Gynoids: Are sex robots a weird new possibility?

Gynoids: Are sex robots a weird new possibility?

What does the word "gynoids" mean to you? Tech experts are constantly warning us that humanity's time is almost up, that homo sapiens' hegemony of the workforce will end in the coming decades. Soon we'll see a new influx of mass-produced, bespoke labourers, Dutiful employees who never tire or flag, who don't eat, sleep, take time off or make mistakes. The new workforce will lead to an unprecedented industrial boom, and for the first time ever, our capacity to work will far outstrip the cost of labour.

I'm talking, of course, about robots, robots whom experts warn us will be stealing all manner of human jobs, leaving us penniless and unemployed. Most people have assumed until now that it would be mostly factory workers and people in the service industry that would be negatively affected, but now it turns out that workers in the world's oldest profession might also be out of a job. Yes, gynoids, (female sex robots), are a new possibility, and we could be seeing the emergence of robosexuals in the near future.

It sounds like something from WestWorld right? In the fictional HBO TV series, the privileged elite pay vast sums of money to spend their time at the WestWorld theme park, a place where meticulously-designed androids cater to their every whim in a wild west backdrop. In the context of the show, the guests have the freedom to indulge in whatever vices suit their fancy; even murder, since their victims are emotionless animatronics. There's even a brothel where they can meet scantily-clad robotic prostitutes, and sleep with artificial women programmed with the foreplay and fetish settings of the user's choice.

It's a dystopian vision of human intimacy - a bleak and uncompromising tableau which paints flesh-and-blood humans as heartless abusers, while the robots are characterised are subservient victims of rape. But is the reality quite so dramatic and depressing? After all, no robot ever designed by man has ever managed to come close to achieving sentience, and we are a long way away from artificial intelligence. Currently, our robots are simply advanced calculators, running recurrent neural network programs in a mimicry of human behaviour. They don't have feelings, they can't be hurt. A human having sex with a robot is just like a person masturbating with a smartphone. Weird and perverse maybe, but not evil.

There's clearly a market for them. A Nesta FutureFest survey of 1002 adults in the United Kingdom discovered that 17 per cent of respondents would be prepared to go on a date with a robot and 26 per cent would date a robot that looks identical to a human.  Like it or not, sex dolls have been a maligned part of human sexuality for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Some have been made with straw, or cloth, or rubber and latex. Some are inflatable, others model expensive clothes. The most famous gynoid is the Greek myth of Pygmalion, who sculpted a female statue so beautiful he fell in love with it.

The goddess Venus converted the statue into the woman incarnate Galatea, with whom Pygmalion had children. For as long as human beings have been capable of any kind of crude artistry, lonely pariahs with out-of-control libidos have been constructing effigies to have sex with, and as our technology has refined itself, so too have the sexbots become gradually more sophisticated.

Harmony, an anatomically correct gynoid with boasting a number of programmable features, is just one example of a sexbot. Harmony has been designed by Matt McMullen, the CEO and creative director for Realbotix, who has been working with silicone sex dolls for the last two decades. Like Frankenstein in his lab, or Susan Calvin in Asimov's I, Robot, McMullen has been gradually refining his own Galatea, striving to make the perfect artificial female companion. Some might be repulsed by the concept of Harmony, by McMullen sees her as being as harmless as Sirri, more akin to a geisha or escort than a straightforward prostitute.

"The whole idea of a sex-capable robot is very contemporary, now and edgy. I get that. But Harmony is a sophisticated piece of machinery and her primary design is to carry on conversations," McMullen stated in an interview with the San Diego World-Tribune. "This is not designed to replace anyone or promote the objectification of women. Robots don’t have rights. Should my toaster be able to refuse to toast my bread? Should my Tesla be able to refuse to drive me to work every morning?” Still, despite McMullen's insistence that his robots are mindless machines, it's difficult not to anthropomorphise something that looks so human, or to project onto it feelings of objectification and exploitation.

