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Sex with Robots - An Interview With David Levy

An Interview with Author David Levy


Sex with Robots - An Interview With David Levy
Javier Pierini/The Image Bank/Getty Images

David Levy has worked in the field of Artificial Intelligence since graduating from St. Andrews University, Scotland, in 1967. He led the team that won the 1997 Loebner Prize in Artificial Intelligence in New York. In 1968 Levy (who is an International Master and expert in computer chess) challenged four Artificial Intelligence luminaries to develop a computer program that could beat him at chess within ten years (he won the bet in 1978, but was eventually defeated in 1989). He is also the president of the International Computer Games Association .

In the final chapters of Levy’s book, Robots Unlimited: Life in a Virtual Age, he turns his attention to love, sex, and reproduction among and between humans and robots, as well as the ethical issues raised in having sex with robots.

I asked David Levy about his work in the area of AI and sexuality, and his vision of the not too distant future of human robot sexual interactions.

When most people hear the term "sex with robots" they probably imagine something from their experience of popular media, whether it’s a Star Wars robot, Bender from Futurama, or the maid from the Jetsons. Can you explain what in your writing you mean when you talk about sex with robots?

I am thinking in terms of androids - robots designed in a humanlike form - of which many examples can be found on the Web site www.androidworld.com. But in addition to having arms, legs and a head, sexual robots will also have human-sized genitalia. This idea is not at all as far fetched as might first appear.

As long ago as the late 19th century there were manufacturers, in Paris and elsewhere, who made artificial vaginas and even whole artificial bodies, designed specifically to provide substitutes for the female genitals and thereby to allow fornication. These products were known as "dames de voyage" (ladies of travel) and were particularly recommended for use by sailors during long periods at sea. The sex robots that I envisage will, of course, employ 21st rather than 19th century technology, but the basic idea is the same.

In your book you outline some of the research endeavors and technological developments already underway that you predict might produce some of the first opportunities for humans to have sex with robots. Can you describe some of these?

There are many sex-related inventions that have been patented over the past century or so. In fact there is a whole book devoted to the subject of sex inventions at the U.S. Patent Office.

In "Robots Unlimited" I describe a recent patent application by an Australian inventor, Dominic Choy. This is just one taste of things to come. What I see happening is that the merging of many different technologies will lead to the creation of robots that provide many of the physical attributes required of a skilled lover.

Scientists have already developed artificial skin sufficiently sensitive to distinguish between a gentle caress and firm pressure; and the complementary capability - an artificial finger that can apply sensuous strokes. There is also research into silicone-based and similar types of materials used in the RealDoll and rival products, materials that provide for the user a measure of simulation of coupling with a human sex partner. Then add one or more of the specifically sexual electronic technologies that are already available, such as those employed for the benefit of women in the Thrillhammer, the Sybian, or the hugely popular vibrators that pleasure so many millions of customers; or the male equivalents - vibrating penis rings. The combination of these technologies and others will enable robots to deliver sexually awesome experiences.

One of the things I found most surprising in reading your book was the amount of research that is already underway in this area. In particular I was excited by the thinking and experimentation around robot reproduction. Can you explain what is meant by this term, and maybe describe a few examples of research being done in this area.

Robot scientists have already made the first major breakthrough in this field, with the development by Hod Lipson and Jordon Pollack at Brandeis University of robots that simulate evolution and can design new robots based on a trial-and-error process. This project has already reached the stage where one robot can pick up the components of another robot and assemble it.

We are, of course, very familiar with the idea of robots on the assembly line, picking up the pieces of an automobile or whatever and assembling them into one identical vehicle after another. Yet the idea of a robot assembling replicas of itself is somehow intuitively different for many people, probably because it is a little scary. The science fiction literature is riddled with examples of robots that reproduce, sometimes until there are so many of them that they are able to take over the world. Now that the first stage of this process has become science fact, it would not be surprising if many people were to view this branch of robotics research with a certain amount of apprehension.

