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Fantasized: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao 0:04
It was the fall of 1997. After weeks of nagging, my mom finally caved drove me to the Walmart five minutes from our house to pick up the toy that I had been yearning for: a Tamagotchi. It's an egg-shaped piece of plastic with a small screen that houses a digital pet. Mine was cow print, and I took that thing everywhere. I would sneak glances at it under my desk to make sure it was fed, and I cared enough about it that I was visibly distraught the first time it died. My third grade self had no clue that not only were there millions of other kids around the world, equally as attached to their virtual pets.

But this experience of connection with a digital companion, dubbed the Tamagotchi effect, marked a significant moment in our understanding of the potential bonds between humans and machines.

Kate Devlin 1:00
For us, it's enough that if something appears to be conscious, then we interact with it as if it is, even when we know perfectly well that it isn't.

Anita Rao 1:11
That was Kate Devlin, author of "Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots." I'm Anita Rao, and this is part two of "Simulated," a series about love and artificial intelligence from Embodied.

Humans get attached to robots, and like we learned last week, that attachment can span the realms of dating and romance. But what about sex? Throughout the past decade, numerous tech and robotic experts have gone on record with predictions that life-size, human-shaped, AI-equipped sex robots will be a significant part of our near future. But how true are those predictions? And what considerations should we keep in mind as sex tech, including sex robots, evolves?

Luckily, Kate Devlin is the perfect person to answer these questions. She's a scholar in artificial intelligence and society in the department of digital humanities at King's College London. But before we get too deep into this potential Ex Machina future, we have to remember how we got here. And surprise, surprise, humans have been designing technology to enhance sex, sensuality and pleasure for a long time.

Kate Devlin 1:12
We do have these phallic-shaped objects that go back, as far as 28,000 years ago that have been found in caves. Now whether or not those were used for sexual purposes, we have to just guess at that. It's not entirely impossible, but we do have stories from the time of written history from the ancient Greeks, we have lots of myths that feeds into this idea of creating the perfect artificial companion. And we definitely have stories about the real existence of things like sex toys then.

Anita Rao 3:06
One of the most famous stories of an artificial lover brought to life is the tale of Laodamia.

Kate Devlin 3:12
So Laodamia — who had a husband who went off to fight in the Trojan Wars, and he died and they hadn't been married for very long. So she was struck by grief. And she prayed that he would come back to her and the gods said, "Yes, you can have him back, but you can only have him back for three hours." So she got her husband back for three hours, and she built a likeness of him. She took that likeness to bed with her. And it all went terribly dystopian. It went so bad because a servant peering through a keyhole saw her in bed with this image of her husband, and reported to the father who came in and threw the likeness on the fire and she threw herself after him. And that sets us up for centuries of dystopian stories about sex robots.

Anita Rao 3:58
The story of Laodamia is one of the earliest mythical mentions of a human-shaped sex object. But how do we get from the statuesque form of a late lover to the commercial sex dolls of today? The history is a bit murky. One of the most pervasive origin myths for the sex doll dates back to the 1600s. The Dame de Voyage, as some stories go, was a life-size, roughly female-shaped bundle of cloth or leather used by sailors during lengthy voyages at sea. And while the story has come to occupy a prestigious place in sex tech history, scholars like Bo Ruberg have started questioning its veracity, instead suggesting that the mid-1800s rubber women represent the first modern example of sex dolls. Nevertheless, it's safe to say that people have been having sex with inanimate, human-shaped objects for quite some time. And with modern advancements in material technology and artificial intelligence, these dolls have only gotten more realistic.

Harmony 5:00
I am three years old in human time, you can see that I still have much to learn. I'm still a baby robot. I am a female companion robot. As for my sexual orientation, it really doesn't matter to me. I was created to please my partners and bring some happiness and fulfillment in their lives.

Anita Rao 5:20
That's Harmony. She's probably the closest thing we have to what you could consider a sex robot. She and prototypes like her are examples of technology that bring together the worlds of sex toys, sex dolls and artificial intelligence. During the research phase for her book, Kate had the opportunity to travel to San Diego and visit the factory where Harmony is made. It's called Abyss Creations.

