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Over the past decade, Steve Bannon has brought a number of uncomfortable and unpleasant topics into the public discourse. Still, it came as a surprise last December to see the alt-right figure and former White House Chief Strategist unintentionally spark a conversation about the role of robots in our future sex and dating lives. After Bannon’s selection as keynote speaker for the International Conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology drew widespread protests, the conference was cancelled, along with its sibling program, the International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots. Suddenly, sexbots found themselves in the news, invoking hand wringing and panic about the damage they’re likely to do to good old fashioned human-human love.
Granted, Bannon can’t take all the blame for modern sexbot hysteria. Over the past few years, pop culture properties like “Her,” “Westworld,” and “Ex Machina” have asked us to consider how we might adapt to the existence of technology that closely mimics humanity. And as several self-proclaimed “sex-robot brothels” have opened around the globe, it’s easy to get the sense that the age of sci-fi sex is near. Citizens of cities like Houston have banded together to ban the high-tech brothels, organizations like the Campaign Against Sex Robots have sprung up to warn people of the dangers of sexbots, and media outlets have sounded the alarm that we’re entering the early stages of the next big culture war. In a recent Slate piece, Marina Adshade wrote that we need to start having difficult conversations about how to adapt to sexbots before they become a standard fixture in society.
But allow me to offer an alternate proposition: Sexbots are baseless hype, and we don’t need to give another moment’s thought to them.
When most people envision a world where human partners are abandoned in favor of robots, the robots they picture tend to be reasonably good approximations of flesh-and-blood humans. The sexbots of “Westworld” are effectively just humans who can be programmed and controlled by the park’s operators. Even “Ex Machina’s” Ava, whose stripped exterior reveals her robotic core, looks dramatically more human than “Solo: A Star Wars Story’s” L3-37, whose romance with Lando Calrissian is largely played for laughs.
What most of us want isn’t an intimate relationship with a sentient Roomba, but a relationship with a being who closely approximates all the good parts of sex and love with a human — minus the messiness that comes with, well, sex and love with a human. Yet a robot capable not just of passing a Turing test but of feeling like a human partner in the most intimate of settings isn’t likely to be built any time soon. True AI is still a long ways off. Even if we assume that sexbot lovers will feel content with Alexa-level conversations, robots that not only look and feel real but also autonomously move with the grace and dexterity of a human aren’t within the realm of current, or near future, tech.
One look at the present state of sexbots makes it clear just how far we have to go. When Roxxxy TrueCompanion debuted at the Adult Entertainment Expo in 2010 — an unveiling I was present for — the product was wildly underwhelming, little more than a lifeless mannequin equipped with textured orifices and a speaker for broadcasting moans and other erotic comments. Although Roxxxy’s successors are somewhat more advanced — the much-hyped Harmony has eyes and lips that move during conversation — we’re still firmly lodged in Uncanny Valley territory, and we are likely to remain there for quite some time.
So long as sexbot technology remains this immature, worrying that human relationships are under attack feels akin to panicking that women will all abandon their husbands the second that a sex toy shop opens down the street. Yes, there are certainly some people who are happy to swap the messiness of sex and dating for a gadget that can make them come, but the majority of us are still interested in something more than an orgasm. If women can be wholly replaced by a vibrating blowup doll equipped with pre-recorded chatter, heterosexuality has more fundamental problems than just the threat of sexbots.
Even if the technological barriers to sexbots weren’t so extreme — if, say, a Gigolo Joe level product were just around the corner — it still seems unlikely that we’d all be at risk of being replaced by robots. That’s because, despite the persistent hype, most people aren’t interested in sexbots, not even in theory. A YouGov poll from September 2017 found that 71 percent of women and 58 percent of men either definitely or probably wouldn’t consider sex with a robot. Although 18- to 34-year-olds were somewhat more open to the idea than their boomer parents, people who expressed interest in sexbots — whether as a digital life partner or as a robotic one night stand — were the minority across every age group.
Why the lack of enthusiasm for a concept that’s been a fixation of sci-fi for decades? Trends in existing sex toys might suggest an answer. Although a number of consumers turn to sex toys for solo sex, a sizeable portion of sales are to partners who are looking to enhance intimacy, not write each other out of the picture entirely.
Granted, sex toys that hype AI and their ability to replicate human sex acts do generate interest and sales. But the most popular sex toy crowdfunding campaign, by far, is one that promises not to replace our human partners but to bring us closer to them: Dame Products’ hands-free vibrator Eva, a product designed to seamlessly improve penis-in-vagina intercourse by offering unobtrusive clitoral stimulation.
If sex robots do manage to become viable products, there will certainly be people for whom they hold some appeal — just as there are for existing low-tech sex dolls. But for the rest of us, the most appealing sex tech is always going to be the kind that enhances the intimacy we experience with other people who are actively choosing to be with us, not technology that offers a simulacrum of that intimacy with a creation programmed to do whatever we want.
So whether or not the sexbots are coming, we probably shouldn’t worry too much about them. The vast majority of us are far more likely to spend our lives exclusively dating, sleeping with, and falling in love with other human beings. Rather than worrying about how some hypothetical sexbots might upend or improve several millennia of human mating habits, we’d be far better off devoting that time and brain power to figuring out how to make our existing relationships healthier, happier, and more fulfilling for everyone involved.
Lux Alptraum is a Peabody-nominated television producer and the author of “Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — And the Truths They Reveal.”