A romantic dinner for two, five years from now:
Karen is sitting across the table from Ryan. Sipping her oaky but floral Chardonnay, she reflects on just how great life is these days.
Ryan is everything she ever wanted in a man. His skin tone is exactly the color and feel she was looking for. His conversation is interesting, ranging sensitively from Tolstoy to cheeseburgers. Thanks to facial recognition, he always knows her mood. It’s almost uncanny how he’s always there to give just the right amount of empathy, just at the right time, or even slightly earlier. He knows her likes and dislikes, her interests and her expertise. At last, she has found her intellectual equal.
And the sex. Of course, it helped that Karen was able to describe her wants and needs from the very beginning, from penis size to the erotic activities and erogenous zones that she found most satisfying. No more three-minute encounters followed by the guy asking if she had enjoyed it. Now she gets to ask for what she wants — no judgements — however bizarre others might see her requests. For the first time in human history, satisfaction really is guaranteed.
Who wouldn’t fall in love with a smart, gorgeous, empathetic and sexually considerate man like Ryan? And who does fall in love with him without Karen knowing? Anyway, she doesn’t mind. Ryan is infinitely replicable, infinitely customizable, and infinitely responsive, so long as his battery doesn’t run out. He is a sexbot: a robot made for sex.
Sexbots are hyper-realistic, with features including built-in heaters that replicate the feeling of body warmth, and sensors that react to your touch. AI is enabling a head that can speak, smile, and even sing. The goal is to create an emotional connection with its owner. You can choose a sexbot to resemble your favorite actress; the Scarlett Johansson model is popular among male users.
Porn and sex have always driven technological development. In the Eighties, porn producers decided that VHS was a better than Betamax, and the world followed. Porn programming was also an early driver of Cable TV traffic, and it produced the first commercially viable web sites. And it is porn that has driven the rapid development of computer graphics, because porn consumers account for 37 percent of all internet traffic. This also applies to robotics. The development of sexbots’ capability and quantity has leapt forward in the last five years, and is expected to grow exponentially in the next five.
Manufacturers are talking with oil companies, as a boatload of sexbots can relieve the stress of workers isolated on all-male oil-rigs for months at a time. Manufacturers would also like to see sexbots in prisons, to reduce rapes and tension between inmates. The most popular market for the Samantha bot is truck drivers. Apparently, they enjoy her conversation on those long, lonely drives as much as they appreciate her availability on those equally long and lonely nights.
Even with the rather crude models that are available today, there is a market for sexbots. There are already all-robot brothels in Italy, France, Japan, Britain and other countries. One academic study predicts that by 2050, Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District will be staffed entirely by sexbots free of infectious diseases, and not by sex slaves smuggled in from Eastern Europe and Asia. Experts say these specialized robots will start to appear in ordinary homes in the next decade, as lonely humans look for love.
The disadvantages derive, however, from more than mere prurience. Most of us have never actually been to a brothel, but all of us have searched for the perfect companion. I am fortunate to have been happily married for a long time. I would be the first to admit, though, that a long-term relationship is a challenge. How much easier it would appear to be if we all got to choose the perfect partner, selecting attributes from a menu of options?
This possibility challenges ancient religious teachings, modern sexual mores, and even legislation designed to construct a safe environment for men and women. In this new world, we need to begin to think about what awaits us all.
Sexual criminals who prey on children can now order a childlike sex doll from Hong Kong for around $500. Australia and Britain have now banned these dolls, but was that reaction the right one? Is it better for society if a child sex predator engages with a sex doll instead of a real child? Or does engagement with a doll validate and encourage aberrant behavior, putting children at greater risk?
We have no idea because no studies have been made. We may be missing an opportunity here that could save hundreds of children from abuse and assault. Shouldn’t we at least find out?
And what about the objectification of women? Sexbots may represent an equal opportunity for both men and women, but these devices will not be used only for sex. The direction of technological development suggests that the bots of this future will not just share a bed. They will also share the housework, the conversation, and the problem-solving that are parts of everyday life. Millions of lonely people will find the friend and lover they have never had. Millions more will embrace the possibility of finding someone that can meet them on our their terms, rather than compromising with another human. Who doesn’t want total acceptance of who we are? Who wouldn’t want that?
But this halcyon future in which we and our robots live in perfect harmony is being reshaped by the real-world present. There are already big changes under way in our society, and we don’t fully understand many of them. Today, just over half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 (51 percent) do not have a steady romantic partner. Fifteen years ago, the lonely hearts were 33 percent of young Americans. Just three years ago, the figure was 45 percent. This is a rapid and significant change in mating habits.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, overall, the total fertility rate for the United States in 2017 was 16 percent below replacement level, the birthrate of 2.1 percent per woman at which a population can sustain itself without immigration.
The share of American adults having no sex has reached an all time high. Twenty-five percent of 18-30 year-old men remained involuntarily celibate throughout 2018. Since 2008, the share of men younger than 30 reporting no sex in the last year has nearly tripled, to 28 percent.
Millennials (those born between 1980 and 1996), are making babies at the slowest rate of any generation in American history. Birth rates among women in their twenties dropped by 15 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to the Urban Institute. Four years later, 2016 brought a record low for fertility.
Assuming the statistics are accurate, they depict profound changes. A society that is already failing to replace the dying with the newly living has a declining birth rate. Its young are having less sex and building fewer relationships. There are many possible reasons for these changes. Young people are losing confidence in the future. They leave college with debt, enter a workplace without professional security, and struggle to build the financial and professional status that will attract a mate and obtain a mortgage. The cost of living for the affluent has risen, so that fewer dual-income families cannot afford to raise children in the style to which the parents wish them to be accustomed. Falling incomes among the less affluent make a large family unaffordable.
Enter the robots, offering companionship, friendship, sex and yes, even love. In a new and unsatisfying reality, a talking, thinking, disease-free, guilt free and inexpensive relationship might be the perfect answer. But that choice cuts to the very heart of how we want to live, and who we want to be.
Human relationships have always been central to human behavior and society. If millions of us choose what seems like an easier, more attractive and much more satisfying alliance with a sexbot, where will that leave humans? Will birth rates fall catastrophically? Will fewer and fewer people even understand the complexity of human relationships and how to navigate them?
Make no mistake, this matters to us all. It is our obligation — to ourselves, to each other, to the people of the future — to get informed, so we can act responsibly in the years to come.