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Freedom and sexuality: walking hand in hand with robots

A human and a robot shaking hands. Only see the hands and arms of both is seen.

Where we are now:

In August this year the Supreme Court of India declared that privacy at its core includes the “preservation of personal intimacies, the sanctity of family life, marriage, procreation, the home and sexual orientation”.

However just a few weeks ago, the government defended its inability to recognize marital rape saying  it would “destabilise the institution of marriage“.

So, as Charles Dickens had once said, it is the best of times and the worst of times.

In the midst of these ruminations I happened to see a video showcasing Sophia, who is apparently the world’s first social robot, in a jolly pow-wow with Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show, playing Rock, Paper, Scissors and talking breezily of world domination.

She also made the news because she has been offered citizenship of Saudi Arabia. Yes, the same country which continues to stone women to death for adultery. One can only wonder how long it will last before Sophia makes eye contact with a laptop and then it’s all over for her………

But as Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) technology advances and robots become a part of our life, it is worth reflecting on what it would mean in terms of our freedoms and sexuality in the near future.

Even before we met Sophia, there was Samantha. She is a sex robot who was brutalised and almost destroyed by men at a technology show. They not only molested her but also broke her fingers.

As ethical and moral considerations are always outpaced by the furious rate at which technology is being developed, we are still grappling with issues like ensuring adolescents’ access to comprehensive sexuality education, understanding gender as a spectrum, and offering women the choice for safe abortions, while sex robots or sexbots have already become a 30 billion dollar industry. This industry is growing by leaps and bounds as technology becomes more sophisticated and demand increases. As of now, the sexbots are being designed primarily by and for men and are sold to men 95% of the time.

Robots and sexism:

I saw Sophia on the Tonight Show, with her pointy breasts and fair skin and blue eyes, and I wondered. Since online spaces reflect the same patriarchy, privilege, misogyny and violence against women that real life does, what does it mean for the future if A.I. is already sexist even while taking these first steps?

As humans, our society is still moving very slowly towards the possibility of functioning with gender non-conforming humans but simultaneously we seem to be creating very stereotypically feminine robots, breasts and all. The objectification of women is not new to us at all but will this take it to levels beyond redemption?

Male robots are few and far between but whenever there is news about them it is always with a frisson of alarm that men will then become redundant. Mainly because the male sex robots are being programmed to also listen and empathise – which is certainly an improvement on the vibrator!

A friend recently commented that when her British male-accented Siri addressed her as ‘darling’ it felt like infidelity! So she switched it to use a female voice.

It is very telling of how we are brought up that a woman tends to feel guilty about this while a man is more likely to find it amusing and thrilling to be addressed as ‘darling’ by an automated female voice.

Here is an interesting observation “Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and Google Home have women’s voices because ……… customers like their digital servants to sound like women.”

Despite the fact that Ada Lovelace (daughter of the poet Lord Byron), was the inventor of the modern computer programme, currently 8 out of 10 software developers and A.I. programmers are men. As Leah Hempel points out, “Thus the chance that male bot developers manually program them to respond to sexual harassment with jokes is exceedingly high.”

So, perhaps these men aspire to create what would be, for them, the ideal woman. They programmed her, so she will obey. They can order her around.

“Sit, Sophia.” “Yes, Master.”

Much like the creepy-as-hell movie from 1972 called ‘The Stepford Wives’ where the wives in a charming suburb of America are forced into a terrifying process which creates a default setting of only providing sexual and other pleasures to the men they are married to.

We may not have sexbots in India yet but a popular web series being telecast currently is called ‘A.I.SHA my Virtual Girlfriend’. The name stands for Artificial Intelligence Simulated Humanoid Assistant (A.I.SHA). It is telling that the blurb says, “Things take a turn for the worse when A.I.SHA develops a mind of her own”. Does that also reflect the fear of men when women develop a mind of their own? What does it mean that despite her phenomenal intelligence and capacities, she is identified mainly as a girlfriend? Within 24 hours of successfully developing A.I.SHA, the first fantasy the coder has while falling asleep is that of having sex with her.

There are obvious parallels with the mythology of Pygmalion, a sculptor, who makes an ivory statue representing his ideal of womanhood and then falls in love with his own creation. The goddess Venus brings the statue to life in answer to his prayer. Similar stories are found in many cultures and most of us are familiar with My Fair Lady.

But can we expect to see this happening on a larger scale in the future? There are stories of men using 3D printing to create a sexbot with the face of Scarlett Johansson. Can one regulate something like this? What familiar or fantasy face may they put on it and then carry on a one-sided controlling relationship with it?

