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.

Life expectancy to break the 90-year barrier by 2030

New research has revealed that the average life expectancy is set to increase in many countries by 2030 and, in South Korea specifically, will improve so much as to exceed an average of 90 years. The study analysed long-term data on mortality and longevity trends to predict how life expectancy will change from now until 2030.

The study was led by scientists from Imperial College London in collaboration with the World Health Organization. Looking at 35 industrialised nations, the team highlighted South Korea as a peak for life expectancy; predicting expectancy from birth, they estimate that a baby girl born in South Korea in 2030 will expect to live 90.8 years, while men are expected to live to be 84.1 years.

Scientists once thought an average life expectancy of over 90 was impossible, according to Professor Majid Ezzati, lead researcher from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London:

“We repeatedly hear that improvements in human longevity are about to come to an end. Many people used to believe that 90 years is the upper limit for life expectancy, but this research suggests we will break the 90-year barrier,” he said.

“I don’t believe we’re anywhere near the upper limit of life expectancy -if there even is one.”

South Korea leads in life expectancy. Image courtesy of jedydjah. Featured image courtesy of Carey and Kacey Jordan

Ezzati explained that the high expectancy for South Korean lives was likely due to a number of factors including good nutrition in childhood, low blood pressure, low levels of smoking, good access to healthcare, and uptake of new medical knowledge and technologies. It is likely that, by 2030, South Korea will have the highest life expectancy in the world.

Elsewhere, French women and Swiss men are predicted to lead expectancies in Europe, with 88.6 years and nearly 84 years respectively. The UK is expected to average 85.3 years for women (21st in the table of countries studied) and 82.5 years for men (14th in the table).

The study included both high-income countries and emerging economies. Among the high-income countries, the US was found to have the lowest predicted life expectancy at birth. Averaging similar to Croatia and Mexico, the researchers suggested this was due to a number of factors including a lack of universal healthcare, as well as the highest child and maternal mortality rate, homicide rate and obesity among high-income countries.

A lack of universal healthcare is one of the reasons the US trails behind in life expectancy. Image courtesy of HSeverson

Notably, the research also suggests that the life expectancy gap between men and women is closing and that a large factor in increasing expectancy is due in no small part to older sections of the population living longer than before.

Such increased longevity is not without issue, however, as countries may not be prepared to support an ageing population.

“The fact that we will continue to live longer means we need to think about strengthening the health and social care systems to support an ageing population with multiple health needs,” added Ezzati.

“This is the opposite of what is being done in the era of austerity. We also need to think about whether current pension systems will support us, or if we need to consider working into later life.”

Out in a matter of weeks, the Switch is a classic Nintendo console: offbeat, unusual and arguably underpowered. But it could also represent a new dawn in video games

On the 3rd March Nintendo will release its latest console and, arguably, its latest handheld. I am, of course, talking about the Nintendo Switch: the hybrid console that the Japanese gaming giant is hoping will return it to success.

Effectively a touchscreen tablet that can dock into a supporting hub to be used on the TV, the Switch is unlike any console we’ve seen before. Featuring two nunchuck-like controllers that can be attached to the sides of the main device to transform it into a portable system, or detached and used as motion or conventional controllers, the Switch is designed for a multitude of configurations and gaming styles.

Within the context of the current videogame market, it’s an extremely off-piste offering. While Sony and Microsoft have focused on producing meaty consoles with the best possible graphics, Nintendo has opted to run the Switch on a relatively modest Tegra processor that optimises as much for battery life as it does for graphics.

But in doing so, Nintendo has marked itself out as a very different type of videogame console maker, providing a product with very different features to its supposed competition. And while for some it is merely another example of Nintendo being just a bit crazy, those features could mark the start of a whole new category of gaming device.

State of the industry

Here in 2017, the gaming market is a very different place than a decade or two ago. For one thing, it’s far more mainstream: gone are the days where video games were something played only by teenage nerds in their bedrooms. Now everyone from your girlfriend to your mum is a gamer of some sort or another, and the types of games being made have become far more varied.


But if you were to look at the triple-A offerings from both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4, you might not think that was the case. Both consoles remain faithful to the so-called hardcore, by and large they have done little to step up their offerings from the types of games they were offering a decade or so ago.

Nintendo, however, seems keen to make games for a host of different types of players, which could put it in a very good position come Christmas.

“We believe that by [next holiday season], with the launch of Super Mario Odyssey, that the footprint for Nintendo Switch will be very broad. Kids, young adults, parents, gamers will occupy that footprint,” explained Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé in an interview with Time.

“But what’s going to happen is that, that space is going to be filled in at each point in time with the subsequent launches. So for example, if you look at the first 45 days, you’ve got Zelda, 1-2 Switch, Mario Kart 8. So the active gamer. And candidly, the more the active gamer sees, the more excited they’re going to be for that game.”

