’t want to have this new per­son, I actu­al­ly want the per­son back that I’ve lost.” So…

Mason: So there’s prece­dent for…

Barber: Yeah, there’s a dif­fer­ent— There’s… Maybe there’s oth­er ways that we can have our con­ver­sa­tions with our robots that actu­al­ly give us back some­thing that we’ve lost. And maybe that’s some­thing why we’re talk­ing about robots. Because maybe there’s some­thing about being our­selves that we have lost, and maybe an attempt to reclaim it through cre­at­ing arti­fi­cial ver­sions of our­selves.

Mason: [to O’Hara] So back again to the sci­ence fic­tion nar­ra­tives that have dealt with these issues of ver­sions of our­selves and anthro­po­mor­phism. I mean, obvi­ous­ly that’s prece­dent for hav­ing some­thing that looks and sounds like some­one who exist­ed as human. But again, what are the sort of expres­sions of a robot that would express its own sex­u­al iden­ti­ty? Or how could we start think­ing about that?

O’Hara: How can we start think­ing about…? I haven’t quite got it. How can we start think­ing about a robot express­ing desire?

Mason: Well no, a robot express­ing its own mor­phol­o­gy, its own way of being, per­haps robots hav­ing sex with each oth­er. What would syn­thet­ic biobots—would they have sex lives?

O’Hara: Bacterial sex, yes. Of a kind. I think we start… One of the ways we tend to trap our­selves is by think­ing pure­ly in terms of the frame of AI and robots in gen­er­al, which is around mechan­i­cal and dig­i­tal com­put­ing. And I think what we want to do instead is start think­ing about the ani­mal world, not just the arti­fi­cial world. We want to start think­ing about nature and the way in which nat­ur­al com­put­ing is start­ing to blend those two worlds.

And once you start doing that, then you start to see that the sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers who were the real vision­ar­ies were per­haps not peo­ple like Asimov, who pro­vid­ed you with a vision of a humanoid robot that you’re hav­ing sex with, but indeed some­body like JG Ballard, who’s talk­ing about these very strange peo­ple deriv­ing sex­u­al sat­is­fac­tion from engag­ing with archi­tec­ture, for exam­ple. Now, there’s an idea. Synthetic biol­o­gy is also work­ing in archi­tec­ture. We’re start­ing to have liv­ing archi­tec­ture, liv­ing build­ings. Now…what about hav­ing sex with a build­ing?

Devlin: Depends on the build­ing.

Barber: Somebody mar­ried the Eiffel Tower, didn’t they? They did, a woman mar­ried the Eiffel Tower.

Mason: But to your point Trudy, there’s a whole move of peo­ple who are inter­est­ed in hav­ing sex with robots. Is it called…correct me if I’m wrong, but forniphil­ia?

Barber: Oh crikey, I don’t know. There’s so many ver­sions of sort of…philias.

Pearson: Forniphilia?

Barber: Forniphilia.

Mason: Is it forniphil­ia?

Pearson: Well that’s using them as man­nequins or stat­ues.

Barber: Yeah, stat­ues.

Pearson: Which you can do, yeah.

Mason: Oh it’s…right.

Devlin: And that’s one of the ear­li­est—

Audience 2: Can I just give you a point of infor­ma­tion? Somebody had an affair with a train in the London Transport Museum.

Devlin: An ongo­ing affair?

Audience 2: It’s seri­ous, and wants to mar­ry it, yeah.

Devlin: Oh, bless. I was going to say that one of the ear­li­est sto­ries that we have of this arti­fi­cial life for sex” pur­pose is Pygmalion and his sculp­ture, where he brought it to life with a kiss because he want­ed to have this stat­ue and pos­sess it and have a sex­u­al rela­tion­ship with a stat­ue. So you know, noth­ing new under the sun.

Mason: Well, noth­ing new under the sun, but do you think when there is a lack of aware­ness, full stop, about sort of how our rela­tion­ships to objects cur­rent­ly, or to tech­nol­o­gy cur­rent­ly, is guid­ing our way of think­ing about the race and the gen­der and the design of these robots? To pret­ty much all of the pan­el.

Barber: I think it’s how we per­ceive plea­sure and how plea­sure is com­mu­ni­cat­ed. And if you’re talk­ing about sort of the whole biotech­nol­o­gy, and these enti­ties hav­ing sex with each oth­er, we’re talk­ing about dif­fer­ent realms of expe­ri­enc­ing plea­sure, and how do we define plea­sure, and how do we express it, and how is my plea­sure dif­fer­ent to your plea­sure? And, is that part of how we iden­ti­fy each oth­er? By the way that we expe­ri­ence plea­sure. Because as I was say­ing, we’ve kind of divorced the sex act from pro­cre­ation, we’re now just look­ing at notions of plea­sure. So it opens up a whole new are­na for expe­ri­enc­ing just being alive, and maybe sex robots” could be part of the begin­ning of that kind of explo­ration of plea­sure.

Mason: So with regards to… Just this con­ver­sa­tion in gen­er­al, we’ve been lucky that both Bondara’s allowed us to be here in Lights of Soho and have allowed us to be here to have this con­ver­sa­tion, but how do we have these sort of con­ver­sa­tions about some­thing which is bor­der­line taboo? And I’m refer­ring to the fact that David Levy and Adrian Cheok’s Second [Conference] of Love and Sex with Robots—you may have seen this—

Barber: I’m on the com­mit­tee and I reviewed the papers. And the papers were superb and I was think­ing Oh my good­ness!”

Mason: So just to explain, if you haven’t seen the recent press, there was a gen­tle­man called Adrian Cheok who’s very much focused on the hard­ware side. He’s known for the kiss­ing robots and the hug­ging vests. He’s at City of London University, I think but he’s based in Malaysia at the moment.

And the Congress, which I know Kate’s been involved in—the first Love and Sex with Robots Congress, was actu­al­ly can­celed by the Malaysian police, the Malaysian Chief of Police on the pro­vi­so that there was noth­ing sci­en­tif­ic about sex with robots. In Malaysia we do not allow anal sex and with robot nei­ther.” So this was— [laugh­ter] Direct trans­la­tion. So this con­ver­sa­tion is already being… I mean Malaysia’s a very spe­cial case. But it’s very easy to get—especially when it comes to talk­ing about future and tech, when those col­lide, it’s very easy to get gig­gly and exit­ed about these dis­cus­sions in the wrong way. How do we have an informed dis­cus­sion, Kate? How do we do it?

