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.

Researchers discover remains of “Triassic Jaws” who dominated the seas after Earth’s most severe mass extinction event

Researchers have discovered the fossil remains of an unknown large predatory fish called Birgeria: an approximately 1.8-meter-long primitive bony fish with long jaws and sharp teeth that swallowed its prey whole.

Swiss and US researchers led by the Paleontological Institute and Museum of the University of Zurich say the Birgeria dominated the sea that once covered present-day Nevada one million years after the mass extinction.

Its period of dominance began following “the most catastrophic mass extinction on Earth”, which took place about 252 million years ago – at the boundary between the Permian and Triassic geological periods.

Image courtesy of UZH. Featured image courtesy of Nadine Bösch

Up to 90% of the marine species of that time were annihilated, and before the discovery of the Birgeria, palaeontologists had assumed that the first predators at the top of the food chain did not appear until the Middle Triassic epoch about 247 to 235 million years ago.

“The surprising find from Elko County in northeastern Nevada is one of the most completely preserved vertebrate remains from this time period ever discovered in the United States,” emphasises Carlo Romano, lead author of the study.

Although, species of Birgeria existed worldwide. The most recent discovery belongs to a previously unknown species called Birgeria Americana, and is the earliest example of a large-sized Birgeria species, about one and a half times longer than geologically older relatives.

The researchers say the discovery of Birgeria is proof that food chains recovered quicker than previously thought from Earth’s most devastating mass extinction event.

According to earlier studies, marine food chains were shortened after the mass extinction event and recovered only slowly and stepwise.

However, finds such as the newly discovered Birgeria species and the fossils of other vertebrates now show that so-called apex predators (animals at the very top of the food chain) already lived early after the mass extinction.

“The vertebrates from Nevada show that previous interpretations of past biotic crises and associated global changes were too simplistic,” said Romano.

Revolutionary DNA sunscreen gives better protection the longer its worn

Researchers have developed a ground-breaking sunscreen made of DNA that offers significant improvements over conventional versions.

Unlike current sunscreens, which need to be reapplied regularly to remain effective, the DNA sunscreen improves over time, offering greater protection the longer it is exposed to the sun.

In addition, it also keeps the skin hydrated, meaning it could also be beneficial as a treatment for wounds in extreme or adverse environments.

Developed by researchers from Binghamton University, State University of New York, the innovative sunscreen could prove essential as temperatures climb and many are increasingly at risk of conditions caused by excessive UV exposure, such as skin cancer.

“Ultraviolet (UV) light can actually damage DNA, and that’s not good for the skin,” said Guy German, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Binghamton University.

“We thought, let’s flip it. What happens instead if we actually used DNA as a sacrificial layer? So instead of damaging DNA within the skin, we damage a layer on top of the skin.”

The DNA sunscreen has the potential to become a standard, significantly improving the safety of spending time in the sun

The research, which is published today in the journal Scientific Reports, involved the development of thin crystalline DNA films.

These films are transparent in appearance, but able to absorb UV light; when the researchers exposed the film to UV light, they found that its absorption rate improved, meaning the more UV is was exposed to, the more it absorbed.

“If you translate that, it means to me that if you use this as a topical cream or sunscreen, the longer that you stay out on the beach, the better it gets at being a sunscreen,” said German.

The film will no doubt attract the attention of sunscreen manufacturers, who will likely be keen to commercialise such a promising product. However, the researchers have not said if there is any interest as yet, and if there is any clear timeline to it becoming a commercial product.

 

The film’s properties are not just limited to sun protection, however. The DNA film can also store water at a far greater rate than conventional skin, limiting water evaporation and increasing the skin’s hydration.

As a result, the film is also being explored as a wound covering, as it would allow the wound to be protected from the sun, keep it moist – an important factor for improved healing – and allow the wound to be monitored without needing to remove the dressing.

“Not only do we think this might have applications for sunscreen and moisturizers directly, but if it’s optically transparent and prevents tissue damage from the sun and it’s good at keeping the skin hydrated, we think this might be potentially exploitable as a wound covering for extreme environments,” said German.