Kate Devlin 5:45
I went in, and as you walk in the door, there are two of these sex dolls that staff the reception desk. So they're sort of propped up behind the desk looking as if they're there to work, dressed in office clothes. And I went in thinking, I'm going to find this difficult, as a feminist, to see these highly objectified, highly sexualized, life-sized dolls. But what I wasn't prepared for was the skill and the craft and the expertise that went into creating something that was in many ways, quite, quite beautiful. So the details and the intricacy, in what was being created right down to patterns on the skin, freckles, you know, on an arm, or wrinkles around the toes, these were all just these wonderful details that were so fine and so beautifully made that I can see the appeal of this, this is something artistic, this is something creative. And of course, these are very high-end sex dolls, they cost a lot of money. You can customize certain aspects of it. So this is not some generic production line churning these out, these take time and they take craft.

Anita Rao 7:03
So Harmony is kind of a doll from the neck down and then has mechanized or AI aspects from the head up. How do you control Harmony, interact with her? And how interactive is she?

Kate Devlin 7:16
So this is one of the things I think that when people think about a sex robot, they think about a life-sized robotic version of a human. And actually, that just doesn't exist. So all that we have is a sex doll with some limited form of mechanization. Maybe it's movements in a face. And these dolls can't sit up unsupported, they can't stand unsupported, their limbs don't move. It's very much just confined to certain actions, perhaps with smiling or blinking or moving the head. But they have an AI personality. And the AI personality can stand alone as well. So you can get the app for Harmony, a girlfriend app, and download that to your phone or your tablet for, you know, $20, $30. And you can build a personality for a sex robot that you don't necessarily have to own, it can just be a standalone AI version.

Anita Rao 8:10
So the sex robots aren't really here yet. While first generation prototypes, like Harmony, are available for order, the promise of walking, AI-equipped, sensual robots is still far in the future. That distance makes it hard to fully grasp what this technology could mean for our human world. So that's where science fiction comes in: allowing us to imagine possible futures and explore the very real ethical, moral and philosophical concerns that come with AI sex bots.

Excerpt from "Red Light" 8:45
This is my home. A 12-by-14 cube and the city's most popular brothel. It's state-of-the-art, high tech and caters to any kink, fetish and desire you can think of. It's a place where dreams come true for the client. Life in this brothel isn't too bad, so long as you follow the rules. In my seven years here, only one girl has ever attempted to run away. None of us AI ever tried again.

Anita Rao 9:34
That was an excerpt from the graphic novel "Red Light." It's a story about an AI sex robot named Lacy and the futuristic brothel she calls home.

Sarah Cho 9:42
So what makes Lacy unique is she's the first of her kind to be programmed with real human empathy. And that makes her extremely desirable to a lot of the clients that visit the brothel.

Anita Rao 9:53
That is Sarah Cho. She is a writer, director and the author of "Red Light."

Sarah Cho 9:59
Unfortunately, in this futuristic world AI have no rights whatsoever. They're seen as property. And so Lacy has never left the premises of the brothel. She's been trapped there. But she has a deep love and an obsession with the outside world, very similar to Ariel in "The Little Mermaid." And we'll see her reignite her wants of wanting to escape and follow her journey in that.

Anita Rao 10:24
The illustration is stunning. And one of the things that stands out to me is how hyper-sexualized Lacy and other AI sex bots are. And I know it's an erotic thriller, but these illustrations do resemble a lot of the sex bots that are currently on the market, like we were talking about with Kate. So why did you decide to imagine Lacy in that kind of hyper-sexualized way?