Devlin: Yeah, I mean— How do we do it, I wish I would com­plete­ly answer— I think by being open about it is one thing. I remem­ber at one point at a research con­fer­ence lunch, talk­ing to some­one and actu­al­ly using the words actu­at­ed vagi­na,” and then I real­ized that I just used the words actu­at­ed vagi­na” in a research con­ver­sa­tion. To oth­er peo­ple this might be weird. I think it’s some­thing we should be real­ly open about, and I just refuse to get phased about it any­more. Because that’s the way that things are going.

In the case of the con­fer­ence in Malaysia, that was per­haps not the wis­est choice of venue in terms of cul­tur­al deci­sion­mak­ing. You know, we host­ed a Love and Sex with Robots Symposium at Goldsmiths in 2014, and it was very suc­cess­ful. We had a doc­u­men­tary crew along to film it as well. It was part of the AISB (Artificial Intelligence Similar Behavior) Convention that I was co-chairing there.

And David Levy came along to talk about the work there. He came to use first of all and said, Well look, we want to do this con­fer­ence but we’ve got a lot of very explic­it mate­r­i­al. Is it going to be okay to show this?” And we went, Hey, we’re Goldsmiths, right? Anything goes here.” And for­tu­nate­ly, that was the case. And it had a big draw, it had a big draw. All the media cov­er­age for the con­ven­tion was like, Oh, do you know there’s a love and sex with robots thing?”

So yeah, I think it’s about being real­ly open about it and get­ting pub­lic engage­ment, mak­ing things real­ly explic­it, if you par­don the pun. But just to try and encour­age peo­ple to talk about it. And I think tech­nol­o­gy is some­thing that allows us to do that with the Internet, you know, with peo­ple using the Web more and more, you’ve seen a lot more work around sex­u­al­i­ty and gen­der iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, and all that sort of stuff that would not have arisen with­out the Internet. And so I think that that’s a chance to progress that in terms of sex robots.

Barber: I was part of the con­fer­ence and stuff. But the thing you were men­tion­ing about mak­ing it more open, hav­ing more peo­ple talk­ing about it. One of the things I’m quite inter­est­ed in at the moment is the advent of hap­tics, of course, with social media. And there are peo­ple now exper­i­ment­ing with a kind— Well, I’m call­ing them Multiple Open Haptic Online Orgies, or MOHOOs, where you’ve got all lots of peo­ple join­ing togeth­er hav­ing this kind of hap­tic sex­u­al sen­sa­tion. And because we’ve got social media and things like Facebook and stuff, where peo­ple are being open, talk­ing about things and com­mu­ni­cat­ing in that way, that the next step is the feel­ie ver­sion of it. And I think that might be part of the ground­break­ing ele­ment to get every­body talk­ing about these things.

Mason: So Ian, do you think it’s going to go the way of online dat­ing? Is it one of these things that we talk about in Soho in a pan­el, and then in a cou­ple of years’ time it’s sud­den­ly adver­tised on bill­boards. Do you think?

Pearson: Yeah, I think a lot of it will hap­pen via that kind of route. But what we’re start­ing to see in online com­mu­ni­ties, one of the biggest vir­tu­al com­mu­ni­ties online of course is Second Life. And they’re already bring­ing Oculus Rift into there, and they’re already start­ing to explore it. And next year anoth­er gen­er­a­tion of that tech­nol­o­gy comes out. But there is already a very vibrant sex­u­al com­mu­ni­ty in Second Life. Probably most of the peo­ple are in Second Life for that rea­son. And that is today’s sort of dat­ing tech­nol­o­gy, and it’s how peo­ple exper­i­ment, and peo­ple are mess­ing around with all sorts of things like con­vert­ing oth­er peo­ple into stat­ues and man­nequins and lock­ing them elec­tron­i­cal­ly in place.

And yet at the same time neu­ro­sci­en­tists are dis­cov­er­ing how to do that in real life. You know, you apply a volt­age to the right part of your brain and you can actu­al­ly freeze some­body and switch off their con­scious­ness. And you can stim­u­late the vagus nerve, you cre­ate orgasms and stuff. So we’re start­ing to link togeth­er what you can do inside cyber­space and what you can do in real life.

But there’s a real­ly impor­tant bit that we’ve missed so far in this con­ver­sa­tion, I think, which is the trans­gen­der com­mu­ni­ty has also been doing a great deal of the explo­ration of the next fron­tiers in this. And you get a man that wants to be a woman, or vice ver­sa occa­sion­al­ly. You could do that elec­tron­i­cal­ly. I could buy a female robot, maybe in twen­ty years, I can link my ner­vous sys­tem into that, maybe use some enhance­ment extra lit­tle bits in the IT and the cloud to pro­vide extra map­ping space to link on the female gen­i­talia and so on. I could be female in a much stronger way than I could today, going and get­ting an oper­a­tion [crosstalk] Far East some­where. I think it’s a very strong way of devel­op­ing the next gen­er­a­tion of this kind of tech­nol­o­gy.

What is it you object to?

Audience 3: I have to object to that.

I’m sor­ry, the idea that… You’re mak­ing a social judg­ment. I mean, being male or female is as much a social role as it is a phys­i­cal role. And say­ing that hav­ing a robot is more authen­ti­cal­ly female in any sense than a trans per­son expe­ri­ences being their actu­al gen­der, that is huge­ly prob­lem­at­ic, and I’m sor­ry for inter­rupt­ing [inaudi­ble].

Pearson: I don’t believe I said that. I said it was tool that they can use. I’m say­ing that that com­mu­ni­ty could use that as a tech­nique. I’m not say­ing that’s the best way of them doing it. I’m not pro­vid­ing any val­ue judg­ment, I’m just say­ing it’s a tech­nol­o­gy that would be fea­si­ble. That’s all I’m say­ing. I’m not cre­at­ing any val­ue judg­ment on that at all. I’m just observ­ing that the tech­nol­o­gy will become pos­si­ble.

