Real Doll creator Matt McMullen sculpting a robot doll's face

Love and sex in the Robotic Age: exploring human-robot relationships

The future of human-robotic relationships was considered at the Second International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots held in London last December. What might this look like and how far advanced are the related technologies?

Lucile woke, as she had every morning for the last five months, in the strong, warm arms of Roger. As she turned into his chest for a quick snuggle before rising, he started to wake up too, slowly at first, until finally his bright eyes came fully to life and met hers. He kissed her on the forehead.

Their morning routine was always the same. Roger would bring Lucile coffee as she washed and dressed, then made her breakfast. They’d catch up on the news together and discuss their plans for the day.

“We need to go shopping as your parents are coming over for dinner tonight,” Roger reminded her. He never forgot anything. Lucile agreed, although she admitted she was nervous about the evening. “Don’t worry, people tend to love me,” he reassured her.

Hand-in-hand they headed out the front door. Lucile never went anywhere without Roger. She didn’t have to, because it was 2050 and Roger was a humanoid robot who didn’t have anywhere else to be but right by her side for however long she wanted him there.

“Are we so embedded in our technology that this is a natural next step?” Dr Trudy Barber, a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, asked an audience of academics at the Second International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots. The conference moved to London after being banned in Malaysia.

“It is inevitable we will project ourselves,” she continued, “be it our phones or robots, for love and sex.”

The leading expert on the subject and keynote speaker at that distinctly academic conference, David Levy, who authored the 2007 book ‘Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships’, goes further and predicts humans will marry robots by 2050.

Our obsession with human-created companions goes back centuries. Pygmalion fell in love with a statue of his own carving, as told by Roman poet Ovid in 8AD, and Golem, an imaginary humanoid controlled by its creator, from Jewish folklore, goes back to the 16th century and gets revisited time and again in film, theatre and television. Recently, similar motives featured in HBO’s ‘Westworld’ and ‘Humans’ on Channel 4, as well as films such as ‘Ex Machina’ and ‘HER’. 

Modern-day depictions of humanoid robots suggest society should be concerned, if not terrified, of their future role and capabilities. However, most experts in the field believe robot companions can greatly benefit sections of society such as the elderly, the lonely and the socially challenged.

To be a true people companion, robots need several things: intelligence, self-awareness – consciousness, even – the ability to understand and respond to emotions, a soft, supple human-like form and full mobility.

Present day equipment isn’t quite there, but how far off it is depends on who you ask.

It is agreed that foundation technologies are already available and in some areas, such as memory, they supersede human capabilities: the simple computer programs designed to simulate an intelligent conversation, known as chatbots, can quickly look up digital responses from a vast online database. When incorporated with speech and image recognition software, cameras and sensors – all off-the-shelf – they form the basis of a humanoid robot brain.

Gadgets such as Amazon’s voice-controlled home assistant Alexa use deep-learning artificial intelligence (AI) to understand demands, such as to dim the lights, while becoming cleverer and more useful the more they are used.

In early 2016, Google’s AlphaGo computer program beat professional and leading Go player Lee Sedol at a championship in South Korea. Go is a complex game in which a player has approximately 250 possible moves per turn, and the player’s thought processes cannot be easily explained or learned, as with chess. Computers have been beating human chess players since the 1990s.

Later in 2016, Google’s Deepmind Technologies deep-learning system proved almost twice as good as any previous image recognition effort at identifying objects such as cats after being shown 10 million images from YouTube videos.

Furthermore, in 2015, computer scientists at the Ransselaer Polytechnic Institute in the US proved self-awareness in a Nao robot using a classic ‘self-awareness test’. The test required the AI to be able to listen and understand a question, hear and identify its own voice and recognise that it is distinct from other robots. It needed to then link that realisation back to the original question to come up with an answer. It succeeded.

This kind of cognitive robotics is creating AI in robots by enabling them to learn from and respond to real-world situations, as opposed to pre-programming specific responses to every conceivable stimulus.

However, there is still a way to go before robots are likely to achieve anything near actual ‘consciousness’.

“One of the big challenges we face is being able to reverse-engineer the human brain,” says futurologist and engineer Ian Pearson.

“But it would only be a couple of years before a major IT lab decided to develop artificial consciousness and succeeded. However, I don’t think we have got labs trying to achieve this at the moment.”

The potential of a humanoid robot for understanding human emotions, experts agree, will be a key factor in a person’s ability to fall in love with a robot.

Promising technologies addressing this need are emerging, the most advanced being the ‘human companion’ robot Pepper, developed by France-based Aldebaran Robotics and sold by Japanese-based SoftBank Robotics Corp.

Through a network of sensors and cameras, the child-height Pepper can recognise a person’s face, speak, hear and move around autonomously. Based on the information it obtains, Pepper can interpret a person’s emotions and offer an appropriate response. Although reports say that it is not seamless, it is proving popular. In December, SoftBank announced that since 2014, Pepper had sold 10,000 units and the company is now preparing to sell to ‘real customers’ and not just companies or ‘early adopters’.

