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.

Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.