Mason: So do you think then…the prob­lem becomes the feed­back loop? So we anthro­po­mor­phize these robots, and then we slow­ly want to become…them, and they…?

Pearson: I don’t think that hav­ing the tech­nol­o­gy avail­able will nec­es­sar­i­ly force a lot of peo­ple to go down that route. But peo­ple who do want to go down that route, it’s an extra option for them. And because some peo­ple might want to do that and because they’re doing it in a com­mu­ni­ty which is…I think at the moment it’s actu­al­ly got quite a lot of back­ing and a lot of us are very sup­port­ive of the trans­gen­der com­mu­ni­ty, I think that that might be some­thing where we can all agree that yeah we could all go down that way a lit­tle bit faster than we would have done oth­er­wise because some peo­ple might ben­e­fit from it, where­as oth­er­wise we might have been very wary of it and tried to make laws against it. So it might open cer­tain fron­tiers which might oth­er­wise be more dif­fi­cult to pen­e­trate. And I think that’s a good thing.

Mason: So, maybe less on chang­ing gen­der, but do you think we will want to make our­selves more robot­ic? I know, Trudy, you’ve looked at…let me get the terms right, androidism” and maskers?”

Barber: Yeah.

Mason: The androidism of the music artist Janelle Monáe, and if you could explain maskers.

Barber: Maskers are most­ly guys that like to com­plete­ly dress up, usu­al­ly in com­plete rub­ber suits, and they like to see them­selves as the oppos­ing gen­der. So most­ly it’s men who want to become these women, but they’re wear­ing com­plete masks, and they’re wear­ing com­plete body­suits. It’s kind of like what I was talk­ing about with my ear­li­er research where you had this group of peo­ple who con­nect­ed them­selves up to the tech­nol­o­gy. But this is a kind of fetishis­tic group that do this. Because there’s cer­tain con­nec­tion with the actu­al mate­r­i­al that they cov­er them­selves with, which is like rub­ber.

But I’m par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in transgender—really quite impor­tant­ly, because I think it’s part of the research into inno­va­tion, and it’s part of that dri­ve to be what you think you real­ly should be that is part of that inno­v­a­tive dri­ve. And part of that is your sex­u­al­i­ty and your gen­der. And I’m quite inter­est­ed in the tran­si­tion process from one gen­der to the oth­er, and I’m start­ing to look at a cer­tain research project, which I won’t real­ly go into because it’s in the very ear­ly stages. But look­ing in terms of not nec­es­sar­i­ly robot­ics as such, but in terms of ani­mat­ed holo­graph­ics in order to iden­ti­fy dif­fer­ent ele­ments of sex­u­al­i­ty and ideas of gen­der, but depend­ing if you per­ceive gen­der as being per­for­ma­tive.

So there’s lots of dif­fer­ent lay­ers going on that we can assume about gen­der, which may not be the case as well. So it’s a mar­velous bowl of dif­fer­ent things that we can look at about sex­u­al­i­ty, about gen­der, about plea­sure, about enter­tain­ment, about pro­cre­ation, about our cre­ative urges, about our inno­va­tion. And I think just it’s… I mean, you guys are in this time where all these things are hap­pen­ing and I just wish and hope that I will still be able to see it in my life­time in almost a tran­shu­man­ist or posthu­man­ist future.

Mason: So I think… So the great thing about Virtual Futures Salon is you guys are curat­ed as heav­i­ly as these guys, and I would love to spend about half an hour open­ing up to audi­ence ques­tions. I will just say this now: we are record­ing. If you don’t want your con­tri­bu­tion placed on the Web please come and see me after­wards. We’re record­ing both the audio and film. But, don’t let that stop you ask­ing a ques­tion, we’ll be more than hap­py to edit out. So we’d love to open it up to this audi­ence for the next about half an hour. Please sir.

Audience 4: I’m con­fused.

Mason: Another hour. So…

Audience 4: Because we seem to have start­ed with an assump­tion about what we mean by sex. And Trudy was clear that sex is now sep­a­rate from pro­cre­ation. Although we’ll still need some sort of pro­cre­ation. But you then jumped imme­di­ate­ly to say­ing that sex was about plea­sure… And I won­der if that’s what we’re all agreed on. But it’s a very spe­cif­ic type of plea­sure, and it also must have some cor­re­la­tion with rela­tion­ship, hasn’t it?

Devlin: Can I say that from the arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence point of view, from a cog­ni­tive sys­tems point of view, I’m inter­est­ed in sex as a fun­da­men­tal human moti­va­tor. So it’s some­thing that is absolute­ly fun­da­men­tal and vital to being human, in that we are here to pro­cre­ate. Although, you know—

Audience 4: That’s indi­vidu— It’s indi­vid­ual.

Devlin: It can be indi­vid­ual. But I think that human sex no longer no longer has to mean pro­cre­ation. In human terms, we can pro­cre­ate with­out the actu­al sex act. That’s why you have IVF and things like that. So it is actu­al­ly divorced from it in human terms as well.

In terms of is it for plea­sure, I don’t know. I mean, it’s asso­ci­at­ed with—as a col­league of mine, Chris, who’s a sex­u­al psy­chol­o­gist will say—it’s asso­ci­at­ed with a whole raft of dif­fer­ent well­be­ing mea­sures. So it is intrin­sic to our lives, it’s valu­able to our lives. So I’m inter­est­ed in see­ing how it impacts our brain, how it impacts our way of think­ing.

Barber: One of the things I’m quite inter­est­ed in as well is the idea of the synaes­thet­ic orgasm. So it depends if you see things, if you hear things, if you sen­sate dif­fer­ent­ly in your orgas­mic moment, or your iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of plea­sure. And I would be inter­est­ed to see how that would trans­late with­in a dig­i­tal cul­ture.

