Sex is consistently underrated as a driver of innovation. Yes, space exploration helped us develop the technology for things like cochlear implants, powdered (machine) lubricants and scratch resistant lenses. Lust has furthered the development of cash transfers, point-of-view filming and video chat. I predict that historians of the development of artificial intelligence are going to see sexual gratification as one of the phenomenon’s great motivators. Evolutionary psychology can give us insight into how sex robots are going to develop and the ramifications they’ll have on society.
Sexbots are usually woman-shaped gynoid machines. At the present time, sex robots are simple: they’re silicone sex dolls that have some capacity for movement and response. Manufacturers are rolling out new models and new promises: sex robots that respond to touch and penetration, sex robots with interchangeable faces and bodies and sex robots with different personalities. Future robots will have all the allure of the cues of fertility in a flesh-and-blood woman combined with the artificial intelligence that creates compulsive reward directed behavior.
Sex robots are overwhelmingly gynoid because heterosexual men drive the market for sexual products like prostitution and pornography. Across cultures, men desire more sexual partners, need to know someone for less time before they want to have sex with them, and have lower standards for a sexual liaison than women. Looking at gay men is instructive here. Their sexual interactions are not limited by women’s sexual choosiness and they, on average, have many more sexual partners than straight men or lesbians.
It isn’t hard to see the reason for this. Men don’t get pregnant and don’t lactate, and they have smaller, easier-to-produce sex cells than women. For a man, the cost of producing offspring is cheap. Getting one’s genes into the next generation is the engine of evolution. The low opportunity costs make men motivated to take every opportunity, even if it comes in the form of a robot. Ever think a dog is dumb for growling at his reflection in the mirror? Human men can become aroused looking at flat images of nude women in black and white, our evolved psychology can respond in maladaptive ways towards novel stimuli.
Courtship is expensive and complicated by design, and it’s the limiting factor of the sexual fulfillment of men. Women impose costs on men to gain sexual access for very good reasons: to test their genetic fitness and their long-term potential supporting a family. If courtship is costly and the costs are not clearly defined, this not only tests a man’s motivation toward a specific woman, it also acts to monopolize a man’s resources so he can’t afford to woo anyone else. Pornography and prostitution are popular because they arrive at sexual end goals, or a reasonable facsimile, with more clarity and lower costs than in the mating market.
The complications of courtship are driving improvements in sexual substitutes, like masturbation aids (e.g. fleshlight, fliphole) and 3-D porn. There are already thousands of RealDolls in the world, silicone sex dolls that cost around $5,000 each. LovePlus is a Japanese game in which players interact with a virtual girlfriend including kissing her by touching the screen and taking her out on dates, has hundreds of thousands of users. LovePlus is a great demonstration of how this market isn’t only about providing sex, but also virtual companionship. You can’t even have virtual sex with Rinko, the ingénue of the game. These substitutes aren’t very good, and yet they are already competing with flesh-and-blood companionship.
Union power, increases in mandatory working standards, and minimum wage laws accelerate the push toward automation. Machines are already replacing cashiers and factory workers. Soon truck drivers, clerks, and accountants will meet an unfavorable future, too. The current political climate around courtship and interactions between the sexes is more powerful than the market forces that are replacing jobs, because escalating costs aren’t transparent and neither is the punishment for not paying them. If a business owner wants to adhere to employment laws, he reads them, the costs of courtship are codified nowhere.
The average single man paying attention to contemporary social fashions will struggle to understand the new rules of meeting, courting, or having sex with women. Something as banal as trying to converse with a woman wearing headphones is now often considered harassment. A man’s chances of mating success increase when he approaches many women, but so too do his chances of a gaining reputation as sexist, exploitative, or immoral. To take a fraught example, how does a man know that a woman is genuinely consenting to sex? A lack of ability to pick up on cues can incur catastrophic costs.
Men high in conscientiousness, who are sensitive to social disapproval but who nonetheless have difficulty reading subtle social cues, could make good husbands for women. These men are unlikely to want to take the risk of approaching women. As substitutes like sex robots and virtual companions become better and cheaper, they will monopolize the attention of such men.