What I have described so far relates only to the physical construction of robots. But what about their "brains", their emotions, their personalities? A robot's brain is some form of computer, running software that has been developed to give the robot its mental capabilities, including its emotions and personality. Over and above the research into the physical self-reproduction of robots there is also a research effort into self-reproducing software, programs that can evolve into (hopefully) better programs - better in the sense of being better able to perform its designated task(s). This idea is based on genetics. The basic method is called a "genetic algorithm" and, put simply, it works by having parts of a computer program measuring how well or how badly they are performing and then improving themselves through a process that simulates natural selection, spawning a new, better generation of programs. It does not take much imagination to realize that robots which can self-reproduce physically, and also self-improve their own software, could evolve almost beyond the dreams of science fiction writers.

One aspect of robot reproduction that I personally find very exciting is the possibility that intelligent robots will be able to copy some of the characteristics and physical features of their human owners. Imagine, for example, that your robot has been programmed to "like" the sound of your voice. When it designs its successors it can copy the characteristics of your voice into the speech synthesis software employed in those successors, resulting in robots that talk like you do. As yet I am not aware of any research in this area, but the recognition and speech synthesis technologies are already with us, and I do not believe it will be very long before the idea is explored by roboticists.

Several times in your writing you slip anthropomorphizing language in, so suddenly a computer program has intuition, or feelings, where before it simply had a series of predictable responses to very intelligent programming. I think for many people this will be one of the greatest fears, and barriers to conceptualizing a human + robot sexuality. When you write about the ethics of robot sex it calls to mind the question of consciousness and sentience. Do you foresee robotic consciousness? Or put another way, will we eventually produce robots that are just like us?

The sometimes use of anthropomorphisms was quite deliberate. I hope that in this way the reader will be led somewhat gently to the feeling that the robots of the future will, at least in some sense, be alive.

I do forsee robot consciousness, and this is the subject of Chapter 12. One problem, of course, with the consciousness debate, is the lack of a generally acceptable definition of the term. But in the sense that the word is normally used, yes, I am convinced that robots will act as though they possess consciousness. And if they do so act, then we will not be able to deny that they have consciousness.

As to whether we will eventually produce robots that are just like us, the answer here is "not exactly like us, but close". Shakespeare's sixteenth century test: "If you prick me, do I not bleed?" will detect one of the differences, and there will be others, but in terms of the outward appearance and behavior of robots, I am convinced that they will be designed to be all but indistinguishable to the vast majority of the human population.

You write that many people may feel threatened by the possibilities of human robot sexual interactions. This response reminds me of the very common response many people still have to sex toys and vibrators in particular. Many straight men feel that a vibrator is a “threat” to them, believing it could replace them. Many straight women will say they don’t “need” a vibrator because they have a partner. You write about how robots could provide sexual contact for people who may feel unable to have it with another human. To what extent do you think sexual interactions between humans and robots would replace sex between two people?

I think it is a natural reaction for many heterosexual men to feel threatened by vibrators, and therefore by robots, especially in contemporary sexual culture in which the need to be able to sexually please and satisfy your woman is promoted so widely in books and other media, and is often the subject of boastful conversation. Most men would feel inadequate if they believed that their woman enjoyed better orgasms courtesy of a vibrator or a robot, than those that the men themselves could provide on a regular basis. But I hope and believe that one of the great benefits of sexual robots will be their ability to teach lovemaking skills, so that men who do feel inadequate will be able to take unlimited lessons, in private, from robot lovers who possess an unrivalled level of knowledge of sexual techniques and psycho-sexual problems, combined with great skills as sensitive, patient teachers. And of course, some women will also wish to avail themselves of the sexual teaching skills of robots.

You are quite right that many straight women will deny any need for a vibrator because they already feel completely sexually satisfied by their regular sex partner(s), and for those women it might be the case that whatever additional sexual pleasures robots could offer them, they are not of sufficient interest to encourage them to try robot sex on a regular basis. But the sales figures for vibrators, and the psychology literature, both popular and academic, are sufficiently replete with data on sexually frustrated women, that one cannot doubt the enormous popularity of robot lovers when they become commercially available.

None of this is intended to suggest that sex between two people will become outmoded, because I do not believe for one moment that it will. What I am convinced of is that robot sex will become the only sexual outlet for a few sectors of the population: the misfits, the very shy, the sexually inadequate and uneducable, . . .; and that for different sectors of the population robot sex will vary between something to be indulged in occasionally, and only when one's partner is away from home on a long trip, to an activity that supplements one's regular sex life, perhaps when one's partner is not feeling well, or not feeling like sex for some other reason.

