My partner and I had a little discussion recently. I’d just finished reading the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, the final chapter of which focuses on our future as humans, specifically when it comes to science and technology. (He doesn’t talk about sex robots, sorry— although I am yet to read his follow-up book Homo Deus, so we’ll see.) Reading what Harari has to say about the future possibility of controlling robots via electronic chips implanted in our brains got me thinking: where does this lead us as a human race?
Far more importantly however, it raised a question I promptly asked my partner: “If you owned a robot that looked just like me, and I could control it remotely via a chip in my brain (ie. if I could move it, talk through it, and hear and feel things through it), would you have sex with it? And therefore, by extension, would you be having sex with me?”
…You can blame my hormones if you want. But I do actually think it’s an interesting question, one which considers the future of human-to-human connection, and what it means for people wanting intimacy whilst away from a loved one. Such a future may already exist in its early stages. I’m not on about sex dolls — although their current usage does suggest the above question would be answered positively by many — I’m talking about what present-day human connection looks like, and what it tells us about the future. Let’s start there.
We live in a highly connected world. We can buy almost anything we think of, and have it arrive on our doorstep the next morning (if not later the same day). We have the ability to capture and share the contents of our dinner to hundreds and thousands of people, who can likewise share their own culinary delights right back. We can watch almost anything we want, instantaneously, whether a cute cat video or a feature length movie, all while riding the train or sailing on the ocean.
Our travel is fast, and it is connecting more people every day. Whilst walking recently I looked into the sky and counted nine planes, each following their own flight path — if on average there were 300 people in each plane, then in that moment I could see (effectively) 2700 people in the air above me, each with their own agendas and reasons for travelling. That’s like if someone gathered up the entire Nordic village of Lærdal (which looks like a lovely place, by the way), added in a few extra ruffled Norwegians, and tossed them six miles into the sky.
It is an amazing thought. Yet surround these people in a metal tube, and noneof it seems out of the ordinary. After all, we see things like this every day. We are shrouded in a fog of technological progress.
Perhaps we can grasp how far we have come by seeing through the eyes of my grandparents. In the last eight decades they have seen technology improve from afar, for they live very rural lives. So you can imagine their wonder when I video call my family and they are there. “Is that Christopher?”, I hear my Nanna ask (wondering whether I am pre-recorded or live). Both their smiles are hard to miss, as they marvel at how they can see me despite me being not in the room.
Their sense of wonder is a reminder to us of just how fast things have been changing. This world has grown from snail mail (used by my grandparents in their dating days) to landline telephone to mobile telephone to video calls, all in exponentially shorter amounts of time. Whilst I can remember learning about the idea of ‘pen-pals’ in school — where two people from separate countries could communicate through the medium of handwritten letters — a short two decades later I can, from the UK, instantly talk with a friend who lives in Australia, take them on a tour around my house, and watch a movie with them by pointing the camera to my TV screen. A couple I knew a few years back used this method to have long-distance date nights. Pretty great eh? (Pen-pals are still a thing, you know. Even if no-one is writing letters anymore, someone actually made a website.)
And if that’s not all, then there’s this guy:
…Okay— not him. Being scared of breaking copyright rules, I didn’t want to use the photo I really intended on showing, so please — please — follow this link to see what I mean.
What you are seeing is a fucking robot man — a remotely-driven stick on wheels, where the driver can see, move and talk with whoever is on the other end of the line. Right now, at this very moment, it is possible for a person in New York to call a person in Hong Kong, and not only talk with them, nor just see them, but actually go on a walk through the office with them. And they can do this by themselves.
How long until we see this in the streets? Whilst the idea still appears to be in its earlier stages, it is already enough to imagine it being like seeing a person riding on a Segway (minus a few fleshy parts).
Take, for example, the following scenario:
Jackie and Billy
We have Jackie (an American woman living in Miami) messaging her friend Billy (a Dutch man living in Amsterdam).
Jackie owns one of the above-mentioned stick-wheel robots.
JACKIE: “Hey Billy, fancy a walk down Miami beach today?”
BILLY: “Sure Jackie, why not?”
JACKIE: “Cool. I’ll hook you up.”
Billy connects to the robot, and proceeds to drive it alongside Jackie as they walk down the beach.
