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Book review: 'Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots' by Kate Devlin

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We just cannot hear enough about sex robots. In this witty and optimistic book, Kate Devlin explains that the concept of an artificial lover is nothing new, and the future of sex robots is unlikely to resemble our dystopian fears.

Readers buying this book hoping for 270 pages of detailed discussion about sexy sex with sexy sex robots will be disappointed. Those picking it up for a refreshing exploration of sex and technology have plenty to look forward to.

The opening chapters of ‘Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots’ (Bloomsbury, £16.99, ISBN 9781472950895) – which make up approximately the first half of the book – are effective introductions to these concepts for anyone unfamiliar with them. However, anybody already interested in sex technology, robots and science-fiction is certainly going to be familiar with much of this material already. I’ve lost count of the number of think pieces I’ve come across which discuss the implications of voice assistants being given predominantly female voices. This is not to say that it is not an interesting or important observation, but many readers will already be familiar with it.

Kate Devlin begins by introducing the myriad concepts relevant to discussion of sex robots – sex toys, robots (particularly gynoids), machine intelligence and human-machine relationships – with a series of brief histories. Particularly memorable is her retelling of the Ancient Greek myth of Laodamia, who enjoyed what could be described as an early sex doll in the form of her slain husband, before it was thrown on a pyre by her concerned family. We learn that sex robots are far from a modern concept.

‘Turned On’ becomes much more enjoyable and thought-provoking in its second half, where it discusses the state of sex technology today.

“I’m staring at a wall of 49 disembodied nipples and areolae. They range in size from mini protrusions to saucer-sized mounds, in all colours from ‘blush’ to ‘cocoa’, and varying degrees of what’s labelled ‘puffiness’,” Devlin writes. “I’m behind the scenes at Abyss Creations in San Marcos, California, home of fifteen employees, dozens of human-sized, lifelike dolls, and one prototype sex robot.”

We learn that – despite intense speculation about sex robots – there aren’t any effective sex robots in existence; and there won’t be for a while yet. The robotic sex dolls of today are very basic and as sexy (and threatening) as cream cheese. Even the men interested in these dolls fail to live up to our expectation of creepy weirdos; they tend to be quite innocently devoted to their dolls.

In her discussion of sex robots, Devlin proves to be a rational voice amid a sea of speculation and concern. She rejects many common arguments against sex dolls, which often stem from a branch of feminism absolutely opposed to sex work, and – while accepting that there is much uncertainty even with regard to the impact of pornography on violent sexual behaviour – she rejects the idea that sex robots would directly contribute to an increase in real-world sexual violence.

She also rejects some ageing arguments in favour of sex robots, such as the idea that they could help satisfy men’s higher sex drives. Devlin’s pro-sex feminist stance is refreshingly well-informed and empathetic. She understands sex and fantasy (particularly with regards to the BDSM scene) in a way that many writers approaching these subjects fumble with.

Devlin’s real enthusiasm is not for sex robots as we imagine them – those which objectify women with their “crude (in more than one sense of the word), hypersexualised representations” of women – but for non-humanoid sex technology. She enthuses about the creativity shown at sex hackathons; the creation of sex devices which use VR, simulate multiple senses, respond to the user in sensual and comforting ways and which use unexpected textures and forms (such as hammocks and tentacles).

“Much more likely [than humanoid sex robots] is the development of sex technology into increasingly embodied forms providing robotic multi-sensory experiences. This […] reduces some of the more compelling fears,” she writes. “Let’s think outside the bot.”

While the first half of ‘Turned On’ is a witty journey through well-worn territory, the second half of the book is a creative, optimistic, open-minded exploration of sex robots. It is also worth mentioning Stuart Taylor’s fantastic original illustrations at the beginning of each chapter which – in the spirit of the book – are a refreshing change from the sexy gynoids we may have expected.

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