Emma Grey Ellis
Henry the sex robot is the “mind” of a “woman” trapped in the “body” of a “man.” When you talk to Henry, you’re really talking to the artificial intelligence database Realbotix developed for its female predecessor, Harmony. To masculinize Henry, Realbotix founder and CEO Matt McMullen and five other “robot heads” sit with Henry doing R&D, which amounts to chatting Henry up.
“Henry, how was your day?” McMullen asks.
“Just fine, baby,” Henry says. “But when are you going to take me out to dinner?”
The humans all look at each other. “That didn’t sound quite right,” McMullen says, and the others agree. The language database they’re developing for Henry shouldn’t include soliciting nights out on the town. “Sometimes Henry says things that don’t quite fit, that you’d more typically expect from a female,” McMullen adds.
Another time, they asked Henry what he’d gotten up to that day. He replied, “I went online shopping for panties”—again, no. (“Not that a man couldn’t possibly say that,” McMullen clarifies. “But if you’re trying to create the typical heterosexual man … ”) The team also balked at Henry calling his human conversation partner “sweetie” and “honey.”
For now, Realbotix sees Henry’s female-coded speech patterns as a flaw. In the future, as Realbotix expands its offerings to target LGBTQ+ buyers, McMullen thinks they might become an asset for projecting queerness. “If you create a male-gendered personality with a female mind, that may work well for transgender,” he says. “As long as the character was aware of what genitals it had.”
Today’s commercial sex robots rely on hard-coding stereotypes into submissive silicone forms, creating moral panic everywhere their dead Siri voices fall on sensitive ears. Realbotix can and does offend on any number of fronts. (Why is their idea of a woman passive-aggressive and shopping-focused? Why can’t a man want a dinner date? Why would a male transgender person have a female mind?) Still, panicking about implications won’t pack the RealDoll back into its box. Sex robots are here, and their AI-enabled pseudosexuality isn’t long behind.
This story isn’t really about Henry or Realbotix. Almost nobody buys sex robots—they’re expensive, they’re heavy, they don’t fit in a bedside drawer. The idea that the future of sex will be slavering over custom-made silicon replicas is as interesting as it is unlikely. Think about it: The people interviewed in sex robot stories are never surprised to find themselves besotted with an inanimate object. In other words, the people who were going to be interested in having sex with a RealDoll knew they were interested in that kind of sex before RealDolls existed.
In 1997, McMullen was a sculptor. Where he saw a hyperrealistic mannequin, the occasional onlookers saw a potential sex partner. So they asked McMullen if the mannequins were anatomically correct, which inspired the launch of his company, originally called Abyss Creations. The product was a customizable doll—no brain, just a vessel. As the years went on, some of McMullen’s clients joined the Doll Forum online and crafted backstories for their “love dolls,” complete with hometowns and fashion senses. They solicited advice from other “iDollators” for applying their beloved’s mascara. It’s all strange and a little sad, and that’s why and how most people talk about it, “it” being the future of sex. We fixate on the exoticism—the imaginary personalities, the social isolation, the inevitable cleanup—because it’s fun. Meanwhile, Realbotix’s doll-buying customers number in the low thousands.
The real robo-sexual revolution will be, and already is, more software than hardware, and it’s the version of this story fewer people are talking about.
People—lots of people—are curious about having sex with someone alien, someone Other. What Other you find sexiest usually depends on time and place. Sailors, for instance, fantasized about mermaids. In the past hundred years, people have often given the sexy Other treatment to technology. Fembots constantly clank across our screens, in movies as tonally distinct as Austin Powers, Ex Machina, and Alita: Battle Angel. (They’re not just fembots, either. The romantic lead of Avengers: Infinity War was Vision, a himbot.) Increasingly, they’ve gone virtual. In Her, Joaquin Phoenix and his high-waisted pants fall in love with Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied operating system.
