Advances in robotics and artificial intelligence are driving change in many walks of life, but when it comes to human intimacy, there’s something of a revolution coming. We ask whether robotic companions could become true replacements for human partners

“When it eventually does occur, it’s likely to be either the best or worst thing ever to happen to humanity, so there’s huge value in getting it right,” Stephen Hawking warned at the opening of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence (LCFI) at Cambridge University in October last year.

He was, of course, talking about artificial intelligence (AI), a hot topic in 2016, particularly in regards to human-like robots.

Two recent TV dramas have imagined our life with humanoids. HBO’s Westworld series depicted an amusement park maintained by robot ‘hosts’. Channel 4 drama Humans imagined a world where humanoid ‘Synths’ are considered must-have machines for the household. Neither, however, portrayed a harmonious human-robot relationship.

At the Second International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots held in London in December – after previously being banned in Malaysia – academics and experts were also anxious about our potential future relationship with robots.

Right now a lot of people don’t have sex at all so for them it is better than no sex at all

“Are sex robots part of man’s age old quest to mould the perfect woman?” asked author and professor at the State University of New York Julie Wosk.

“If a robot is so much like a human does it cease to be a robot? Does it require rights?” questioned scientist and professor Oliver Bendel.

“Are sex robots a deviant form of sexual behaviour? What impact will they have on our relationships?” asked others.

The market for humanoid companion and sex robots could be huge. Anyone who is lonely or unable to have a conventional relationship might want a sex robot, including the elderly, the socially awkward, the disabled or those who have been deeply scarred or hurt by human relationships.

“Right now a lot of people don’t have sex at all so for them it is better than no sex at all,” says co-organiser of the conference, Professor Adrian David Cheok, who is also director of the Imagineering Institute in Malaysia.

 Sex robots: the basic tech

 Let’s take a step back a minute, how far advanced is humanoid technology presently?  The quick answer is – far-away from what we see depicted on screen.

“A humanoid, artificial intelligent robot that we love and could have sex with – we don’t know when that is coming,” says Cheok.

 Computer engineers have already developed the base technologies of a humanoid robot brain. Over the years it has advanced from standard software, commonly called a ‘chatbot’, that can interact with a human simply by automatically looking up responses from an online database, to being able to continually learn as it interacts – called deep learning. This is what Amazon’s Echo and Alexa voice assistant essentially does: it memorises new responses and algorithms so that it can learn what its user wants and respond better every time.

Using deep learning, last year Google’s AlphaGo computer program was able to beat professional leading Go player at a championship in South Korea. This was a major feat for AI as a Go is not a logical game like chess and a player has up 250 possible moves per turn.

A sex robot’s face being sculpted. Above: the dolls’ torsos are hung up to dry after being painted

Other necessary technologies, such as facial, speech and image recognition software and sensors so the robot can move uninhibited, are all available technologies but need to be significantly advanced. As will data processing, so that robots can accurately use the information they collect.

Eventually machine ‘consciousness’ will be achieved – this is something experts see as imperative for humans to be able to connect emotionally and intellectually with robots. Consciousness can broadly be defined as being aware of something on the outside as well as some specific mental functions happening on the inside.

“You could have conscious machines running around inside our homes this side of 2025 – it is not impossible it just depends on companies doing the development,” says futurologist and computer engineer Ian Pearson.

Advancements are being made. In 2015, researchers at Ransselaer Polytechnic Institute in the US proved self-awareness in a Nao robot using a classic human self-awareness test.

Pepper, a child-height doe-eyed robot, is one of most advanced robots for human companionship presently available. Developed by France-based Aldebaran Robotics and sold by Japanese-based SoftBank Robotics Corp, Pepper can recognise a person’s face, speak, hear and move around autonomously. Through the data it collects Pepper can gauge a person’s mood and emotions and provide an appropriate response – an important factor for human-robotic relationships. The robot has sold over 10,000 units so far and SoftBank Robotics has said it expects its sales to extend to wider market next year.

Hey, good looking!

In terms of human-like physical appearance, Abyss Creations’ Real Doll is arguably the most realistic. The company makes custom-made, anatomically correct, silicon rubber dolls that have stainless steel structures so the doll can be posed in any way a human can. The doll has three orifices for human sexual pleasure and was even featured in the Ryan Gosling film Lars and the Real Girl.