Here’s where I start to get worried. I’m afraid that rather than enhancing a social experience (such as sex), technology will allow us as humans to avoid evolving socially by using technology to mimic social interaction rather than add to it.

Currently the biggest problem for people who are socially marginalized (which is what I’m assuming you meant by “misfit”) is not that they aren’t able to have sex, or make meaningful connections with others, it’s that our society functions in a way to systemically keep them isolated. As the disability activist and academic Tom Shakespeare says "the trouble is not how can we have sex, it's who can we have sex with". And while there is no doubt that people who are socially marginalized want to have casual rollicking sex, just as often they report that what they long for is the intimacy, human contact, and human connections, that come with sexual intimacy and exploration.

If these robots are intended in any way to increase the opportunity and potential of human sexuality, using them in this way would be seriously counterproductive. What are your thoughts on this?

I do not see why using robots to satisfy the sexual and intimacy needs of the socially marginalized is likely to be counterproductive. If you mean that providing robots to satisfy needs that the socially marginalized would prefer to be satisfied by humans, will make it less likely that the socially marginalized will want or be able to find suitable human partners, then you might be right, but I would still argue that the benefits to the socially marginalized far outweigh the negatives. Tom Shakespeare's words ring true - the socially marginalized do experience much more difficulty than others in finding human contact, intimacy and sex.

That is a simple fact, and it is understandable. I feel that the validity of your "counterproductive" argument, if I understand it correctly, assumes that the socially marginalized can indeed find intimacy and sex when they need it, in which case they will not need to employ robots for these purposes. If that is so, then all well and good. But my point is simply that there are groups in society who do find it extremely difficult, almost impossible, to mate with partners who will love them and satisfy their emotional and sexual needs on a long-term basis. In many ways robots represent a very good way out of this problem, just as the Japanese and American governments are now looking at the possibility of using robots as carers for the elderly. I firmly believe that in time robots will not only become carers, sensitive to the emotional and practical needs of the elderly, but that they will also become our friends if we want them to, and our companions, lovers and marriage partners. I would not describe any of this as counterproductive.

I have to say that for me possibly the least interesting part of the potential for human robot sexuality is the piece about sexual technique. There are thousands of books, videos, and workshops for people to learn “better” technique, and while you point out a variety of ways that robots will allow a more immersive experience, ultimately I’m aware that technique is just one (arguably small) part of sexual expression. Have you considered the ways that robots may extend human experience of sexuality beyond offering technical assistance and/or providing sexual services?

I do not feel that we should downplay the importance of robots as a means of teaching and enhancing sexual technique. So many relationships founder because of dissatisfaction in the bedroom, and so many men suffer, as do their partners, because they are unable for whatever reason (including embarrassment) to work to improve their lovemaking skills. That is why I highlighted this particular aspect of robot sex.

But to answer the main part of your question, yes – I most definitely believe that sexbots will be able to extend the human experience of sexuality. Let me try to explain one way that this might be achieved, using methods from other areas of Artificial Intelligence.

In Chapter 6, which explains in simple terms how computers think, the topics I cover include discovery and invention, as achieved by computer programs. Without going into any of the detail here, suffice it to say that it has already been demonstrated that programs can discover new ideas from existing knowledge and can even devise inventions that are suitable for patenting. If such a program were to be developed, incorporating all the knowledge contained in all of the world's sex manuals, and with some basic knowledge of human anatomy, the result could be a plethora of new ideas for lovemaking, new sexual positions, that robots could teach us and help us practice if we wish.

Another way in which human ideas of sexuality could be extended lies in the possibility of experimenting with various group combinations, groups involving one or more sexbots and perhaps more than one human. Predicting trends in human sexual behavior is not an easy task, but it is clear that when sexbots are widely available there will be many more sexual practices to be tried.

Your argument for the development of a more sophisticated ethical discussion around human robot sexual interaction is based on the idea that robot development in this area is inevitable, and we might as well get ready for it, and start thinking now about the issues that will come up. Can you give some examples of the ethical dilemmas you see facing us as human robot sexual interactions become a reality?

The ethics of robot sex is a very broad subject, too broad to discuss in detail in an interview, but I can certainly give some examples of the types of ethical problem that I foresee.