Yet what will it take for scientists to engineer human love for an object?

“The main challenges are that we don’t understand human emotions – if you ask people in science, they don’t know what love is, so that is the first challenge,” says Dr Hooman Samani, director of the AI and Robotics Technology Laboratory at National Taipei University, Taiwan. Samani has studied and written books on how affection in cyber robotics can be developed by comprehending relationships from humans to humans, specifically understanding psychology to make effective AI.

Samani developed a prototype advanced AI system called Lovotics. It’s a small, furry robot on wheels that uses AI to try to understand who is interacting with it and realise and analyse their emotions.

Similar to Lovotics is the fluffy seal robot PARO, an advanced interactive robot developed by AIST to administer animal therapy to patients in hospitals and care homes. PARO has five sensors (tactile, light, audition, temperature, and posture) with which it can perceive people and the environment, helping to comfort and reassure patients with Alzheimer’s.

Studies show that people react positively to cute robots, like they might do to a cat or a dog. Experts think this may be due to emotional transference – an unconscious redirection of feelings from one person/thing to another – or anthropomorphism. Indeed, it’s not unheard of for humans to love inanimate or intangible things. There have been legal battles by individuals wanting to marry fictional characters and inanimate objects.

So does it matter that robots may never be able to genuinely reciprocate human love? 

“If a robot behaves as though it loves you, then why should you not believe that it loves you?” says Levy.

Levy is a devotee of the Turing argument which he defines as “if you have AI and it appears to be intelligent, should you not assume it is intelligent? Does it matter that it’s not real if you are happy?”

If robots can look, feel and move in the same way as a human, something that Levy sees as key to future human-robotic relationships, developing genuine feelings for a robot should, in theory, be even easier.

Matt McMullen, founder of Abyss Creations, the inventors of Real Doll, a silicon, anatomically correct, life-size sex doll, has first-hand experience of people falling in love with his creations.

“People already fall in love with no AI at all. There are individuals who have difficulties with relationships and those who have enormous challenges when put into social situations, so this is an alternative to a human-human relationship,” he says.

With their original creations intended for sex and companionship, founder McMullen and his colleagues are now working on the ‘Realbotix project’ to incorporate robotics, AI and virtual reality (VR) to create ‘the ultimate companion’. McMullen hopes to launch the first Real Doll that can converse, hear, see, move its eyes and react to what is going on around it by the end of 2017. If achieved, this will be the first sex robot on the market.

He and his team are also developing a VR app, set to hit the market by mid-2017, to let owners create personalities for their dolls.

Although resources for artificial intelligence are huge, so are the challenges. McMullen says: “We are still at a very primitive level of development in regards to what we expect and desire when we are interacting and talking with a machine.”

In terms of physicality, McMullen believes his dolls have already superseded the ‘uncanny valley’, whereby a humanoid robot bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human arouses a sense of unease. Therefore, he is now focusing on making the doll’s head, neck and eyes follow someone as they move around, which he believes will create an enormous connection that is non-sexual but very intimate. He is also working on heating the dolls’ bodies using a remote-control internal heating system. 

In terms of mechanics of humanoid robots, many can now climb stairs and do press-ups, among other things. Alphabet-owned University of Tokyo spin-off Schaft has developed the Kengoro robot that can perform press-ups and ‘sweat’ – seep water from its frame – as a form of internal cooling. It uses over 200 liquid-cooled motors to put out torque over an extended period of time without overheating.

For soft robots, researchers at the Harvard John A Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) are developing an ‘artificial muscle’ – a dielectric elastomer, soft materials that have good insulating properties, with a range of motion requiring relatively low voltage and no rigid components. Current dielectric elastomers need complex and inefficient circuitry to deliver high voltage as well as rigid components to maintain form.

However, most humanoid robots still don’t look anything like humans – McMullen’s Real Doll is the nearest thing.

At the Congress, despite great enthusiasm for the subject, no one could say definitively how far away we are from a complete humanoid companion, or who will pay for its development. There seems to be lacklustre investor appetite. There was only one venture capitalist at the conference, everyone else being academics or media. This seems due to high anxiety about humanoid robotics, and investors tend to get nervous about financing something that could be considered a sex fetish. It’s largely anticipated the sex industry will fund humanoid robots of the future, taking them in a singular direction.

When thinking about what role humanoid robots might play in our future, the possibilities are only as limited as a person’s imagination. Though whatever comes from the evolution of robots, it’s likely it will be our own needs reflected back at us. 

Society has a duty to be cautious and demand appropriate restrictions and regulations in the development of humanoid AI. Childlike robots, experts agree, should be banned in most instances.

However, just as Lucile’s parents might do as they look at their happy and contented daughter holding hands with her robotic companion, her first true, loyal friend possibly in years – society should also consider that humanoid robots could fill a great void felt by many, old and young, in a world fuelled by the need for love, companionship and sex.

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