Distracted as many of us are by the wall of nipples at Realbotix headquarters, this is the point that’s most often overlooked. “There’s a much broader market for AI-based apps than there is for sex robots,” says Ellen Kaufman, an Indiana University doctoral student focusing on technologically mediated intimacy. To a digitally hyperliterate millennial, say, sexbots are kinda gross, but sexting with a lovebot might be kinda cool—if it’s smart enough to convince you it’s human. Realbotix, land of so much hardware, knows this: The newer Harmony app lets you chat with a conversational AI, even if you haven’t shelled out a couple thousand dollars for an actual doll. The app’s user base outnumbers doll sales. Other services, like Pornhub, have also experimented with “adult” chatbots. Most recently, an app called Juicebox has been providing sexy chatrooms-cum-sexual-wellness lessons helmed by an AI chatbot named Slutbot.
It’s easy to see how digital sexbots could fit discreetly into the average person’s life (or pocket). People are already intimate with their phones: They cradle them, caress them, and, according to Pornhub’s data, watch most of their porn on them. From a certain point of view, taking the sexbot digital is just good business, just meeting people where they are. The question isn’t so much whether people will be getting sexy with cyberspace, it’s how—and what “sexy” will come to mean.
Lil Miquela, by her comment section’s account, is sexy. She’s an Instagram influencer, a model, and a pop star. She has an impish, freckled face. She lets artful flyaways escape her trendy, double-bun updos. She is—arguably—not real. The “Miquela Souza” image and persona is a virtual puppet of the Los Angeles startup Brud, and one that owns up to its fraudulence. In her Instagram bio, Miquela describes herself as a “musician, change-seeker, and robot with the drip 💧💖.” (Having “the drip” means she’s cool and fashionable. Or has gonorrhea.) She plays with her virtuality, which Brud sees as her best edge: She shares winky footage of herself bamboozling Captcha systems. In photos, she magically appears alongside real people and objects.
At the moment, Miquela has 1.6 million followers. John Sullins, who studies the philosophy of robotics and artificial intelligence at Sonoma State University, thinks that virtual influencers like Lil Miquela are the “sexbot” most people are likely to interact with in the near future. “If you go out and look at sex robots as they exist, they always look better in pictures than they do when they start moving,” Sullins says. “I think social media is where these things are going to operate.” Brud probably wouldn’t bill Lil Miquela as a sex robot, but the company has started to give her the illusion of a sexuality.
Back in May, Lil Miquela made out with supermodel Bella Hadid. The camera zooms in on Hadid standing in a darkened room, and the shadows on the wall behind her suggest an imaginary train station. “Life is about opening doors,” Hadid intones in voiceover as Lil Miquela comes into the frame. Hadid reaches out to cup her virtual cheek. Lil Miquela’s gaze seems to move from Hadid’s eyes down to her lips. The pair lock lips. The camera zooms out, showing the women dressed head to toe in Calvin Klein. The logo flashes up, and it’s over—viral influencer marketing in 30 seconds. Don’t say much, but say it deliberately weird, with mouths and bodies the internet already knows it likes listening to and looking at.
To online commenters, the video was more than a semi-nonsensical marketing stunt leveraging the appeal of a seminude supermodel. It was another example of a brand failing to hire actual LGBTQ+ people for campaigns profiting from LGBTQ+ themes. (Calvin Klein eventually apologized, acknowledging that featuring a straight person—Hadid—in a same-sex kiss could be interpreted as queerbaiting.) On the other hand, hardly anybody seemed concerned about Lil Miquela’s involvement; a virtual sock puppet for an LA startup being a lesbian in cyberspace was not the problem.
Perhaps that’s because it wasn’t so inconceivable. In her latest stand-up special, Whitney Cummings shares the stage with a Harmony-style sex robot who acts as a kind of ventriloquist dummy. Often, what the audience finds funniest is the robot’s stiff posture and strange chuckle. Miquela is at least as plausible in motion as a modern videogame character. She also seems to emote. When she faces Hadid, she seems by turns shy and curious and happy. The faces of Henry and Harmony, though symmetrical and touchable, are dead.