Think of an introverted engineer with Asperger’s syndrome who wasn’t sure how to broach a conversation with a woman back in 2015 and definitely isn’t sure how to do that in today’s climate. In 10 years he could have a beautiful robot companion (indeed, he could have one that could emulate the experience of having sex with dozens of different women) that has a lower barrier to entry than the mating market and that keeps him satisfied enough to remain a happy bachelor. Some woman misses out on a conscientious guy with a good income who might not know exactly how to respond when she says “nothing’s wrong,” but will definitely keep the cars tuned up to get the kids to their mathematics championships. The world might miss out on his sons and daughters and their analytical approaches to some of the world’s problems.
The kinds of men described above, who have difficulty reading social signals but who are nonetheless strongly sexually motivated, have a characteristic that means they’ll be less put off by sex robots than the average person: resistance to perceiving the uncanny valley. “The uncanny valley” is the way that representations that fall just short of looking like humans often look “creepy.” Anthropomorphized robots are more relatable and trustworthy than machine-like robots. It’s also difficult to imagine that many people would want to have sex with a conglomeration of gears and wheels.
My view is that the uncanny valley is something analogous to Capgras delusion, a psychological disorder that causes sufferers to believe that someone they know has been taken over by an imposter, often inhuman. According to VS Ramachandran, there are two aspects to recognizing faces: the identification of the external familiar representation and the “internal” validation – the warm emotion that goes along with it. In the uncanny valley, you recognize a robot as humanlike, but it’s missing the facial movement or some other characteristic that gives you a warm feeling of recognition. Many men won’t experience the uncanny valley, especially with regards to sex robots. These men are going to be the early adopters. Men are worse at identifying faces than women and are far more likely to have prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces.
Sex is weird. Sex is gross and awkward. Natural selection addressed this issue by causing arousal to attenuate the human disgust response. It’s worth noting that men have a much lower baseline sexual disgust than women, and that sexual excitement further reduces disgust sensitivity in men. In a classic paper by Dan Ariely, aroused men had much more positive attitudes about all kinds of unusual sexual acts. Sexually aroused men were more likely to say that it would be fun to watch a woman urinating or that they could imagine getting sexually excited by contact with an animal). 3-D pornography of video game or cartoon characters that might be creepy in a nonsexual context are popular genres. The most direct evidence that men won’t be put off by uncanny vulvas is from a paper that laments the “unabashed sexualization of female-gendered robots” in comments on YouTube videos of robots. Bawdy comments on gynoids – “you’ll have to replace it monthly due to semen corrosion,” for example – were more frequent than comments expressing unease.
Perhaps we should encourage some men to use sex robots. Men who get environmental cues that they’re evolutionary dead-ends disproportionately menace society. In the 1980s, evolutionary psychologist couple Wilson and Daly found that perpetrators of violence and homicide had something in common: they were young, single and didn’t have access to the kinds of resources with which to win mates. Polygynous societies in which wealthier men have access to multiple women are more violent and less stable because they have a class of young men without the prospect of getting a mate. Monogamy, rather than being the state of nature, may have been an important cultural technology for reducing violence.
Men have much greater variance of reproductive success than women. Sometimes they get cues that they have nothing to lose you have everything to gain from taking risks through violence, sexual or otherwise. This is one reason that pornography decreases the rate of sexual assault. When men get cues that women are interested in them, even if those women are mere representations, their evolved psychology leads them to less risky ways of attempting to achieve reproductive success. How many teenaged boys would be able to build up the resentment to commit mass shootings or suicide if they had a beautiful sex robot at home?
Importantly, this is distinct from Freudian catharsis, or “discharge theory”. There isn’t evidence that aggressive or sexual impulses can be purged by “getting them out of your system.” The motivation for these impulses is instead weakened by environmental cues that indicate you don’t need to engage in risky strategies to achieve reproductive success. The cues a sex robot would provide to the evolved psychology of a previously disgruntled teenager would be “you’re achieving incredible mating success and status by staying at home and playing video games, keep at it!”