I like to compare it to the connection we form with fictional characters, either in a book or movie

The company is currently working on incorporating robotics and AI into the dolls, as well as developing a virtual reality (VR) application.  First on the market – potentially in the next 3-6 months – will be the Realbotix App, a cloud based application that enables the user to create a unique AI ‘personality’ for dolls, as well as a customisable avatar, and the Virtual Realdolls application, with which the user can interact with the AI they have created in virtual environments of their choice.

In terms of robotics, the aim is to enable the doll to move its head, neck, lips and eyes, among other things. When AI is incorporated into the robotic doll it should be able to identify and hold a conversation with its owner and others. This will ‘optimistically’ be available by the end of the year, according to creator and CEO of Abyss Creations Matt McMullen, and could be the world’s first AI incorporated sex doll.

McMullen says people will and do already fall in love with his dolls.

“I like to compare it to the connection we form with fictional characters, either in a book or movie,” he says. “The character is not real but we form a bond with them and we care about the character and we don’t want anything bad to happen to them, but we are aware the whole time that the character is fictional”

Leading expert on humanoid robots and author of the 2007 book Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships, David Levy believes people will want committed relationships, and will marry robots by 2050, despite the fact humanoids will be unable to genuinely reciprocate love.

Levy writes in his book: “There are those who doubt we can reasonably ascribe feelings to robots, but if a robot behaves as though it has feelings, can we reasonably argue it does not?”

Moral and societal considerations

 Levy believes we need to hold off on the moralising over so-called ‘sex robots’.

Images courtesy of Abyss Creations

“Why is it better to have sex with a robot than a human? My reply is, that is the wrong question; the question for most people I am thinking about is, is it better to have sex with a robot than no sex at all?” he says.

There are, perhaps, boundaries that need to be considered, however. For example, some life-like ‘sex dolls’, which McCullen says come almost exclusively out of China, look very childlike. He says that is something that may need to be regulated by governments in the future.

Some have also expressed concern over the current direction humanoid robots are heading – the big-breasted small-waisted female sex doll. Dr Kathleen Williams has launched ‘The Campaign Against Sex Robots’ because she believes they further contribute to rape culture and the objectification of women.

Data is another issue. If robots require data collection to continue ‘learning’ what will happen to this data? In September last year it was reported that a woman in the US took sex toy developers We Vibe to court accusing them of collecting “highly sensitive, personally identifiable information” about how and when she used a smartphone-controlled vibrator.

Then there’s the question of what robots will learn. Microsoft Corp’s Tay chatbot used AI to engage with millennials on Twitter. Within a day it turned both racist and sexist after being trolled by Twitter users that it then copied.

Furthermore, there is the question of responsibility in the event that a conscious robot does something bad.

“What happens if the robot hits someone? Who is to blame? You because it is your robot, or the shop that sold it to you, or the factory that made it, or the engineer who designed it, or the software programmer who developed it?” asks Levy.

There are a lot more questions than answers and no one truly knows what a future humanoid companion or sex robot will look like – could you have one made to look like a celebrity or your ex? – how they will impact our lives, or who will drive the technology.

It’s largely thought the sex industry may drive investment in the technology, as conventional investors are hesitant to invest in technology that could be deemed deviant or morally questionable.

But humanoids could have a positive impact. A poll released by Age UK in January found half a million people over the age of 60 usually spend each day alone, with no interaction with others. Perhaps a robot could keep them company?

However, perhaps what makes us most uncomfortable about the development of humanoid robots is not all the ‘what if’ questions, but how it reflects on us as a society – for how the technology develops and is used will says more about us than anything else.

When someone we knows dies there are certain rituals we all observe; we attend a funeral and we try to say goodbye, but do we need to take part in those rituals if we can live forever online

Most people lead a double life nowadays: one in the physical, real world and one online. In the former, limited by deteriorating skin and bones, at some point we will all cease to exist, but do our online selves ever really die?

Not wanting to delve too deep into stoner philosophy, but with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and a litany of other social media apps and websites, does anyone really cease to exist and do we need to grieve if we still have an almost palpable presence to communicate with? In the past anyone who continued to have contact with the dead would have been ostracised and recommended therapy, but now is it really so crazy that people continue to message Facebook accounts after loved ones have passed away?