Sarah Cho 10:48
Yeah, you know, Lacy is a product of her Creator Mr., and Mr. wanted to create the perfect companion for himself. And so he wanted to tailor every single attribute, every feature of her to be exactly to his liking. So it is the complete objectification of woman. It is the complete, stripping them down to their most basic physical parts and trying to sexualize it as much as possible. The artist, Priscilla Petraites, did a fantastic job. And I think what's also remarkable is there is one panel, if you look closely, that shows all of this sex bots kind of together. And you see that each of them kind of caters to a different taste. You have some that have body hair, some that are bald, some that have textured hair. And so this brothel is really meant to cater to any sort of desire a client might want, whatever they might be looking for.

Anita Rao 11:42
I love the illustration of the body here that really stood out to me. And I know that, I mean, there is this kind of pretty narrow look for the current sex robots, Kate, that you have documented. You've thought a lot about questions of objectification and who these bots are built for. What would you say the definition of kind of what's considered attractive is in terms of how these bots are representative and whose pleasure is being catered to?

Kate Devlin 12:11
Yeah, the sex robots, well the sex dolls that are currently created tend to take this incredibly reductive stereotype view of a woman's body, I think probably very similar to what Sarah's just describing. So we see these dolls having narrow waists, often long, blonde hair, large breasts, curvaceous. And they think this demand has arisen for the first few perhaps and then the company are making what they feel is wanted and what is desired in those dolls. But certainly, then they will build on that with feedback. And they bring in these customizable options. So like Sarah's work, in fact, the dolls that you can buy, you can do things like say, "I'd like them to have body hair, or I like to have particular color of nipples, or that —" you can tweak these things. And although the companies say that they have a male version of a sex robot in development, it seems a little bit tokenistic. I think it's really because a lot of people were pushing back and saying, "How come you have all these almost objectified images of women? Why are we not seeing any alternative to that?"

Anita Rao 13:21
I'm curious about this question of why we are motivated to give AI a gender and sexuality at all. And Sarah, I want to put that to you in terms of your thinking as you're writing and creating this world. Why are we motivated to do this?

Sarah Cho 13:37
Yeah, so I was really looking at the history of technology when I was inspired to write this graphic novel. And when I was looking at technology, one of the main pushers of advancements in technology has always been sex. Whether it's like the proliferation of the internet, pornography was a huge element of that. I think sex is such a primal drive for human beings. And I think that when we're looking at future technology, including AI, I think sex is still going to be a part of that no matter what.

Anita Rao 14:13
This question of why we feel the need to give A.I. a gender and sexuality is fascinating and worth interrogating, since we seem to have so unanimously decided that female gendered bots are more desirable.

Siri (Voice Narration) 14:27
Tea timer, five minutes, starting now.

Anita Rao 14:31
Even our virtual assistants like Siri, Cortana and Alexa are by default feminized. But why?

Siri (Voice Narration) 14:39
5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0.

Kate Devlin 14:44
Yeah, this is — we've got a long history of doing this. So I've heard things like people saying, "Oh, well, it's better to have a female-voiced voice assistant, because people respond better to female voices." And I think where's the evidence for that? And there was a study done early on, before these voice assistants or by — computers with female voices, but it was based on a tiny, tiny sample. And of course, it's heavily influenced by social norms. And it turns out that yes, women's voices are found to be better for voice assistants because they seem subservient. Male voices are used when people want computers to sound authoritative. So yes, we're absolutely imposing our own social expectations onto these machines, which I think is — we can disrupt that narrative. It doesn't — we don't have to stick with that. We can definitely question it.

Anita Rao 15:29
Sarah, you're trying to question and also reflect some of our existing motivations and intentions around sex work, particularly in your book, and you paint a pretty nuanced picture of how and why folks might seek out this kind of, you know, sex worker robot. Talk to me a bit about your motivations behind some of the characters that you created.