Audience 5: Some of us are hunters. Some of us like to find some­one attrac­tive and go and get them. And what strikes me about tech­nol­o­gy is that it’s a very lazy way of expe­ri­enc­ing plea­sure because every­thing is—you can cus­tomize every­thing, you can order a robot… You know, you can get an orgasm at the end of the day, but where is this pur­suit aspect, and this aspect that like mmm, he might not like me, or just try­ing to— You know, this inter­ac­tion, this uncer­tain­ty, that’s kind of inher­ent in pur­suit. And all the technology’s just as sim­ple as like kind of, you know, you just get it.

Mason: I per­haps want to go to Dan and Ian. Is it going to be dumb AI?

Audience 5: It’s like, can a robot actu­al­ly pick me up in a bar, you know?

O’Hara: You have great faith in the capac­i­ty of tech­nol­o­gy to pro­vide what you want but I would ask you, since when have you used any piece of tech­nol­o­gy that didn’t stop work­ing, break down, bat­tery runs out, update fails, you’re sit­ting there wait­ing, you know… Let me not men­tion Apple and the kind of expe­ri­ences you can get there.

In oth­er words, machines go wrong, a lot. A hell of a lot. And there’s an artist called Cécile B. Evans I was talk­ing with at Art Dubai ear­li­er this year, and that talk is online, you can watch it. Cécile was res­i­dent at the Serpentine, and she made a very inter­est­ing video project of an imper­fect, glitched copy—a kind of AI-type copy—of the actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The data—it wasn’t inten­tion­al, but the data she was using glitched. She got all sorts of noise in the sig­nal. And so when she actu­al­ly runs this, you’ve got this bot of Phillip Seymour Hoffman but it doesn’t…quite…behave right. Gets things wrong, gets a bit mixed up. I think in actu­al fact we need to start think­ing about the sheer unre­li­a­bil­i­ty of the plat­form as well. Which may, by some peo­ple, be regard­ed as a pos­i­tive, rather than a neg­a­tive, if you’re look­ing for the unpre­dictable.

Mason: Will we get the full play VR, Ian?

Pearson: We have to solve that prob­lem. But that’s an excel­lent point. Technology today breaks down. The body doesn’t break down in quite the same way. You might have a heart attack or a stroke or some­thing like that, it might break down, but gen­er­al­ly speak­ing our bod­ies are fairly…immune to that kind of provo­ca­tion that crash­es our today’s com­put­ers very eas­i­ly.

If we get the solu­tions to that, and we have to get the solu­tions to that because we’re very vul­ner­a­ble to attack by ter­ror­ist groups and rogue gov­ern­ments and any mad sci­en­tist that comes around in fif­teen, twen­ty years’ time, we have to solve that as a sep­a­rate prob­lem in tech­nol­o­gy any­way. If we do, and then we have a more robust tech­nol­o­gy plat­form on which to base all these future things, then we can pro­vide the things with any per­son­al­i­ty that you like. So if you want some­one that’s real­ly easy to pick up in the bar…well you know, snap your fin­gers and they’d come run­ning. If you want to have a big fight over it, then it will take you weeks and weeks and weeks to chat them up because you’ve got to get to real­ly know them before they’re even show­ing any inter­est at all. I mean, there isn’t a sin­gle form of sexbot that’s going to come along. It’ll be as diverse as humans will be, prob­a­bly more diverse because you’ve got more dimen­sions to play with. So it’ll be what­ev­er way you want it to be, or whichev­er way some­body else wants to be who wants to force them on you. So, there’s a rich diver­si­ty of sexbots com­ing down the road.

Mason: I mean, I find some­thing prob­lem­at­ic about it being what you want it to be, rather than it express­ing its own…

Pearson: I think it is poten­tial­ly prob­lem­at­ic, but we face these sorts of prob­lems every day. I mean, do you cycle to work and make your­self fit and eat sal­ad for lunch, or do you get a car to work and have a Big Mac for lunch and sort of die twenty-five years ear­ly of a heart attack? You know, we make those sorts of trade-offs every day in life—its not a new one. We’ve always had the do you want to do things prop­er­ly in a rich human-like way, or do you just want to get into bed quick­ly and get your orgasm and move onto some­thing else?”

Mason: And I think Veronica’s ques­tion to an extent was do you want the cheat code: up up left left right right tri­an­gle tri­an­gle square square, orgasm?

Pearson: There’s noth­ing to stop you mak­ing it as human-like as you want. You can make it as machine-like as you want. There’s a vast spec­trum and you can put it any­where on that line. And whether you buy it and have it cus­tomized or whether you buy some­thing off the shelf that’s designed by some guy in Apple or some­thing, that’s your free choice to do that. You can pay over the odds and get it cus­tomized exact­ly to your require­ments, or you could just buy one from a man­u­fac­tur­er.

Now, what is inter­est­ing, though, is the poten­tial man­u­fac­tur­ers are actu­al­ly very very squea­mish about this. And I play with my Xbox and I’m play­ing this game called Skyrim. And I’ve been play­ing it far too long, real­ly, but you know, every day I’m chop­ping people’s heads off and blood spurts every­where. But per­ish the thought that I might see a nip­ple in that pro­gram. Microsoft are ter­ri­fied of hav­ing any nudi­ty on any of their pro­grams. On a PC you’ll get peo­ple that will hack into it and allow you to do that. That mod com­mu­ni­ty will do it, but on the pure Xbox plat­form they will not. We have this idea that you can have lots of blood and guts and be as nasty as you pos­si­bly want to be in a com­put­er game, but you must nev­er see any­body naked. And I have to won­der, we’re talk­ing about all these sexbots and all this won­der­ful future that we might have, or ter­ri­ble future. Will we actu­al­ly have that choice, or will the Googles and the Microsofts of this world decide that it’s not in their brand’s cor­po­rate inter­est, and you will only be able to get it through the mod com­mu­ni­ty the way you got the sex VR stuff in the ear­ly 1990s. It might be as dif­fi­cult as that.

Mason: And this was the issue with GTA, but that’s a whole oth­er video game. Sex and Violence, Kate, do you…?

Devlin: Yeah, I was just going to say it’s a long way off, hav­ing machines that are sen­tient, but if they were then who says they’re going to want to have sex with us? So this is just say­ing if you start to intro­duc­ing sen­tience to some degree, you start look­ing at things like free will, auton­o­my, con­sent, all these sorts of issues as well. But again, that’s a long way off.

