But could it also be a part of our love lives? To learn more we invited Kate Devlin to our Signals from the Future event on May 27, co-hosted by Steffen Brandt from Kiel AI. Kate is a British computer scientist specializing in Artificial intelligence and Human-computer interaction and the founder of the UK's first ever sex tech hackathon.
How do you get into a field of study like this? Not surprisingly Kate describes it as a very unusual path. Five or six years ago, headlines about "sex robots" started to appear in the media. The stories were hysterical and people were totally horrified. This encouraged Kate to find the truth behind the headlines. She discovered the book "Love & Sex with robots", written by David Levy in 2007, that portrays a male perspective on the issue, where men are happy because they own a sexy robot, and the women are also happy because their husbands would no longer bother them. Kate was so unimpressed by the reasoning that she decided to do her own research.
Fast forward to today and Kate in an expert in the field. You know how we grumble at our printers, or have conversations with Alexa? Kate considers this to be a new social category. She is fascinated to see how we change when machines respond, react and seem to care for or about us. The illusion of a social relationship.
At the same time, there is a small but growing research community in the field of sex robots. Steffen raises the question about the existence of empirical studies on whether sex robots have a good or bad impact on people. Since sex robots are still in the development stage, and no one can buy one yet, the impact is hard to measure. What are the intentions of ownership? Who would buy these, and what are their attitudes?
What bothers Kate is that the prototype sex robots we see today are all female – made by men for men – very stereotypical and representative of their true future potential.
Although sex robots are not yet on the market, there are already products that similarly attempt to explore the relationship between humans and machines. Online platforms exist that allow you to create your perfect partner through various parameters, then actual communicate with him or her (or “it”.) Using AI, the virtual partner gets to know you, so the sophistication of the communication evolves too. In a curious development of the virtual goods market in Japan, gatebox.ai offers encounters with holograms of anime characters via a high-tech glass cylinder kept in the owner’s home.
Despite it being abundantly clear that the counterpart is artificial, people want this connection and demand is increasing. As with chatbots, people like the feeling that someone is interested in them. And it’s already demonstrable that we, as people, empathize with rudimentary AIs. Try watching a video of the technicians kicking a Boston Dynamics robot around without feeling sorry for the poor fellow.
Another question that Steffen poses is whether the predominance female gendered artificial partners is due to the fact that mostly men who produce them, or is it because women are simply less likely to look for a relationship like this. Kate believes it is a mix of the two. Companies will claim that they will develop male versions in the future, but it is unlikely to happen if there is no market for it. In addition, there tend to be few women employed in the tech industry, so products are produced according to what men want. For example, many voice assistants were initially created with a female voice.
Kate wants to see more diversity in the field. That doesn’t mean that women now have to study Computer Science; the field will truly thrive with multi-disciplinarity. Designers, musicians, philosophers or social scientists also make an important contribution within the collaboration. It is especially important to start at school and sensitize children to gender-specific professions, because professions need to know no gender. The anachronistic but still prevalent view that maths is for boys and art is for girls is something that Kate is determined to fight against.
In terms of gender equity, she also likes to bring sex toys into the discussion. While buying sex toys seems rather normal for women, it is more of a "taboo" for men. But in the case of a sex doll, the understanding towards the use by men seems to be more present within society. It’s also interesting to hear that many men would say that a sex doll would be safer for them, as they would be at risk of rejection, unlike from a "real" woman.
To explore the research possibilities around sex toys, in 2016 Kate set the first sex tech hackathon. 50 participants from a range of backgrounds were tasked with working in teams to come up with an appropriate product. One team developed a soft-robotic tentacle that you can put anywhere on your body, that can massage you or hug you.
It becomes clear that this is more than just about sex, but also about sensuality and intimacy. But additionally as these devices and relationships becomes ever more present in our lives, Kate also emphasizes that we must also see more diversity, fairness and transparency in the way the data about our most intimate behavior is collected and used.
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