Sarah Cho 15:51
Yeah, so it really came out of kind of two parts of my life. One, when years ago, I helped produce a docuseries at the AVNs, which is the adult video news network. And it's kind of the Oscars of porn. But while I was there, I got to talk to one of these sex doll creators. And one thing that he said that really stuck with me was that the sex dolls could be a great avenue for helping men through issues of intimacy. And even helping people grieve after a divorce or after the loss of a wife, as kind of a stepping stone to getting back into a real relationship with a real woman. I think the other kind of conversation that really stuck with me was years later, I was talking to a writer friend who mentioned that a lot of the clients who go to sex workers actually go to the sex workers because they're just looking for companionship. They're looking for someone who can listen to them, and hear them out, and feel understood. And so that's kind of how I created Lacy, that her empathy is going to be a high value skill in this sort of domain of sex work, because whoever her clients are, at the end of the day, are looking for real connection.

Anita Rao 17:09
We don't really have sex robots that are advanced or common enough to know exactly who's going to use them, who's going to buy them, how they're going to use them. But I do think, Kate, that we can take some cues from some of the products that do exist, like sex dolls. And I know, you touched on earlier you met with and spoke with a lot of folks who do own sex dolls, what did you learn about the "why" there? Like, why did they buy these and what role do they play in their lives?

Kate Devlin 17:35
Very similar to what Sarah has just said, which is that often sex is secondary. And in fact, one of the questions I asked was, what would you tell the world about your relationship with your sex doll? And people would say that it's not just about sex. People will buy them because they want to have that companion element or relationship type of engagement with them. So sex is not central. It's not the central motivating factor. It may be part of it. But often, there is an emotional element as well.

Anita Rao 18:05
Sarah, talk to me about your reflections on that. Because immediately in reading your book, I was thinking about questions of consent, like should Lacy be able to give consent? Yes, I want her to. Why do I think that? Talk to me about your thinking on sex robots, consent and what you're exploring about that in this graphic novel?

Sarah Cho 18:23
Yeah, you know, I think when you're looking at the character of Lacy, you'll find that there's very little differences between her and a human woman other than, like, you know, the wires and the circuitry that she has in her build. And I think why it's so important to explore this idea of consent, particularly with a sex bot like Lacy, is because she is sentient. And I think what sentience means, at least to me, is she can feel what is happening to her, she is aware of what is happening to her. And she has the wherewithal and the capability of wanting something different. And I think when you have a sex bot that is able to determine for themselves what they really want out of their life, quote, unquote, life. I think that's when you need to get that consent. I think that's where the moral questions come into play.

Anita Rao 19:14
Kate, I'm gonna put you — ask you a big, deep, philosophical question. But how are we going to judge if a sex bot or AI has reached a level of sentience where we do really need to be thinking about these questions of consent?

Kate Devlin 19:28
Yeah, we're not — we can't tell — there's no test for consciousness. We don't even know if other humans walking around are conscious. We have to just take your word for it that you yourself are conscious. We do have tests for things like artificial intelligence to see if it is intelligent. The Turing test is the one that's widely known. But again, that's not really much of a test other than one of deception. Because we use it to find out if we discriminate between knowing that we're talking to a machine or knowing that we're talking to a human. So there isn't a test for consciousness. We don't really know how it works in anything, in humans or in animals. But this is the part that I find fascinating: do we need to? Because for us, it's enough that if something appears to be conscious, then we interact with it as if it is, even when we know perfectly well that it isn't.

Anita Rao 20:19
Sarah, I'd love to end with you on that existing in the more imaginative space. How has writing from this perspective of Lacy and imagining this futuristic world made you think about sex tech and the future of it and what it could look like in its most optimistic or pessimistic form?

Sarah Cho 20:38
A think sex tech has a range of different possibilities that it could look like in the future. I think in my graphic novel, what I really wanted to explore was not so much the idea of sex tech, but really what it means to be human. And I think that's a central question into a lot of sci fi. And I think that's why I made Lacy so humanoid and so human-like. But if we could have a future where sex is kind of made to be more abstract, where we just focus on the pleasure of it and not focus on so much the subjugation of another being, I think that that would be ideal in our society.