This feeling of achievement from merely staying at home, playing video games and having sex with a robot is, of course, a double-edged sword. We could call this “fake fitness”– subjective cues of success without real-world ramifications. Society and education incentivize effort with markers of status like diplomas, potentially means to an end for reproductive success. The men who would have been most likely to have access to multiple women throughout history were men high in status, like kings and men high in dominance, like warlords. Video games and social media already undermine the native psychological mechanisms that make us work towards status — they supply more immediate rewards and take far less effort than anything we work towards out in the real world. Sex robots are only going to make that worse, especially for young men. The game Love Plus, in which the ultimate reward is simply getting to know a virtual girl and attaining her virtual signals of approval has already replaced pursuing dating real women for thousands of men. Imagine if winning a video game was punctuated not with just saving the princess but having sex with her. Imagine if men could have the diversity of sexual experience of Genghis Khan, Muhammad, or John F. Kennedy without actually achieving anything. Sex robots are about to make the virtual world even more alluring.
What does this mean for women? When the sex ratio changes, so too do sexual norms; sex robots are going to emulate an increase in the ratio of women to men. On University campuses with a larger percentage of women relative to men, women are more likely to have casual sex, they’re less likely to be virgins and they’re more likely to have negative attitudes about men. When there are more men than women, women are much less likely to have casual sex. The majority sex competes for the minority sex and the minority sex calls the shots- a female majority competes with casual sex and a male majority competes with long-term commitment. Sex robots will emulate a majority women ratio, shifting women to compete for men’s attention by requiring less courtship and commitment in exchange for sex. The long-term ramifications are unclear, especially the way long-term technologies and cultural norms will interact. Perhaps women will discover they have to make the costs of courtship both low and transparent to compete with sex robots. Or, perhaps, new technology could enable women to recombine their genes with one another, making men enamored with sex robots (or men generally) totally redundant.
There has, unsurprisingly, been a feminist backlash to the development of sex robots. “[Sexbots] reinforce an incredibly dangerous idea: that women’s bodies are only bodies, and exist only for men’s use” says founder of Feminist Current, Meghan Murphy. Kathleen Richardson, head of the campaign against sex robots, wants to stop the development of sex robots because she believes sexbot-human relationships are unethical due to their similarity to relationships between sex workers and clients which she also wishes to abolish.
Not all feminists agree with Murphy and Richardson, Kate Devlin endorses the development of sex robots but agrees that hypersexualized and subservient representations of women are problematic. Devlin wants to go beyond sex robot technology “developed by men, for men” and believes sex robot technology should be steered in a progressive direction, beyond” heteronormative” and gendered depictions including sex robots designed for women’s pleasure.
Both camps underestimate the degree to which evolved psychology, rather than culture or technology, shape attitudes. If feminism had been as well-developed during the advent of pornography or prostitution would they look fundamentally different? Would there be a way of steering them in a progressive direction, to make them as appealing to women as they are to men? The technologies developed to satisfy sexual urges will always cater to masculine tastes and interests that are older than media or indeed humanity itself. Unless or until we live in a post-gender transhumanist society, men will be the drivers of sexual technologies and markets.
Underpinning feminist anxiety is the specter of female replaceability. Having long been concerned with governing male desire, the feminist project now faces the possibility of being routed around. Men can build alternatives to a sexual market that has been made less navigable because of ideology. Substitutes are built and bargaining power dissipates. Sex robots are to gender politics as scabs are to labor relations.
Facing one’s own market-driven replaceability results in existential dread. But market innovation has already created something dreadful on the other side of the coin: a large segment of men that have no prospect of satisfying their most basic desires. French author Michel Houellebecq wrote on the topic of sexual have-nots in his novel, Whatever:
Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what’s known as ‘the law of the market.’ In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a totally liberal economic system, certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment in misery. In a totally liberal sexual system, certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude. Economic liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society. Sexual liberalism is likewise an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society.
Governing desire, in this case, becomes preventing the uncompensated losers of the market from making the best of their situation.
The Fermi Paradox is the unsettling idea that even though the chances of extraterrestrial life are extremely high, nobody else in the universe has contacted us, or visited us. Fitness-faking technology, which delivers the cues of status and sexual popularity, is evolving much faster than our minds can evolve to contend with them. Imagine extraterrestrial civilizations, in their millions, with their own super-advanced alien sex robots, too busy with proximate rewards to contact, colonize or destroy our little planet. In the shadow of desire-hacking technology, humans are going to need to get a sober view of sex differences, evolved motivations, and the best ways to exercise control to limit destruction and increase productivity.
Diana Fleischman is an evolutionary psychologist working in the United Kingdom. Follow her on Twitter.