“The onset of artificial lovers will make us question what it means to love, and to be loved in return.”

Sex tech, teledildonics, and above all, sex robots are getting more and more public attention. Therefore, it’s not really surprising that the scientific community has also sunk its teeth into these topics. On July 1-2, scientists from various fields will meet for the fourth “International Congress On Love And Sex With Robots” in Brussels. Eleanor Hancock from the University of Liverpool is in charge of the press work for the conference. In our EAN interview, she grants us insights into the main topics that will be discussed at the event, and we talk about the research that is being done in these fields right now.

This summer, the fourth International Congress On Love And Sex With Robots will take place in Brussels. Who will participate in this congress and what will they discuss?
Eleanor Hancock: There will be a range of academics presenting this year, including myself. We are incredibly multi-disciplinary, with paper topics ranging from ethics to engineering. This is something we are incredibly proud of, as both sex robots and sex-technology must be considered from a range of academic perspectives. As Noel Sharkey, roboticist and chair of Foundation for Responsible Robotics suggests, the discussion of technology calls for STEAM. Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math, especially since the implications of sex-tech and sex robots may encompass millions of humans!

In terms of specific speakers and paper submissions for this year at LSR, I cannot give too much away about the papers and the speakers – you will have to catch us at the event!

Why are these interesting and fruitful topics for scientific consideration?
Love, sex and technology are all very interesting talking points, so it’s no surprise that a combination of these concepts arouse considerable scientific consideration. Many of the concepts that are apparent in sex robots, such as emotion, intimacy and desire – may raise some interesting questions not just about technology but also about humanity. The onset of artificial lovers will make us question what it means to love, and to be loved in return. It will also broaden our scope of intimate partners, and even our sexual desires! These are all obviously fantastic talking points.

I also think that people are becoming more aware of how we are utilising technology in the bedroom and with our sexual partners, and sex is an interesting area within technology because it has historically been confounded to private, physical spaces. Sex has also been a particularly ‘taboo’ subject and continues to be so in many, many societies around the world. Topics around sex-tech and sex-robots have the power to push through societal norms and/or taboos, allowing us to consider concepts that we have previously not given much thought.

Eleanor Hancock recently graduated from the University of Liverpool with a Masters of Research in the Communication & Philosophy department

This topic can be looked at from different angles: philosophical, technical, economic, etc. What will the conference in Brussels focus on?
As I said earlier, the conference will focus on a multitude of academic disciplines, as the -tech and sex-robots incorporates a range of both scientific, ethical and philosophical concepts.

The media’s interest in this topic is quite clear. Hardly any product in sex toy market has ever caused such a stir … how do you explain that?
Sex-technology has been widely reported on. However, it does not cause a much of a stir within the media as sex robots. I partly believe this is due to media sensationalism about sex robots. I also believe it is because people are unaware of the technology currently being used to advance sex toys, and the sex industry. I think if we compare sex-tech to sex robots, the current teledildonic devices available far outstrip the technological capacity of sex robots, as well as being more accessible and affordable for all.

If more people were actively aware of sex-technology, I think there would be a much stronger focus on sex-tech in the media and the potential for positive outcome derived from sex-tech. Unfortunately, some webcam broadcasting sites who have adopted sex-tech tend to publicise ‘gimmicky,’ ‘click-bait’ news articles about sex-tech, which is not the concise and clear media-focus I believe sex-tech deserves. For example, Camsoda has commented multiple times on their efforts to offer “Download a BJ” on their website. Whilst it is obvious that the focus on such a technology impedes publicity more so than it does technological development, there are still some exciting concepts that are being explored through virtual BJ’s and remote sex.

The virtual BJ in question is facilitated and reciprocated through haptic technology used in sex-tech. Haptic technology is the term used for any technology that accentuates and creates the feeling of touch, by applying forces, vibrations and movement to the user. Haptic technology allows sex-tech to deliver ‘remote’ touching and stimulation, as well as being able to mimic the vibrations of music and be paired up with visual stimuli, like VR pornography. Of course, when Chatubrate speak about ‘downloading BJ’s’ the technology that facilitates such gimmicks is often overlooked in favour of ‘clicktivism.’