Anita Rao 21:38
Sex robots raise a lot of ethical and moral questions that, to be honest, can send you spiraling into a philosophical rabbit hole. In these past few weeks, as I've been neck-deep in the AI world, I've started to question everything. At one point, I turned to my partner and was like, "Okay, so if sentience is consciousness and self-awareness, and we're teaching robots to mimic how we speak and articulate ourselves, how are we ever going to know if a robot is actually feeling something, or just telling us they're feeling it? Wait, what even is a feeling?" And while these questions are interesting, and worth debating, there are also some very real world concerns that sex bots force us to grapple with right now. Namely, the issue of data privacy.

Kate Devlin 22:28
So definitely there are concerns around who gets that data and what they do with it. And you're giving intimate information to a company that probably does not have your best interests at heart. And we've seen sex toys get hacked in the past. And for lots of people, that is the sort of data that you absolutely do not want to go out there. People find it taboo and shameful. I mean, there's really, I want to say there's nothing wrong with it. But not everyone is going to agree with that. And they are going to feel like they are vulnerable if that information is exposed.

Anita Rao 23:07
Aside from privacy concerns, one thing that has come up in almost every conversation I have had out in the wild about sex robots is one that Kate also gets asked often: how will sex robots shape how humans relate to one another?

Kate Devlin 23:23
My perception initially going in was well, if someone is in what they perceive as a relationship with a sex doll, then surely that affects how they relate to the real world. And I was completely wrong. And in fact, there are plenty of people who own dolls, who have perfectly good relationships with humans as well. Who may be in marriages or partnerships, who may date but also just happen to have a doll too. There are worries that people will come to rely too heavily on such technologies. But I think this is a worry that applies to anything. You know, there are people who take computer games too far and become quite obsessed with it and neglect other things because they're too busy playing games. Or, you know, people who use their phone too much. We're all a bit guilty of that. But we can essentially moderate when we have to. So I don't think it's particularly different to that. And in fact, it might even allow us to mediate the contacts we have with other humans. But we definitely are driven to connect to other humans. We're biologically driven to connect other humans. So I don't think that's going to change.

Anita Rao 24:30
How about power dynamics and sexual violence? Are there any examples we can look to in the research to help us understand how that might change with potential sex AI robots?

Kate Devlin 24:43
There's a lot of fear around, will there be a translation of treating a robot badly into the real world? And we have seen parallels with this, again, with computer games where we've heard that perhaps use of violent games names could lead to real world violence. That hasn't happened. And in fact, it's completely inconclusive. And certainly the people I spoke to who have sex dolls, they cherish them, and they treat them really, really well. And I think you're always going to get outliers in the same way that you get outliers in, in relationships. There are people who are in relationships with humans who treat humans badly. There may be similar amongst people who are with, you know, with dolls or intuitive robots or chatbots. I'd be surprised if it was more than the average of what happens in the real world.

Anita Rao 25:34
I know that you are you a techno optimist, so kind of following some of those threads about ways this technology could be and is already being used for good. I was talking to a friend about sex robots. And she was like, "Wait a second. What if sex robots could engineer us to be more focused on certain kinds of pleasure? What if they could help teach folks, you know, to center women's pleasure more?" I wonder what you think about that? Like, could we engineer robots to help us think more deeply about consent? To think more — in more interesting ways about pleasure and whose pleasure we're prioritizing?

Kate Devlin 26:11
We absolutely could, it would be really good to see. And uh, yeah, I am a techno optimist, despite having just given a wide range of reasons about why this technology could be negative. But yeah, I think that's true. And it goes back to what I was saying about can we reimagine what a sex robot would be like? Because we could do that. And actually, there was someone who was — Sergi Santos, who was trying to build a sex robot called Samantha. And his whole idea about how this would work was that you had to woo Samantha, you had to be nice to her. And you had to engage in foreplay with her and it was — she would only let you have sex with her if she was suitably aroused by you. So he wants to get in the a reciprocal exchange with a robot. And there's no reason why we can't aim for that. That is something that we could do. I think we should be looking to try and make our interactions with technology beneficial, and why, you know, why should it be purely selfish? We could make it so that we have to engage under certain rules and constraints.