Firstly there is the question of how one's use of one's own sex robot will affect other people - one's spouse or partner in particular. Will sex with a robot be considered unfaithful? Will it be unethical in some way to say to one's regular human sex partner: “Not tonight darling. I'm going to make it with the robot."? (Some couples will, of course, own two robots, a malebot and a fembot, and will enjoy orgiastic sessions in which three or all four of them take part.) Will robot swapping be viewed as being similar to wife swapping?

Then there are issues relating to the use of other people's sexbots. What will be the ethics of lending your sexbot to a friend, or borrowing theirs? What about using a friend's sexbot without telling the friend?

There will certainly be ethical (and legal) issues relating to the use of sexbots by minors. Should the age of consent for sex with a robot be the same as that for sex with a human? And what about the ethics of an adult encouraging a minor to have sex with a robot? Will it be regarded as a sex educational experience, or as a corrupting influence? And how will ethicists and lawyers deal with parents when one of them wants their child to have sex with a robot, as a method of sex education for example, but the other does not?

Finally, there is the matter of the ethics of robot sex as they affect the robot itself. In "Robots Unlimited" I discuss some questions of robot ethics, which in my opinion is one of the most interesting topics in the debate on the future of robots. What happens when a robot's owner feels randy but the robot's programming causes it to shy away, possibly because it is running its self-test software or downloading some new knowledge and does not wish to be interrupted, or possibly because its personality was designed in such a way that it sometimes says "no" for whatever reason. Under such circumstances, is it akin to rape if the robot's owner countermands the robot's indicated wish to refrain from sex on a particular occasion?

I think you will agree that these examples warn of a minefield for ethicists and lawyers. "Roboethics" is becoming a respectable academic topic, for example earlier this year I attended a workshop on roboethics organised by the Scuola di Robotica in Genoa, Italy, and a couple of weeks later there was a similar conference in Palermo, Sicily. So the subject is very much under discussion, although the discussion is still in its very earliest stages.

There seems to be so many ways that AI and robotics can potentially have a positive impact on human existence and experience. Where do you think sexuality fits in the larger picture. Do you imagine that as the technology improves, sexuality will be one of the early testing grounds for human robotic interactions? Do you think sex robots will ultimately be a fad?

I believe that sexuality fits in the larger picture in BIG BOLD LETTERS. What is the word most often typed into Google and the other search engines? Sex! What was the most prolific use made of video cassette recorders when they came on the market? Porno movies. What was one of the first major social changes that came about with the launch of the automobile? Young couples who wanted privacy so that they could make love would borrow father's car for the purpose (and many still do so today). These are examples of inventions that were not created with sexuality in mind, but for which sexuality became an important use.

When we create robots that are specifically invented with sexuality in mind, the level of interest and the desire to use them will, I believe, be beyond the wildest dreams of product designers and manufacturers.

I think that sexuality will be far more than an early testing ground for robots. It will not only be the most popular use of robots amongst adults, it will also create huge social change. There is no way I can see sexbots as being a fad, any more than one could say that sex is a fad.

Can you talk about what’s next, and what you’re working on now?

As I was collecting the research material and writing the book I became increasingly fascinated by the subject of intimate relationships with artificial partners. Originally I was planning only one chapter on this subject, for reasons of space, but I had to extend it into two chapters, one on robot emotion and love, the other on robot sex and reproduction.

Then my wife pointed out that, in exploring these topics, I had almost ignored the ethical implications, and questions such as consciousness, and that these are important areas that needed to be addressed. So I researched some more and added two more chapters. After I delivered the book to the publisher I decided to write another book.

Whereas "Robots Unlimited" focuses on the how of Artificial Intelligence, including the how of robot love and sex, I decided that there was a need for a book on the why of all this. Why will people be attracted to robots? Why will people fall in love with robots? Why will people want to have sex with robots? And even why will people want to marry robots? I am now nearing completion of that book and have recently signed with a New York literary agent, who is currently working with me to ensure that it will be interesting for a very wide readership. I plan to keep a close watch on robot sex, to make it my major area of interest within A.I. for the next few years. I believe that the speed of development in this field will be extremely rapid, due in part to the enormous sums of money that the developers of such products will be able to reap, and partly because of the enormous worldwide interest in and desire for better sex.

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