Mason: Robots are going to look at us and go, No thank you.”

Devlin: Perhaps!

Mason: Random bio bits, no thank you.

Audience 6: Given Dr. Pearson just said how robots will nev­er be as diverse as human beings, sure­ly they would only ever be an exten­sion of porn in that case. And also you talked about the tech­nol­o­gy advanc­ing quick­ly. Is it advanc­ing so quick­ly that it would over­take A, finan­cial bar­ri­ers so sure­ly this is, at the moment the pre­serve of the super rich and peo­ple who can afford it; and B, the moral bar­ri­ers, so at what point am I going to get to the stage where I walk down the street and see my friend who I haven’t seen for a long time and he says, I’m dat­ing a robot,” and I think that’s not weird?

Mason: So Nick’s my friend; I know what’s com­ing.

Pearson: I mean, you have a 1% or 2% geek com­mu­ni­ty all the time, push­ing for­wards the bar­ri­ers, and they will always buy the lat­est tech and make their own, that’ll mod whatever’s going and they will make it hap­pen. And then very slow­ly after­wards the rest of soci­ety adapts and grad­u­al­ly the mar­kets start appear­ing for buy­ing all the oth­er san­i­tized ver­sions of that, accord­ing to what peo­ple will accept at the cur­rent date. That whole val­ue bast that soci­ety has is on a free run. We’ve thrown reli­gion in the bin quite some time ago, but there aren’t any real­ly strong anchors any­more for that moral base. And things that you con­sid­er to be immoral today you might per­fect­ly be hap­py with in fif­teen, twen­ty, thir­ty years’ time. So, I don’t think you can pre­empt the dis­cus­sion of what will be allowed in say 2045, 2050. A lot of that might be—

Audience 6: [inaudi­ble sen­tence] You were talk­ing ear­li­er about we’re hap­py to see blood or some­thing but not nip­ples, that is religion-based, because essen­tial­ly we’re hap­py to [inaudi­ble] draw and peo­ple before we’re hap­py to see nudi­ty. But, robots do not have a bible. Or, any of the kind of reli­gious [doc­u­ments?], as far as I’m aware.

Mason: No, but there’s the [argu­ment?] This is the rea­son why per­haps the East is slight­ly more open to the idea of robots hav­ing souls, is because there wasn’t Judeo-Christian reli­gion to say that objects can­not have soul” as such.

Audience 6: Living objects.

Mason: Non…um, objects.

Audience 7: I’m going to have to make a Blade Runner ref­er­ence. Leaving aside the do androids dream of elec­tric sheep?,” which is going the wrong wrong direc­tion, the char­ac­ter in Blade Runner, Pris, was described as a stan­dard plea­sure bot. Do we think that actu­al­ly what we’re going to end up with is some­thing con­sid­er­ably more mun­dane than what we’ve said here, where actu­al­ly you get essen­tial­ly most­ly vanil­la sex robots, rather than this weird spec­trum of fan­tas­tic fetish­es and so on? Are we going to end up with essen­tial­ly stan­dard sex, as we start­ed with?

Barber: I mean, if you’ve got your stan­dard sex robot, and you are a par­tic­u­lar fetishist or you’re a sado­masochist, you will do what you want to that robot. Forget safe words, because they wont feel pain. What’s the moral issues there? And the prob­lem is, is the rights of the robot then we’re look­ing at. There are eth­i­cal dis­cus­sions to do with the rights of the robot. Should you have robots that will allow them­selves to be beat­en and caned and tied up and sus­pend­ed and all this kind of stuff, just so that you can get your sadis­tic feel­ings out if you’re a sex­u­al sadist? So it’s tricky. There have been dis­cus­sions at Goldsmith’s, some quite inter­est­ing dis­cus­sions about the legal­i­ties and the social rights, the con­sent of the robot.

Pearson: That film Blade Runner was actu­al­ly a very good one in a lot of ways. I mean, Pris was an inter­est­ing basic plea­sure mod­el, but Rachael was very much more sophisticated—I think she was Nexus-7 or some­thing. My daugh­ter is named after Rachael from the Blade Runner film, by the way. And she knows that too, so it won’t be a big sur­prise to her! But Rachael in that film is as sophis­ti­cat­ed and pass­es quite hap­pi­ly as a human being. And she rais­es all sorts of moral issues and deep phi­los­o­phy dur­ing that film as well. She is exact­ly the sort of per­son that you would spend time chat­ting up in a bar to get her to go to bed with you. You know, you would treat her pret­ty much the way you would anoth­er human being. And I think that’s actu­al­ly quite a real­is­tic future. The only arguable thing is which date it hap­pens. Science fiction’s usu­al­ly set a cou­ple of decades too ear­ly, but you know, by 2050 you will have Rachael from Blade Runner.

Devlin:I would say the way things are going prac­ti­cal­ly at the minute you can go and buy a sex robot now, such as the True Companion one, the Roxxxy one, for about $6,000, some­thing like that? And they’re going to have a male ver­sion called Rocky.

But we’re also liv­ing in a time when cus­tomiz­abil­i­ty is a huge part of tech­nol­o­gy. And why shouldn’t you design your own made-to-order sexbot? I mean…would your sexbot have hair? Just as the sim­plest thing. Would it have two legs? How many heads would it have? You could design your own and make it. We’re mov­ing to a mak­ing com­mu­ni­ty. I don’t see why that’s some­thing…

Mason: Right. And a thing I’m tak­ing from thing, and com­ing back to Cécile’s work, who’s face would it have?

Devlin: Oh, Peter [inaudi­ble]. Maybe.

