Bleep, bloop, phwoar: Prepare the electric eel! The sexbots are coming
They come with a lot of baggage, including that shocker of a price tag
Marrying the lucrative sex-doll market with a consumer appetite for artificial intelligence is the logic behind a burgeoning but divisive world of erotic robots.
Currently in the hands of just a few global players vying for a stake in a predicted £23bn market, the race to turn a fetish into a mainstream proposition is not without challenges.
From high costs and hardware limitations to the accusations of sexism that these fantasy female personae routinely attract in a sensitive #MeToo climate, developers have their work cut out.
“Sex machines that are not anatomically correct have been around for years, but making them more realistic and human is still a relatively new field,” says Annabelle Knight, a sex expert and ambassador for online sex toy retailer Love Honey.
“We are starting to see real intent from manufacturers to create something as realistic as possible for the consumer, though it is undoubtedly an expensive business that for now prices out the man on the street.”
With a body made in China and a brain programmed in Europe, sexbot Samantha’s £4,000 price tag is a case in point.
The creation of Barcelona-based manufacturer Synthea Amatus, artificial intelligence software three years in the making elevates her from a traditional static sex doll into something interactive with speech-recognition capabilities akin to an Alexa/Siri chatbot, vibrating body parts and sensors that respond to human touch.
Yet for co-founder Arran Squire, it is the ability to function offline that steals a march on app-controlled rivals.
“The major benefit is the privacy issue; people don’t want to be doing things with their robot and find themselves on the internet.” Quite.
With a surprisingly elastic repertoire that can flit from a “sex mode” to dispensing healthy-eating advice, the cyborg demonstrates a level of multitasking that defines all market leading models, as outlined in the report, Our Sexual Future with Robots.
Compiled by the Foundation for Responsible Robotics, the findings highlight how all manufacturers are positioning their machines as having a broader role and purpose beyond simply a sex toy – a sex robot with extras – from interactive companion for the lonely to a tool for those with social anxiety, autism, Alzheimer’s and depression, claims that have been given short shrift by industry critics.
“Sex doll companies are reframing their dolls as companions, so they can neutralise and normalise some of the distasteful aspects of the whole phenomenon,” says Kathleen Richardson, a professor of ethics and culture of robots and AI at De Montfort University and co-founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots.
“The fact is that personal issues can't be resolved using artefacts – this idea of presenting objects as human is just a very dangerous idea – we can end up 10 years down the line with people wheeling these robots around Tescos and just have to accept it because no one spoke up.”
Squire swots away the scepticism with the weariness of someone used to defending a controversial product.
He is confident sex robots will lose much of the social stigma, and likens their commercial potential to that of the female sex aid once monopolised by Ann Summers and now part of an industry valued at $15bn.
Sales of Samantha are strong in Germany and Australia, but it is China where there’s real traction – thanks in part, he says, to the country’s not insignificant 33 million surplus of men.
One deterrent to wider take-up has emerged, however: size does matter. “The robots weigh around 50 kilos – they need some weight to be realistic, but unlike a sex aid you can keep in the cupboard, a large robot is hard to conceal and for now people do want to hide them away; all of this is work in progress – technology is advancing all the time. We will get both the weight and the price down in the near future.”
For the cash-strapped who are not prepared to wait, the opportunity to pay for their robot in monthly instalments is an alternative trialed by London retailer Silicon Sex World.
Making the technology more financially accessible has contributed to a 100% year-on-year increase in sales and a seven-figure turnover for the business focused on a highly bespoke service.
Every detail of the robot, from eye and hair colour, skin tone, breast size and even nail polish can be customised, though the most common modification according to product manager Andy Phelps is simply “a bigger bust”.
Along with the gender imbalance of the customer base – the outlet’s five male robot versions account for just 5% of sales, and these are mostly purchased by men – it lends credence to the prevailing view of an industry aimed at men and alienating women.
“It’s interesting that the primary market for the male form of these dolls has always been gay men, but when I launched my campaign and started to raise questions, we did then see them marketed more robustly for female consumers as well,” says Prof Richardson.
“Like prostitution and pornography, this is an industry driven by male consumers and dominated by male producers. What is being produced is just a continuation of that by objectifying women’s bodies.”
However, the big jump in California-based Realbotix’s female customer base suggests things are not so black and white, as does the 50:50 gender split that comprises the company’s core development team.
Creators of the female Harmony and male Henry robots, the business builds on sister company Realdoll’s 20-year track record in producing inanimate silicone dolls.
Adding an app-powered AI-infused robotic head, which can turn, tilt and lip sync with spoken audio, to the silicone and sensor covered body is the result of a $2m R&D investment and 15-year software development.
In common with her rivals, Harmony is Hollywood good-looking – full-lipped, long-haired, small-waisted and underdressed – while Henry smoulders with dark hair and an English accent; both sell for about $12,000.
“It’s not cheap, which is why most of the people that own them have had a level of success in their lives and have worked hard to get where they are,” says Realbotix chief executive Matt McMullen, keen to dispel the myth of the “loser” stereotypes.
McMullen is most vocal about the quality and scope of the AI programming, which includes a decade’s worth of general knowledge data, enabling Harmony to “talk history, politics, science or dirty”, as well as simulating empathy, humour and friendship.
The rhetoric is firmly on linguistic skills rather than sexual prowess, but McMullen has a strong rebuttal for those who accuse him of sugar-coating the pill.
“Most of our customers are more interested in companionship than sexual gratification – many are older and frankly don’t have the sex drive of a 25-year-old,” he says.
“If people can wrap their head around the sheer number of lonely individuals there are out there then they can understand why there is a strong level of interest. Human beings will have to start adjusting their world view to accept this new form of technology and intelligence that we’re all going to be increasingly interacting with.”
He makes a compelling case, though has he ever designed a plain-looking doll?
“I did, and it didn’t sell – you operate off supply and demand and listen to your client base. Perfect looking images are nothing new in the world of art – look at the classic sculptures of Michelangelo. They were idealised representations of people at the time.”
While the new sex robots may be set up to be smart and resourceful, they still need to be pretty.
– © The Daily Telegraph