This is deeply problematic since robots can be ‘owned’ by men and robots can be programmed to always consent.

Except when they are not.

There is the disturbing news of the sex doll Roxxy with the ‘Frigid Farrah’ setting, which has been programmed to resist advances, thus allowing men to act out their rape fantasies. Much like Westworld, the acclaimed TV series about a park intended for rich vacationers, which allows them to live out their most primal fantasies with the robotic “hosts” with no consequences to themselves.

Given that a brothel has already been set up in Spain which has only sex dolls, what kind of an impact will this have on human-human interactions in the future?

How will intimacy and relationships or expressions of our sexuality hold up to something that can be written into an algorithm?

Even more disturbingly how will the boundaries of consent be understood?

What does the future hold?

The Turing test was devised in 1950 by computer science pioneer and World War II codebreaker Alan Turing, who said that if a machine was indistinguishable from a human, then it was “thinking”. This test was recently passed in 2014 by an A.I. simulation. That was a chatbot. A sex robot would need much more in terms of expressions, touch, feel and reactions, but it is predicted that by 2050 this will have become mainstream. At present the sex bot can cost upwards of 10,000 USD but remember that the first Personal Computer cost the equivalent of today’s 5000 USD but is now available in some forms costing as low as even 100 USD.

There is already an ‘International Congress of Love and Sex with Robotics’ and its third meeting has been announced to be held in London in December 2017. On account of police advice and security concerns, the venue will be emailed as a poem with the location encrypted in it close to the date of the event.

The proposed topics include: Robot Emotions, Teledildonics, Intelligent Electronic Sex Hardware, Gender Approaches, Roboethics, and the keynote address is “Can Robots and Humans Make Babies Together?”

As we survey this futuristic landscape which will also be populated by sperm banks, cryopreservation of ova and zygotes, artificial wombs and cloning, we could be looking at a world which will simultaneously and paradoxically free live women from some of the stereotypical gender roles dictated by their bodies, but also populate the world with highly stylised and sexualised robots which will reinforce those stereotypes.

The appeal of sex robots (currently almost exclusively being made as female and for the male customer) is that while they look like a pornographic ‘ideal’ woman, they are not like real human women in a very key way. They are never tired and they are never not in the mood. They are programmed only to consent and even seduce. Even if a robot is programmed to say no, well, either it’s an opportunity to play out a rape fantasy, or it’s just a dial you can turn or a button you can press to change the mood to seduction. You can do what you want with it. You own it.

Ultimately, this development of Artificial Intelligence and the female/ sexist form it is often offered up in raises a profound question:

What is the transition between personhood and non-personhood?

At what point can we confer autonomy to anyone, and then if we do, how do we ensure that this is operationalised? How do we then ensure that they no longer exist only to serve us or please us (as we have done in the past with slavery, bonded labour, forced sex work and even to married women in India)?

Can there be positive applications?

Given that more people are opting out of  formal marriage and many people accept that a relationship can be only emotional but not physical, how about outsourcing that part to someone else without the risk of human relationships and therefore the potential of infidelity?

What would a threesome look like if it involved a robot?

Can a busy two-income working urban couple use a weekend robot for when one of them is free but the other isn’t?

Could an aging heterosexual couple rent out a male robot when the man has erectile dysfunction that cannot be treated or a female robot when the woman has an illness that does not allow penetrative sex?

How will this change our perception of consent and the potential un-predictability of a relationship?

Maybe for some it will be better because the pressure to have sex or have satisfying sex is no longer paramount?

Maybe it will lead to more freedom in our expressions of sexuality?

If men become used to having sex with synthetic companions programmed to meet their most precise specifications, how will they interact with women who have their own idiosyncrasies and free will?

When it comes to sex with robots, it’s simply no use thinking it is just a scene out of a science fiction book or film. The future really is here and it is estimated that realistic sex robots will become more common within a decade.


Alan Turing laid the foundations of modern computing and his critical work at Britain’s codebreaking centre at Bletchley Park helped shorten World War II and save many thousands of lives. Instead of being hailed a hero, Turing was persecuted for homosexuality. After his conviction in 1952 for gross indecency with a 19-year-old Manchester man, he was chemically castrated. Two years later, he died from cyanide poisoning in an apparent suicide, though there have been suggestions that his death was an accident. Last December, after a long campaign, Turing was given a posthumous royal pardon.

Would it be poetic justice if the computing models used by him help develop algorithms that could lead to sexbots which will help erase the limitations of our bodies and allow us the freedom to explore our sexuality beyond human existences?

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