On-the-go gaming

At the heart of the Switch’s appeal is the fact that it allows you to continue playing a console-quality game with you pretty much anywhere. Imagine being able to play Skyrim on your commute, Mario on a car journey or Zelda on a long-haul flight; it’s a very cool prospect.

And then there’s the appeal of a portable version of games that fans fall in love with and never stop playing. Rocket League, for example, has not been officially announced for the Switch, but developer Psyonix has been making positive noises that have got gamers seriously excited.

Imagine being able to play Skyrim on your commute, Mario on a car journey or Zelda on a long-haul flight; it’s a very cool prospect

By attracting different sets of fans across the gaming spectrum, Nintendo is widening its pool of users, and in doing so is likely hoping that it will significantly increase sales from the rather disastrous Wii U.

But the on-the-go element also has another appeal: free advertising. If users do take their Switch with them everywhere, they are likely to become a common site in cities across the world, and being more frequently aware of a product makes it far more likely that you’ll buy it.

However, for some developers the Switch provide a step towards a truly ubiquitous form of gaming.

Metal Gear Solid creator and all-round gaming legend Hideo Kojima, for example, was full of praise for the Switch in an interview with IGN, describing it as a natural evolution of a technology he developed called Transfarring, which allowed players to transfer saved data between the PS Vita and the PS3.

“I believe [Switch] is an extension of that idea. The fact you can play something at home and take it outside, this is the gamer’s dream. The Switch is an evolution of that,” he said.

“For example, often when you buy a Blu-Ray disc, it’ll have a code on the inside for a digital version, so in the same respect you can watch it at home and then take it on the go on your tablet and smartphone. This is how movies and TV are moving, and this is how games should go.”

He even went so far as to describe the Switch’s technology as a step towards a future where players can access their games anywhere.

“I feel like cloud technology is what everything will eventually move to,” he added. “It’s further behind right now than I think where people thought it would be at this point, but I think it will go there, and when the infrastructure is ready, you’ll be able to play everything, on every device, anywhere. The Switch is the predecessor to this step.”

Beyond the screen

The Switch’s innovation doesn’t just stop at portability. For some games, the screen itself will become a background feature, encouraging players to face each other and interact in a more personal manner.

“With Switch, it’s not just something that you’ll be looking at a screen to play. In certain cases you don’t even have to look at a screen,” said Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima in an interview with Time.

At launch, the game that will provide this functionality is 1-2-Switch, a party game that looks to be this console’s answer to Wii Sports. Featuring a host of mini games, it will see players facing each other to compete in everything from competitive milking to quick-draw Western-style duels.

It’s a bizarre offering, but exactly the sort of game you can imagine your granny playing at Christmas, meaning it’s probably going to be a hit.

Images courtesy of Nintendo

But whether other games will follow suit in rejecting a screen as the central focus remains to be seen. These types of gimmicks are often greatly talked about by Nintendo, but failed to attract much support from third-party developers.

Despite this, it is a sign that Nintendo is pursuing the line proposed by the company’s late CEO, Satoru Iwata. A veteran developer himself, he was concerned at how isolating modern technology was becoming, and so was keen to develop projects that would bring people together, and help them to interact.

“New technologies have, in general, made life easier and more efficient,” he said in a 2012 video presentation. “But we have to wonder what this means for the nature of human relationships moving forward… We believe we can solve the issue of alone together.”

Nintendo gets it right

At the end of last year, when Nintendo finally unveiled his proposition for the Switch, it was met with mixed reactions from the online world. While some were thrilled at the prospect of gaming on the go, others felt this was just another wacky Nintendo offering destined to go the same way as the Wii U.

Nintendo already appears to have surpassed the Wii U’s success, allowing them now to focus on the giddy sales heights of the original Wii

But Nintendo seems determined to make sure that doesn’t happen. Marketing for the Switch’s predecessor was fairly disastrous, with the initial announcement leaving players unsure as to whether this was a new console, or just a new controller. And it didn’t get much better from there: in many countries marketing for the Wii U was almost non-existent, and many consumers remained completely oblivious to the fact Nintendo had a new offering on the market.

But this time, the company seems to be getting it right. Carefully timed releases have ensured that online excitement has steadily grown over the past few months, culminating in an in excitement-inducing Super Bowl ad, and events for YouTubers and other non-corporate parts of the gaming media have contributed to far more discussion about the upcoming console than would otherwise likely have been the case.

All this has combined to create a situation where Nintendo already appears to have surpassed the Wii U’s success, allowing them now to focus on the giddy sales heights of the original Wii.

“Looking at responses from consumers, we are seeing that launch day pre-orders have nearly reached the maximum available. We will deliver Nintendo Switch orders as early as possible after the launch,” said Kimishima. “Our plan under the financial forecast is to ship two million units by the end of March, and we are increasing its production. We hope to see strong sales momentum like we saw in 2008 and 2009 [for the Wii].”