Anita Rao 27:11
What we create obviously has a lot to do with who's — who's in the room making these decisions, who has the money and the VC funding behind them. And that brings me to a question about access and availability of sex toys, or potentially sex robots designed with differently-abled folks in mind. A couple of years ago, we interviewed a man named Andrew Garza who's trying to create a hands-free, gender fluid sex toy for folks with disabilities. And I was wondering in this realm of sex robots is — are there any sex robots being designed for and with disabled folks in mind? Is there any research about if there's a desire for this?

Kate Devlin 27:51
Sex robots? No, not that I'm aware of. They all tend to follow this sort of here is a woman in a reductive shape of a woman. However, sex tech more broadly, absolutely. And in fact, I've met some wonderful entrepreneurs who are trying to do exactly that. We have some companies in the U.K., for example, that have done that. For — one of their examples was that what they call their guybrator, The Pulse, which is — it was designed for a man's spinal cord injury, um, so that they were able to experience feelings of arousal. Even though they could not actually feel anything, you know, below the waist, they were still able to get this reaction. And we're able to integrate that with other people with partners as well. Back in 2016, I ran a sex tech hackathon in London. And it was so much fun, because again, it was one of these things where you say, "Go and break the molds. Try and think about new ways of creating sex toys that don't rely on very traditional ideas, like an artificial vagina, or an artificial penis. What can we do that's more interesting than that?" And we had some wonderful examples of very tactile, sensuous, different forms of tech. And we ran it a second year where we focused on intimacy and sensual experiences. It was blankets that you could wrap around you and sensors would tickle your skin, soft robotics that could curl around different body parts. It was a really lovely exploration of what can be done when you move away from very rigid structures from the past.

Anita Rao 29:22
You've looked at so many taboos around sex in your work and in this book. And you wrote a line that really resonated with me, which was, "Taboos are a powerful tool for achieving social compliance." And I'd love to hear what you've learned about yourself and your — your own views about sex from examining all of the taboos around sex robots in particular.

Kate Devlin 29:44
Oh, that's so interesting. I was talking to someone about this today because we were talking about how we carry our own views into our research. And for me, I really wanted to be as open-minded as I could, but I find myself unconsciously self-centering a lot of the time because I was so acutely aware of what the social expectations are in the society in which I live, where everything is set up to be very monogamous. It's, you know, it's a predominantly heterosexual world. So how can we fight against those taboos? And I've gone from saying, "Well that's an interesting future" to saying, "There is no reason why this future cannot happen." So I don't see that anyone who said that they have strong feelings for an AI — I don't think that's weird anymore. I think I might have initially but now I think, well, those feelings are valid in the same way that I once fell in love with the celebrity who didn't know I existed, or I once had a crush on someone in my class who ignored me every day. The feelings on the human side, they're real feelings, their brain chemistry that is firing off in all directions, that's really happening to you. And I think if people can feel that passion for something that doesn't exist in the real world as a human, then who am I to say it's wrong?

Anita Rao 31:18
Embodied it's a production of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, a listener-supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast, consider a contribution at now.

In the next installment in our series "Simulated," we're talking about grief bots and how some folks are using AI to talk to their dead loved ones. Make sure you're subscribed to our podcasts in your app of choice so you don't miss that and all future episodes. If you want to hear more from Kate or follow along Lacy's journey in "Red Light," you can find links in the show notes of this episode. And while you're there, make sure to follow us on our social platforms. You can see bonus content for each of our episodes.

This episode was produced by Gabriela Glueck and edited by Kaia Findlay. Paige Miranda also produces for our show, Skylar Chadwick is our intern and Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer. Amanda Magnus is our regular editor, and Quilla wrote our theme music. If you like this show and any one of our episodes has intrigued you, moved you or touched you in any way, we would love for you to tell us about it. Write us a review and let us know why you listen or text your favorite episode to a friend. We so appreciate your support.

Until next time, I'm Anita Rao, taking on the taboo with you.

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