Now, we all know that Billy is not actually walking down Miami beach. He’s in Amsterdam. But just how accurate is this statement? After all, it makes sense to us that Jackie would ask Billy if he wants to go for a walk, even though he isn’t there. For we know that whilst it is a robot wheeling alongside Jackie, Billy is driving it, and talking through it to her, seeing the sights and hearing the sounds as if he was right there. Others may see an iPad atop a stick and wheel contraption, yet Jackie sees a robotic representation of Billy.
Maybe a few decades ago we could say with great ease that Billy is in Amsterdam — after all, Jackie could only get in touch with him once a week via the use of a long-distance phone call, and only then hear his voice. She would be able to let him hear her surrounding environment, but that would be the limit of his experience of Miami. Yet in the current scenario, Billy’s experience of Miami is far deeper. He isn’t just hearing sounds; he is able to see the sights, move around, and talk with Jackie (and others passing by, should he so choose). The line which determines where Billy exists is beginning to blur.
We’ll return to this scenario shortly, but first, I want to mention some other stuff that will blur this line even further.
A Nod to Neuralink
Let’s take a quick moment to talk about Neuralink. This is one of Elon Musk’s many ventures, and is all about the brain, and trying to enhance it. There is a fantastic article on Wait But Why that really dives deep into the whole subject, and I would highly recommend taking the time to read it, as it is far better than what I’m going to be able to say today. Despite this, I will explain the basic premise of Neuralink’s framework, which is this:
Artificial Intelligence is potentially reaching a level of development that threatens humanity. So, instead of fighting it, why not join it? We are already so dependent on AI (through the use of smartphones, computers and the like), that we are basically cyborg in nature. As Musk says though, the issue is more to do with the speed of data transfer, rather than its availability to us. By working on electronic implants that can be attached to certain areas of our brains, we could integrate much closer with AI, and therefore grow with the technology rather than get left behind.
The crazy thing is, some early-stage versions of such an idea are already being seen in the medical world today, which are also hearkened to in the final chapter of Sapiens: these implants, for example, enable blind people to see, by bypassing the faulty body-parts and working directly with the parts of the brain responsible for processing such information. There are other implants that have a similar effect for people who are deaf. The benefits of such technological improvements cannot be understated.
But it gets even crazier. Take this, for example: a monkey that can control a robot on the other side of the world. Just by thinking.
I can’t help but feel blown away by it all: in a world that is already seeing human-to-human connectivity reach a state of being instantaneous and global, we are also discovering how to connect with and utilise artificial intelligence in more integrated ways. Some of these are incredibly beneficial (such as the eye implants). Others are more fun. Yet what is clear is that we are becoming increasingly reliant on technology that is manmade. Intelligence that is artificial. As such, it can lead to some pretty interesting ideas…
Let’s return to Jackie and Billy, and adapt the situation slightly. What if Billy (through the use of brain implants) was hooked up to Jackie’s robot in such a way as to be able to experience other senses, such as smell and touch? This may not yet be possible, but it is plausible — ‘all’ the robot would need is in-built electronic receptors that can identify smells and impacts, and process this into data, which would then be shared with Billy via a chip in his brain that activates his own receptors. (There are already current bionic limbs which allow the person using them to feel things such as movement. It would not be impossible to adapt this technology to Billy’s scenario.)
If Billy, then, could now effectively smell and feel Miami beach (even if in a less ‘human’ way), his experience would be ever more like he was actually there. He would be in control of his own movement, aware of the space around him, conversing with Jackie, smelling the sea breeze and feeling the pavement beneath him. It would even make sense if Billy, having spotted someone suspicious approach with covetousness in their eyes, turned and raced full speed away until the threat was gone — after all, he would not want this robot to be stolen. Not only because of it being his link to Jackie, but because that robot is an extension of his own self. It is a part of him, in Miami.
So: If Billy can hear, feel, see and smell Miami; if he can move alongside Jackie whilst talking with her; if he could detect danger and run from it, then where in the world is Billy? Gradually we are coming to see that he is both in Miami, and he is in Amsterdam, at the same time.