We rarely hear about the technology itself, how it is being developed and how it can have both positive and negative impacts. The reason for this is I think that the sex-tech market is still heavily saturated because it often colludes with the sex industry, where the potential for marketing a product/concept to boost sales through adult industry revenue is considered before the promotion of the technology itself.
If you want to check out more about ‘downloadable’ blowjobs, here are some articles that I found helpful in my own research: inverse.com/article/24080-camsoda-blowcast-blowjobs-teledildonics.

How would you describe the status quo in the development of sex robots? How far along are we in the development of a lifelike sex robot?
It depends what you mean by ‘life-like.’ Some of Matthew Mullen’s sex dolls look erringly familiar to our human-selves. Of course, they cannot move and are technological incapable of reciprocating any kind of human personality that could be considered even close to life-like. We are still far away from the development of a convincing sex robot that can mimic the persona of a human and be considered lifelike enough to evade the uncanny valley.

“We are still far away from the development of a convincing sex robot that can mimic the persona of a human and be considered lifelike enough to evade the uncanny valley.”

The creation of artificial lovers can also be seen as a philosophical problem. What effects can this development have on society and human relations?
There have been many discussions about technology and human relations. With respect to artificial lovers, the narratives of Sherry Turkle, Noel Sharkey and Maria Ashande are useful in viewing the range of issues surrounding sex robot lovers. Whilst academics like Sherry Turkle have discussed the loss of emotion surrounding technological communication and the isolating effects of technology, there has been no empirical research on the effects of loneliness and sex robots to date, so I am cautious about making sweeping statements against them. It is clear why many people feel that sex robots could isolate certain individuals in society and increase the likelihood of people rejecting conventional, human relationships in favour of an intimate relationship with an artificial lover.

Marina Ashande has offered a very valuable insight into the future of marriage alongside artificial lovers. She highlights how there are many cultural and historical values could be changed with the adoption of artificial lovers in society. It shows that the philosophical debate around artificial lovers expands far beyond the concepts of love, intimacy and emotion.

In 2017, the FRR [Foundation for Responsible Robotics] released a report about the future of sex robots and artificial lovers, of which I was a co-author. It highlights some of the issues that may arise from having relationships with robots.

One could argue that a robot or doll is just an object, like any other sex toy. What makes technologies like robotics or artificial intelligence different?
This is a very interesting question. I believe the difference between, let’s say, a vibrator and a sex robot, is that we are more likely to project our feelings onto artifice that resembles humans, or animals. Furthermore, a sex robot offers some form of ‘presence’ in the room, as opposed to a sex toy. We are more likely to anthropomorphise them, which harks reason for caution amongst some academics, for example, Kathleen Richardson believes the increase in our likelihood to anthropomorphise sex robots means we can project negative feelings onto sex robots.

This also raises the question: Should people have sex with robots at all?
I don’t see why not! Any technology can have a negative impact on wider society, but I firmly believe they have potential for positive uses.

The scientific and technical developments in this field are not only progressing rapidly, they are also becoming increasingly complex. Is there a particular development we should keep an eye on – a development which will be of great interest to us in the future?
As much as sexbots take the headlines, I think there are some great examples of sex-tech that have applications for wider society. For example, at a 2018 hackathon in Australia, the winning concept was an application that linked disabled people with the sex industry.

Whilst helping those with physical and mental disabilities access the sex industry may be a small step, the applications for sex-tech provide opportunities for people to reinvent and reengage with their sexuality.

My own research in sex-tech and the sex industry has highlighted that sex workers are utilising sex-technology. This is interesting for me, as not only does it provide evidence that shuns radical feminist narratives about the ‘victimisation’ of women in the sex industry, it also shows that women are manipulating technology for financial gain at very minimum risk to themselves. The narratives surrounding the sex industry have long perpetuated the notion that women put themselves at serious risk in order to profit from their bodies. The webcam and sex-tech industry have the power to silence such arguments.