Audience 8: Is it a prob­lem, though, that with like Roxy, that peo­ple could design their own? Like it’s real­ly inter­est­ing what you were say­ing about peo­ple design­ing. But because Roxxxy’s you know, been designed, she will become the most pop­u­lar. And as I under­stand it Roxxxy has GPS to the local Nando’s? and like fast food? So what Roxxxy can [inaudi­ble] she can tell me where to get KFC. She can tell you where to get Nando’s and Macdonald’s. She can tell you you’re fit (designed for a man), and she’s got dif­fer­ent set­tings like Slutty Sadie, and Shy Sarah, who reluc­tant­ly has sex with you. So, that’s a real­ly hor­ri­ble mod­el, right? But that’s going to be the fastest-selling new sex robot because peo­ple aren’t going to have the mon­ey and the ener­gy. The ethics of the design­ers of Roxxxy 2000 are real­ly ques­tion­able. So sure­ly that’s why its real­ly impor­tant that there’s some kind of soci­ety or legal inter­ven­tion to make sure that we don’t just roll out Roxxxy.

Devlin: I think that’s… The inter­est­ing thing is that when you get a lot of tech­nol­o­gy you’re always going to get peo­ple who try to sub­vert it and cus­tomize it. And hopefully—hopefully—they will reject that in favor of doing their own. I mean, I’d real­ly like to see that hap­pen. But yeah, its kind of grim, the Roxxxy thing.

Barber: So will Nando’s actu­al­ly have spe­cial evenings where you can take your Roxxxy robot to it if she’s got a GPS?

Audience 8: [inaudi­ble] But like, shouldn’t we be talk­ing about how that might be avoid­ed?

Barber: Yeah. But, I mean are we going to sit in the local pizze­ria and have peo­ple there with their robot part­ners?

Mason: I mean if Nando’s is your first date choice I think you’re safe with a robot.

Audience 9: I think there’s quite inter­est­ing strat­e­gy you’re bring­ing up there. We’re say­ing there is an estab­lished mar­ket, indus­try, adver­tis­ing indus­try, sex indus­try, that behaves in a cer­tain way with a cer­tain set of behav­iors and activ­i­ties that might pro­duce the Suzie, Sarah, Nando’s sex robot more than any­thing else, and what might be a good way to deal with that, and dis­rupt it in that kind of way. For me the alter­na­tive would be to pro­duce an alter­na­tive. Rather than go out and say, Look, House of Commons, rah rah rah, this is hor­ri­ble for all these rea­sons, please leg­is­late against it.” they’re not going to [inaudi­ble]. But we might be able to pro­duce and actu­al­ly man­u­fac­ture, and pro­duce the means to man­u­fac­ture an alter­na­tive. So, [inaudi­ble], a lot of alter­na­tives that we might offer.

Mason: Ben, you mean like Ian’s men­tion of Skyrim, you’re going to be sit­ting on a char­ac­ter cre­ation screen for hours and hours on end…?

Audience 9: Well actu­al­ly, there are some very sim­ple pieces of tech­nol­o­gy that chal­lenge our pre­con­di­tions of sex­u­al­i­ty. I mean, the idea that we lib­er­ate sex­u­al­i­ty from its cur­rent social behav­iors into some­thing that is just pure­ly pleasure-driven chal­lenges the ques­tion what it is like to live?” Why am I alive? Why am I doing this? And we’ve got to ask that ques­tion, and it is dif­fer­ent.

Devlin: I think I agree, sex as being embod­ied, as being part of our exis­tence, I think is a very inter­est­ing thing. And I like the idea of chal­leng­ing things, that’s exact­ly my point with the Campaign Against Sex Robots. Instead of try­ing to ban things we should be explor­ing it instead and open­ing it up to much wider explo­ration.

Audience 9 And shouldn’t it be a cam­paign for sex robots?

Devlin: Mine would be. I’m not part of the Campaign Against Sex Robots—absolute­ly not.

Audience 10: Have any of you ever seen or read Jennifer Haley’s The Nether? It was a play, a Royal Court thing in 2014, where in a future world we can all put our­selves into pods and live as avatars on the Internet. There is part of the Internet where you can vis­it, have sex with and bru­tal­ly mur­der small chil­dren. But those chil­dren are them­selves played as avatars by adults, because the gov­ern­ment had leg­is­lat­ed as such that chil­dren them­selves couldn’t expe­ri­ence that, but adults could put them­selves into a child’s body and gain sex­u­al plea­sure from being killed or tor­tured as a child.

But I think the big take­away point—I mean to me—from the play actu­al­ly was more about the human impact on those peo­ple who were play­ing the chil­dren, or who were as an adult hav­ing sex with a child that they knew was an adult. That and the ethics of whether we should be hav­ing chil­dren robots to have sex with. The more impor­tant point was I think the emo­tion­al effect it had on those peo­ple who were play­ing chil­dren. And I guess my ques­tion is more about if we have the per­fect woman or the per­fect man or the per­fect bio­gel to have sex with, how does that effect our own behav­ior, and whether there’s stud­ies about how that is affect­ing our own sex­u­al behav­ior with oth­er humans.

Barber: I think men­tion­ing the behav­ior with chil­dren is a spe­cif­ic type of fetishis­tic behav­ior, deal­ing with chil­dren, and it’s some­thing to do with pow­er. So the way you’re look­ing at sex and pow­er would be a way to deal with that, but it’s slight­ly dif­fer­ent than deal­ing with dif­fer­ent forms of sex­u­al plea­sure because there are ele­ments of pow­er that go on here that I think are quite divorced from oth­er ele­ments of adult-to-adult sex­u­al plea­sure. So I think the ethics to do with pow­er and child­hood are some­thing that’s quite anoth­er, dif­fer­ent argu­ment to be had, or dis­cus­sion to be had, in terms of how we look at pedophil­ia, how we look at the child robot, and how we engage with our sense of sex­u­al pow­er over an indi­vid­ual. And that’s where I think that argu­ment could take on a total­ly new, dif­fer­ent, form of dis­cus­sion. And I think we need to have those kinds of dis­cus­sion in order to be able to help the dif­fer­ent sort of cul­tures that deal with issues of child sex and pow­er.

O’Hara: The prob­lem is though, Trudy, isn’t it, that con­ver­sa­tions like this are very rarely pos­si­ble. And that it is pre­cise­ly in art that these ideas can be explored. Because art is some­how seen as vir­tu­al in itself, as a play­ground, a lab­o­ra­to­ry, some­where where the lim­its and taboos are kind of thrown out and we can kind of push that as far as pos­si­ble, as an exper­i­ment.