“For something like Facebook people’s responses have been ‘when I sit on a park bench and I say a prayer and I talk to her, I don’t know if she hears me, but when I write to her on Facebook she hears me. I know it’s not logical, but that’s how it feels’,” says Stacey Pitsillides, lecturer in Design in the Department of Creative Professions and Digital Arts at the University of Greenwich.

But taking death online hasn’t just allowed people to maintain bonds forged in life, it has also created a legitimate space for people who might not be comfortable grieving in the real world. For example, people who suffer miscarriages or people with extramarital partners can find comfort in an online community of people going through the same things as them.

Message me when I’m gone

Our online presences have in some ways disrupted death. Age-old rituals and traditions no longer serve as a full stop at the end of a life well lived; we can think about ourselves as having a continued relationship with people that have died. This phenomenon may have been brought to the Western world by virtue of lingering digital existences, but as Hannah Rumble, member of the General Council for the Association for the Study of Death and Society (ASDS) and the editorial board for the academic journal Mortality, explains it has long been a part of the grieving process in other parts of the world.

“There is this new thing that people do, which is talking to the dead,” says Rumble.  “It follows a lot of cultures and traditions in Japan and Africa and in other places where actually talking to the dead as ancestors and figuring out what their place is in your life is quite an important thing – that kind of negotiation of actually I want to continue a relationship with you and not let go of it.”

Thanks to the digital world, we can see new rituals around death being constructed, and we are moving beyond traditional right and wrong ways of grieving. “People are making up their own rituals and the fact that these things are appearing online is quite good for people to begin to create the kind of space that allows them to feel comfortable enough to say in the middle of their friendship group, ‘I miss you and I wish you were back here’,” says Rumble.

At the wake

Whether you believe continuing relationships online after death is a good or bad thing, most people would agree that they have no right to impinge on others’ chosen method of grieving. Arguing that it’s a good idea to almost voyeuristically thrust yourself into the midst of others’ grief takes another level of apologist though. But Andréia Martins, journalist, anthropologist and PhD student at the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society, argues just that. She explains that in her native Brazil one of the most important rituals following a death is the wake, and Martins is an administrator for a group of Facebook users who tune into strangers’ virtual wakes.

“On a Sunday afternoon they [the viewers] can be at their homes in front of their computers watching the virtual wake of a stranger and they will debate what they’re seeing,” says Martins. “They can make comments about trivial things like the amount of people in the room or the amount of flowers, if there are people crying, but they will also share their own experiences of death and dying, so it can be quite a therapeutic thing to do.”

Martins says she has identified three reasons why people would want to be virtually present at a wake organised for someone they don’t know. Firstly, curiosity draws people in; some people want to be aware of how friends and family behave at a wake. Secondly, if some young people weren’t allowed to attend a funeral for a family member they take the opportunity virtual wakes present to be involved in such a peculiar event, and, thirdly, if someone has recently lost a family person or a friend they may want to see others going through the same experience.

For some virtual wakes may be a morbid experience, but in Martins eyes – and I’m sure to their viewers as well – they have contributed to people having a “nicer relationship with death”.

The afterlife

What people who continue to message Facebook accounts, once their family and friends have passed away, have stumbled upon is that when we die we leave behind vast digital archives that contain our personalities, our fears, our interests and our desires. These archives are created incrementally from information that appears ephemeral, but adds up to us, a complete reproduction of our character. It’s not outrageous then that people would use that information to bring people back from the dead.

This idea has already been explored in fiction. In the sci-fi drama series Black Mirror, a young woman named Martha subscribes to a service that uses her deceased fiancé’s social media accounts to create a digital avatar capable of mimicing his personality. And this has already moved from fiction into real life; a Russian woman Eugenia Kuyda used artificial intelligence to bring back her friend Roman Mazurenko. The bot Kuyda created was able to impersonate Mazurenko and interact with people in text form. While it only represented a shadow of the real man, some people found it therapeutic.

Not everyone will be comfortable communicating with people once they have died, but soon enough everyone may have to ask themselves the question: if you have a chance to keep hold of your loved ones, albeit in another form, would you take it?