In a further (rather mind-bending) stretch of the situation, let’s imagine Billy’s mum enters his room in Amsterdam to ask if he wants pizza for dinner. Billy tells Jackie (in Miami) to wait a moment as he shifts his attention across the Atlantic to answer that yes, he does want pizza, thank you very much, only to then return straight back to Miami, as Jackie sits there, passing the pizza she is already eating under the robot’s smell sensors. Billy smells it, and laughs wickedly. Billy’s robot now has hands and a mouth, and he snatches the pizza out of her hand, jokingly threatening to eat it himself. To all outside that interaction, Jackie would seem to be joking with a robot. But to Jackie, she is joking with Billy.
An interaction is being shared between two humans, through the use of a robotic medium. Yet for both Jackie and Billy, that medium is surprisingly transparent.
The Sex Question
I would like to return to the conversation my partner and I had. The technology could ‘soon’ exist which would allow a human to connect remotely to a robot using brain implants; to see through its eyes, hear through its ears, speak through its mouth, and feel through its electronic nervous system. If a monkey can already remotely control a robot using thought (something that sounds like a shocking reveal from a ’60s sci-fi TV show), it can’t be too far away for humans. Adding in the extra sensory capabilities would be difficult (and of course complicated), but if it was possible, then a highly-integrated Billy/Jackie scenario is not all that hard to conceive. And if this scenario is easy to conceive, then it isn’t much of a stretch to say that we would soon be looking at how to utilise this technology for further, more recreationalpurposes.
Billy and Jackie could take it to the next level, robo style.
But would remote robot sex be good enough? Of course, in the obvious sense, the answer to this would depend on many things, such as the robot’s build quality, the strength of connection between the robotic sensors and the brain implants, as well as the skill of the ‘pilot’. But what I really mean is would it feel intimate, or ‘human’ enough? Even if the above issues were solved, would such an act provide a sense of human connection, despite the existence of a middleman (-bot)?
All we have to answer this question are limited studies based on a current form of technology that seeks to connect people: the Video Call. In these studies the question is asked whether such technology helps people feel closer whilst apart (a claim that many providers of such technology hold to be true), or does it still fail to meet a need for genuine human connection?
One such study, whilst small in scale, attempted to investigate. Their findings were on the whole rather positive when it came to the effects of video calls on relational intimacy. The general consensus was that people in relationships felt video calls enabled them to share in one another’s lives even while in different places. In fact, just keeping the video link open while doing other things made each partner feel comforted, and together. (It should be noted that whilst video calls also opened the door for cybersex, this was low on the scale for what really mattered to most of the people in the study.)
The level of connection given by video call technology is still less than what it feels like to be in the same room with the other person: so whilst it is a definite help in bridging the gap between people, the bridge is one of those dodgy rope types that stretch over a canyon – some planks are going to be missing. (Many of my own long-distance video calls with my partner have made me wish we were together even more, rather than ease the strain.) Yet despite this, at least there is a bridge. The level of connection is far greater than what was possible in the past. No more waiting for six weeks to receive a written reply; we can see each other now, in real time. Maybe soon, this level of connection will grow even deeper.
Remote control sex with robots could eventually be a thing. Maybe it won’t meet the deeper needs for human connection, or maybe it will go a step further than what current technology allows. But whether it does or not, the utility of such a device would be hard to ignore.
As I asked my partner whether she would have sex with a robot that looked like me, was controlled by me, and which I could see, hear, feel and speak through, I had to consider my own answer to such a question. Would I do it?
I have a sort of technological phobia — or if not a phobia then a hesitancy towards being completely immersed in it. The idea of anyone becoming part-robot is quite terrifying to me, as much as it also awesome to think about. Perhaps such a line of thinking is futile. As Elon Musk says, I am in some ways already a cyborg: I have access to unlimited amounts of information through the internet; I have the ability to video call my girlfriend whilst apart; I can listen to any music I want to, at the click of a few buttons. Is it really such a stretch to consider the use of robots?
The scenario between Jackie and Billy helps us imagine what the future could hold for human connection, and brings some degree of comfort. Go for a walk down Miami beach with an old friend? Sure. Head to the movies with your parents who lament that you haven’t visited enough recently? Done. Have sex with your partner who had to move countries for a job? Well, why not?
Potentially, with the advent of such technology, people will be able to connect with old friends, families, and loved ones on levels which have never before been possible. And perhaps, just like Billy, we will be able to look forward to the idea of having pizza for dinner, all the while having sex from afar via the transparent medium of a remote-controlled robot.