It quite amus­es me that we were talk­ing about the con­fer­ence being banned in Malaysia and going, Oh…bad choice of venue,” because as some­body who’s lived out­side of the UK for a very long time and only just come back, the idea of talk­ing about sex in Britain? I would’ve thought this is just about the worst place in the world to actu­al­ly try to have these con­ver­sa­tions.

But one of the things that we can talk about—and I think it comes back to first ques­tion, almost, about def­i­n­i­tions of sex. We’ve been talk­ing about pro­cre­ation hav­ing been sub­tract­ed. And we’ve talked about plea­sure. And the one thing we haven’t talked about, as an ordi­nary func­tion of sex, is com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Nobody’s real­ly men­tioned that, and I just want­ed to flag it up as some­thing which art, which the­ater, explic­it­ly fore­grounds. As that exam­ple does.

Devlin: Can I actu­al­ly… On that point, what you said about how does it affect our rela­tion­ship with oth­ers. And I think that’s inter­est­ing. Because in terms of any­one who’s in an estab­lished, monog­a­mous rela­tion­ship, what hap­pens if you intro­duce a sex­u­al bot into that—is it infi­deli­ty? What’s the line between sex toy, and sex robot? Where does the idea of faith­ful­ness come into it? Are you cheat­ing on your part­ner if you’re using this sex robot? How much sen­tience does it have to have, how much auton­o­my does it have to have, before it becomes a third par­ty in your monog­a­mous rela­tion­ship, for exam­ple?

Barber: As part of some sex­u­al ther­a­pies, a sur­ro­gate sex­u­al part­ner is bought in any­way as part of sex­u­al ther­a­py, mar­i­tal rela­tion­ship ther­a­py. So maybe a sexbot might actu­al­ly make that a bit more…easy, for some cou­ples?

Devlin: Or in terms of sex­u­al sur­ro­ga­cy in the case of dis­abil­i­ty, where some­one is pro­vid­ing some kind of sex­u­al ther­a­py and sex­u­al help towards some­body, per­haps.

Audience 11: We’ve kind of reached where I want­ed to ask my ques­tion, real­ly. It’s pick­ing up from some­thing Kate said ear­ly on about we touched on the neces­si­ty of sex as we know it, not just the mechan­ics but the inti­ma­cy, for our well­be­ing, and for our inter­con­nect­ed­ness. It’s clear when there’s a gulf in sex­u­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion and peo­ple are look­ing to porn and sheer sort of like, just the mechan­ics, the pump­ings of things. Then there’s a real lone­li­ness when it comes to inti­ma­cy because sex becomes a per­for­mance and not an inter­ac­tion. And I think that leads to neg­a­tive impacts on men­tal health in our soci­ety.

And also there were stud­ies recent­ly about, espe­cial­ly young peo­ple, overus­ing their iPhones, only real­ly inter­act­ing with their screens, and that might be lead­ing to lack of sleep, anx­i­ety, depres­sion. And also a lack of being able to inter­act with people—being social inept, not being able to be touched with­out think­ing it’s weird. But then also, and in addi­tion, there’s this aug­ment­ed real­i­ty of Facebook, of social media, again feed­ing into anx­i­ety, peo­ple look­ing to these sort of aug­ment­ed, per­fect­ed ideals of what’s pos­si­ble and then becom­ing anx­ious and hav­ing very low self-esteem.

So I guess my ques­tion is about if we’re going into sort of this sex­u­al, robo­t­ized future where it’s man vs. octo­cock [inaudi­ble phrase; laugh­ter] So all of these per­fect ideals, what’s that going to do to our men­tal health? How’s it going to feed into anx­i­ety and not feel­ing good enough?

O’Hara: Maybe one way to approach that is to con­sid­er— And I don’t want to get all Freudian on every­one at this late point in the evening. But, con­sid­er how many of those behav­iors in com­bi­na­tion with the devices we already have are them­selves libid­i­nal rela­tions. There’s a phrase that Mark Fisher uses about mobile phones—particularly about iPhones. He calls them electro-libidinal par­a­sites.” Because of the way they par­a­sitize libid­i­nal behaviors—the repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. And those behav­iors in us are being chan­neled already, every day, by many things. By the world around us, by adver­tis­ing, by all the devices we use. So per­haps we’re already in that world and this is maybe about redi­rect­ing it towards a more prop­er, full, rather than par­tial, object. Or not?

Devlin: In terms of tech­nol­o­gy today, the phone is a good exam­ple. Our phones are very inti­mate to us—we don’t tend to lend our phones to strangers. We have this attach­ment to this tech­nol­o­gy already, that we don’t want to share it, we keep it to our­selves. I mean I would feel slight­ly freaked out by the idea of giv­ing a stranger my phone. We just don’t do it, even if they were stand­ing there going, I real­ly need to call some­one!” No, I don’t want to pass that over to you. So there is this attach­ment already to tech­nol­o­gy that we have.

Audience 12: My ques­tion is that most tech­nol­o­gy seems to either do a new thing that isn’t already pro­vid­ed, or do some­thing much much bet­ter than some­thing that already exist­ed. And tech­nol­o­gy that doesn’t do one of those things tends to not be very suc­cess­ful. For exam­ple, the Apple Watch, giv­en that we have smart­phones, and watch­es. [laugh­ter]

So my ques­tion is… (Smartphones have clocks on them.) What is the incen­tive for busi­ness­es that pri­mar­i­ly have to mass-produce these things? A lot of the sex robots we’ve talked about are are being pro­duced as sort of R&D stuff, not nec­es­sar­i­ly to be sold, or pro­duced as sort of uni­ver­si­ty pieces or for research, which ulti­mate­ly can’t be pro­duced in the mass sphere. What is the actu­al finan­cial incen­tive to pro­duce sex robots on a mass scale, that might actu­al­ly be mass pro­duced by indi­vid­u­als, giv­en that all the exam­ples we’ve had so far have been very niche peo­ple, with niece sex­u­al pref­er­ences, who prob­a­bly could not pro­vide the huge amount of cap­i­tal nec­es­sary to cre­ate a kind of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence sex robot, giv­en that we have things like sex toys? What is the quan­tifi­able improve­ment we’d get with our kind of like Number 6 from Battlestar Galactica, giv­en the decades of R&D that would be nec­es­sary to build that thing, and the few num­ber of peo­ple who would want the prod­uct? Why would we actu­al­ly pro­duce sex robots?

