From sex robot to lifelong companion: Will we marry robots by 2050?

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.

Gecko-inspired robotic gripper to clear up space junk

Researchers have developed a pioneering robotic gripper that uses gecko-inspired sticky pads to clear up space debris.

Developed at Stanford University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and detailed today in the journal Science Robotics, the gripper has been tested both on the ground and on the International Space Station, demonstrating that it can successfully operate in zero-gravity environments.

With around 500,000 pieces of man-made debris littering orbit, there is a growing need to successfully clear much of it so that humanity can safely increase its operations in low-Earth orbit. Each piece of space junk is whizzing around at up to 17,500 miles per hour, meaning a collision with a satellite, spacecraft or even astronaut would be extremely expensive and potentially very dangerous.

However, many conventional junk removal methods don’t work particularly well. Suction cups rely on creating a difference in air pressure, meaning they don’t work in a vacuum; magnets only work on a limited number of materials and debris harpoons risk missing and knocking the objects off in unpredictable directions.

Sticky solutions, then are preferred, however most tape-like solutions fail because the chemicals they rely on to make them sticky can’t cope with the massive temperature changes objects in space are subjected to. Which is where the gecko-inspired gripper comes in.

The robotic gripper being tested on NASA’s low-gravity aircraft the Weightless Wonder. Image, video  and featured image courtesy of Jiang et al., Sci. Robot. 2, eaan4545 (2017)

“What we’ve developed is a gripper that uses gecko-inspired adhesives,” said study senior author Mark Cutkosky, professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford. “It’s an outgrowth of work we started about 10 years ago on climbing robots that used adhesives inspired by how geckos stick to walls.”

Geckos are able to scale vertical surfaces because they have microscopic flaps that create weak intermolecular forces between the feet and the wall’s surface, allowing them to grip on. The researchers have simply replicated these flaps, albeit on a larger scale; while each flap on a gecko’s foot is around 200 nanometers long, on the robotic gripper it is only 40 micrometers across.

However, it works in the same way, allowing an object to be gripped in a zero-g environment without needing to apply force.

“If I came in and tried to push a pressure-sensitive adhesive onto a floating object, it would drift away,” said study co-author Dr Elliot Hawkes, a visiting assistant professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Instead, I can touch the adhesive pads very gently to a floating object, squeeze the pads toward each other so that they’re locked and then I’m able to move the object around.”

A close-up of the prototype gripper. Image courtesy of Kurt Hickman/Stanford News Service

The gripper has already undergone extensive testing, including in JPL’s Robodome, which has a floor like a giant air hockey table that is designed to simulate a 2D zero-G environment.

“We had one robot chase the other, catch it and then pull it back toward where we wanted it to go,” said Hawkes. “I think that was definitely an eye-opener, to see how a relatively small patch of our adhesive could pull around a 300kg robot.”

Now it has been tested on the International Space Station, the next step is to test a version outside the space station, in the radiation-filled reality of space. Cutkosky also plans to commercialise the gecko-inspired adhesive here on Earth.

Human lifespan “could continue to increase far into the foreseeable future”

Scientists researching human lifespan have concluded that it has no detectable limit, and that with advances in technology and medicine it could continue to climb for the foreseeable future.

“We just don’t know what the age limit might be,” said study co-author Siegfried Hekimi, a biologist from McGill University.

“In fact, by extending trend lines, we can show that maximum and average lifespans could continue to increase far into the foreseeable future.”

The study, which is published today in the journal Nature, analysed the lifespan of the longest-surviving people from Japan, France, the UK and the US every year from 1968 to the present day.

The scientists found that there was no evidence that a limit on lifespan exists, and concluded that if it does, we certainly have not yet reached it or even identified what it could be.

The research flies in the face of previous studies that concluded that not only was there a limit of 115 years, but that we were beginning to reach it. However Hekemi and his colleague Bryan G Hughes do not believe this is the case, and are unable to even hazard a guess as to what such a limit could be.

“It’s hard to guess,” Hekimi said. “Three hundred years ago, many people lived only short lives.

“If we would have told them that one day most humans might live up to 100, they would have said we were crazy.”

Images courtesy of Jonathan Kos-Read

Average lifespans have jumped significantly over the past century. In 1920, Canadians had an average expectancy of 60 years, but by 1980 it had climbed to 76 years. Now it is 82 years, and is likely to climb further.

These jumps have been down to the revolution in medical science over the last hundred years, however advances in medical technologies could cause a significant further jump in our lifetimes.

In particular, work by organisations such as the SENS Research Foundation, led by noted gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, is focused on treating ageing as something that can be cured, and has seen growing support from the mainstream scientific community.

However, if such medical treatments do become available, they may only be available to those that can afford them, particularly in countries that do not have a single-payer healthcare system, such as the US. In these instances, there are fears that such treatments could divide humanity, with the rich gaining far longer lifespans than the poor.