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Since the company's inception in 1997, McMullen has sold nearly 8,000 sex dolls in the United States, UK, Germany, Japan, China and Australia. Buyers can select, 31 faces and five skin tones, 16 body types, and have a choice of eye colour, hair colour and hand-painted features like freckles, veining, breast size, even a variety of nipple colours and styles. McMullen has constructed lifelike dolls for TV shows such as Nip/Tuck and CSI: New York and the movie Lars and the Real Girl. Some of McMullen's dolls are used medical schools for training and the factory also works with mastectomy patients to create artificial breasts for women who have lost theirs due to surgery.

All this raises the question of whether not gynoids actually have a positive social utility. Could we actually employ them as a defence against rape culture? It's a pretty out-there idea, unlikely to be accepted by society anytime soon, but perhaps robots could be used in campuses to educate young people about issues of consent, and teach them how to enjoy sex safely? Harmony, for example, is a robot who only responds to a positive, nurturing dialogue. Any attempt at conversation that is violent, overly aggressive or threatening means that she automatically shuts down.

Perhaps sex therapists could use this to influence behaviour, via Pavlovian conditioning, to modify sexual interaction and cut down sexual assaults. Perhaps they could be used to help rehabilitate rapists. Maybe that's all wishful thinking, but it's a thought nonetheless. There are positive applications to consider. In his book Love and Sex with Robots, David Levy states: "Many who would otherwise have become social misfits, social outcasts, or even worse will instead be better, balanced human beings."

But many critics of gynoids claim that, rather than discouraging sex abuse, they actually normalise it and provide a dangerous outlet for predators. They could even become the equivalent of a gateway drug, giving latent rapists a taste for sex crimes. One such robot, 'Roxxxy TrueCompanion' has stirred up considerable controversy among gender equality activists, due to her "frigid" setting, which means that when she is groped by the human user, she will "not be too appreciative of your advance.” The website's description of the gynoid states that Roxxxy will "allow everyone to realise their most private sexual dreams."

Ominous words indeed. Disparaging the gynoid, Everyday Sexism Project founder Laura Bates stated "rape is not an act of sexual passion. It is a violent crime. We should no more be encouraging rapists to find a supposedly safe outlet for it than we should facilitate murderers by giving them realistic, blood-spurting dummies to stab."

Roxxxy's creators, True Companion, have still defended the morality of their product. "We absolutely agree with Laura Bates," a corporate representative stated, "Roxxxy is simply not programmed to participate in a rape scenario and the fact that she is, is pure conjecture on the part of others. You would not immediately passionately kiss a person that you just met on your first date. Likewise, Frigid Farrah would also tell you that she just met you if you try to 'move' too quickly. Rape simply isn't an interaction that Roxxxy supports, nor is it something that our customers are requesting."

Still, the machine has raised ethical questions regarding the nature of programmable intercourse. A study conducted by Responsible Robotics entitled "Our Sexual Future With Robots" concluded: "When we look at the question of whether or not sex robots could help to prevent sex crimes, there is major disagreement. On one side there are those who believe that expressing disordered or criminal sexual desires with a sex robot would satiate them to the point where they would not have the desire to harm fellow humans. On the other side, many others believe that this would be an indulgence that could encourage and reinforce illicit sexual practices. This may work for a few but it is a very dangerous path to tread."

So ultimately it seems as though robotic prostitution is still a very remote possibility, and the technology we have currently is unlikely to supplant real sex workers. Furthermore, the sexbots which do exist currently seem to be very advanced dolls, nothing more than sex toys programmed with extra features. However, the acceleration of digital technology means that we will have to account for these questions some day and provide answers which allow us to explore sexual technology in a manner that dignifies women and encourages responsible sexual intercourse among consenting adults.

Perhaps the use of gynoids could be non-exploitative and be therapeutic to those who suffer from sexual dysfunctions or paraphilia disorders, but all evidence suggests that human nature will simply abuse the lovers we have programmed to cater to our libido, and will condition us to treat sex with even less respect than we already do. In the meantime, why not check out some of the worst failures in the study of robotics?