Mason: So who’s going to build the Internet of Genitalia, Ian?

Barber: Yes.

Pearson: I think you will have a very small mar­ket of peo­ple who’re pre­pared to go out and buy just a sex robot. The vast major­i­ty of peo­ple will go out and buy a robot that does oth­er things like clean­ing the house or being a home but­ler or what­ev­er. And then peo­ple will form rela­tion­ships with those. I mean, we know peo­ple from just watch­ing Star Wars and oth­er sci­ence fic­tion, peo­ple do form rela­tion­ships with pret­ty crude robots. As long as they’ve got some sort of a per­son­al­i­ty there you’ll form an attach­ment with it. And peo­ple will buy all sorts of domes­tic robots for all sorts of rea­sons, and a lot of that will be for com­pan­ion­ship, and those com­pan­ion­ship robots will look quite human-like in many cas­es. And peo­ple will have sex with them. A few peo­ple will buy their robot specif­i­cal­ly for sex, but they’re going to be quite expen­sive for them to do that, I think ini­tial­ly, so I don’t think that mar­ket will be the dom­i­nant one, I think it will come in via the back door.

Mason: So to speak.

Audience 12 Why would you want to have sex with your serv­ing robot when it prob­a­bly wouldn’t be very good because it hasn’t been designed to have sex with you? I do like C-3P0[laugh­ter; inaudi­ble por­tion] I could have sex with a per­son, or I could use a sex toy, or lots of oth­er oppor­tu­ni­ties that would prob­a­bly be much bet­ter than hav­ing sex with let’s say C-3P0. Why is there the incen­tive to make C-3P0 bet­ter at hav­ing sex than say cook­ing a great omelet or some­thing?

Pearson: The key thing there is that tech­nol­o­gy doesn’t hap­pen in a vac­u­um. It doesn’t come in overnight and sud­den­ly you’ve a robot in your house. It devel­ops over a peri­od of years. And dur­ing those years you’re mess­ing around with vir­tu­al real­i­ty, you’re learn­ing to have vir­tu­al sex with all sorts of oth­er peo­ple, you’re start­ing to use machine medi­a­tion of that sex, you’re start­ing to make all sorts of dif­fer­ent things which make it more like­ly that when you come to buy your domes­tic robot you will also buy one that’s attrac­tive and prob­a­bly has that sex func­tion built into it. If you’re doing it tomor­row, you prob­a­bly wouldn’t. But if you’re doing it in ten, fif­teen years, time you prob­a­bly would.

Audience 12 But it’s real­ly hard to have sex that’s good. [laugh­ter]

Mason: So Gareth, I know you. This is not ther­a­py.

Audience 12 [inaudi­ble] …mean like, hav­ing sex just like, rut­ting into some­thing. It has to react back to you, which is a very com­pli­cat­ed pro­gram­ming sys­tem.

Pearson: But it will

Audience 12: That’s not pos­si­ble.

Pearson: If you’re hav­ing sex with an AI that exists today in 2015 it’s not going to be very good. If you’re hav­ing sex with an AI which hap­pens to be using a robot— I mean just sep­a­rate the AI and the robots because they’re not quite the same thing. But your AI that you’re hav­ing sex, with via the robot, you will get to know that. You will have a very very close rela­tion­ship with that AI by the time you get round to hav­ing sex with it. And the robot is just a front-end device.

Audience 12: Yeah, but there’s like move­ment.

Pearson: Yeah—

Mason: Kate, you look hor­ri­fied.

Devlin: I was just going to say sex toys. I mean, start with sex toys. Lots of peo­ple own sex toys. Would you want one that gets bet­ter and bet­ter and learns more and more about you? The sex gets bet­ter and bet­ter with the sex toy, yes! sure, why not. I mean I would, but you know.

How far do you want to take that? That I see as an area of mar­ke­ti­za­tion. And if some­one had said to me ten years ago would you want a phone that you were inti­mate­ly linked to and that could do every­thing for you I’d laugh and say, I don’t want a phone that I’m that depen­dent on,” but now I have one and you know, I love it to bits—emotionally attached. Same with sex toys, why not go down that route?

Mason: I can’t resist giv­ing the last ques­tion to Ghislaine Boddington, who’s…

Ghislaine Boddington: It was actu­al­ly more of a gen­er­al com­ment. But it was a fan­tas­tic pan­el, real­ly great. I just want­ed to say that I think that com­ing back to the ethics and behav­iors ques­tion, which I think is real­ly impor­tant, and every­body knows that that’s of impor­tance to it all. We are all aware of the sci-fi con­nec­tions. But also we need to be aware how mass they are. I mean for example—we haven’t men­tioned, but Humans, the recent series on tele­vi­sion; Her, the film. These are mass dis­cus­sions about the ethics and behav­iors around all of this which hap­pened long before these things come about.

So maybe we have to stay a bit opti­mistic. I mean I had an incred­i­ble dis­cus­sion in a taxi recent­ly about Humans with the taxi dri­ver. This is hap­pen­ing every­where, in everyone’s homes. Luckily it’s not just in here, yeah, even though this is a deep­er debate and we’ve much more knowl­edge and exper­tise. So, maybe we have to believe that these debates will go deep­er through the mass media expo­sure that’s hap­pen­ing too, where we explore those dystopias through those films and hope­ful­ly utopias that come out.

Mason: Well I would hope so. And let me end with this: The future is always vir­tu­al, and many things that may seem immi­nent nev­er actu­al­ly hap­pen. Fortunately our abil­i­ty to sur­vive the future is not con­tin­gent on our capac­i­ty for pre­dic­tion, though, some­times on those much more rare occa­sions, some­thing remark­able comes of star­ing the future deep in the eyes and chal­leng­ing every­thing that it seems to promise. I hope you feel you’ve done that tonight. The bar is open. Please join me in thank­ing these won­der­ful pan­elists.


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