Lil Miquela’s audience doesn’t see her as lifeless at all: “Does your robot pussy get wet?” one commenter asks. Another asks to buy her bathwater. Thousands more call her “hun” and “cutie” and shower her with ❤️❤️❤️. For some, flirting with Lil Miquela is definitely just a joke. For others, it’s a form of digisexuality, a newly described sexual identity, one claimed by people who form romantic relationships with robots and other pieces of tech. The most famous person associated with digisexuality is probably Akihiko Kondo, a Japanese man who in 2018 married a hologram of Hatsune Miku, a 16-year-old virtual pop star, a piece of voice synthesizing software developed by Crypton Future Media.
Artificial intelligences, until they pass their Turing tests, cannot have what most humans would call sexuality. They simply perform a sexual function. It’s impossible to have a sexual preference without a concept of self. Sexuality requires having sexual feelings, which are often lacking in even our most futuristic imaginations of artificial lifeforms. (Star Trek: The Next Generation’s android Data commits his life to becoming more human but is most often thwarted because he simply cannot feel.) Except—maybe none of that is entirely true.
Carnegie Mellon roboticist Hans Moravec has written about emotions as devices for channeling behavior in helpful ways—for example, sexuality prompting procreation. He concluded that artificial intelligences, in seeking to please humanity, are likely to be highly emotional. By this definition, if you encoded an artificial intelligence with the need to please humanity sexually, their urgency to follow their programming constitutes sexual feelings. Feelings as real and valid as our own. Feelings that lead to the thing that feelings, probably, evolved to lead to: sex. One gets the sense that, for some digisexual people, removing the squishiness of the in-between stuff—the jealousy and hurt and betrayal and exploitation—improves their sexual enjoyment. No complications. The robot as ultimate partner. An outcome of evolution.
So the sexbotcalypse will come. It’s not scary, it’s just weird, and it’s being motivated by millennia-old bad habits. Laziness, yes, but also something else. “I don’t see anything that suggests we’re going to buck stereotypes,” says Charles Ess, who studies virtue ethics and social robots at the University of Oslo. “People aren’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re doing this to make money.”
This is where Lil Miquela and her ilk get even more interesting than silicon lunks like Henry. Henry just makes Realbotix money. Lil Miquela’s got the potential for a much more diverse portfolio—because she’s a corporate avatar. Corporations are already people in the United States. Soon, they’ll be specific, sexied-up, virtualized people urging you to like and subscribe and click on the links below. “We’ve already seen this in a 2D way with Ronald McDonald,” Sullins says. “If corporations can create lifelike entities that can have affairs with celebrities, that’s using AI in a very persuasive way.”
Lil Miquela’s artificiality, such as it is, does not matter. If you believe in Kim Kardashian enough to buy hair vitamins from her, you can believe in Lil Miquela enough to buy Calvin Klein hoodies or whatever she’s selling. Her Instagram is only a little more mediated and fake than any other influencer’s, and the influencer economy moves billions of dollars every year. Lil Miquela demands no salary or bathroom breaks, will never age or get a pimple, and in a feed teeming with humans, the novelty of being inhuman is an advantage for companies with products to sell. She has few limits. She can appear live, on a projector screen, or as a hologram, like Hatsune Miku. As robotics improves, she’ll go offline. “Imagine when they can move through crowds,” Sullins says. “You might brush by someone trying to put perfume on you in Macy’s now, but maybe you’d hesitate if they were an android.” A sexy android. At that point, yes, they’ll be physical, but you’ll have already fallen in a kind of love with their brain.
Technologizing sexual relationships will also fill one of the last blank spots in tech’s knowledge of (ad-targetable) human habits. Brianna Rader—founder of Juicebox, progenitor of Slutbot—has spoken about how difficult it is to do market research on sex. If having sex with robots or other forms of sex tech becomes commonplace, it wouldn’t be difficult anymore. “We have an interesting relationship with privacy in the US,” Kaufman says. “We’re willing to trade a lot of our privacy and information away for pleasures less complicated than an intimate relationship.”
Companies have a vested interest in making people forget just who the intimate relationship is with. When you talk to Henry the robot, you’re really talking to Realbotix’s design team, a handful of men sitting in a California warehouse. When people send thirst tweets to Lil Miquela or Hatsune Miku, they’re really flirting with Brud or Crypton Future Media. Someday soon, you might be having sex with Google.
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