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Would You Talk Dirty With A Robot?

the rise of sexual artificial intelligence
Would You Talk Dirty With A Robot? New Line Cinema

In her 2015 novel, The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Attwood introduced readers to the idea of ‘prostibots’, which were essentially robotic prostitutes. These dolls are described in the book as ‘on-demand sexual experience’ which exist in Positron, an eerily dystopian economic experiment. The book echoes themes prevalent in one of Attwood’s other works, The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as Stepford Wives and The Truman Show. It wasn’t the first book to introduce audiences to the idea of humans falling in love with robots; Her, The Silver Metal Lover and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep? have pedalled similar notions long before their time. When speaking about the book, Attwood claimed The Heart Goes Last was inspired by the reality she foresaw for humanity: '[Humans] desire robots because we can mould them to our taste and fear them because what they could decide to do themselves.'

a person sitting at a desk
In 2013 film Her, a man falls in love with a personalised computer operating system called Samantha, who is designed to meet his every requirement.© 2023 Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved.

Moral panic aside, make no bones about it – sexting, dating and even having intercourse with artificial intelligence is a rising trend. In 2014, the year before Attwood published her novel, Pew research predicted robotic sex partners would become commonplace, the same year in which Sext Adventure, a satirical text message-based game that enables you to sext with a robot, was released. In 2022, the seventh International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots was held – virtually, of course – which reaffirmed that academic interest in sex-tech is surging in tandem with popular interest.

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In the pantheon of sexual AI, there is seemingly no end to the ingenuity. In 2022, the 'first artificial intelligence capable of sex and intimate relationships’ was introduced to the world by Realbotox, an artificial intelligence firm based in California. The eerily human-like doll’s name was Harmony and, according to her creators, operates alongside an app for users to have a ‘conversation with’. If the real deal (well, as real as it gets in the realm of AI) is too much for you, then there’s the ever-expanding sphere of audio erotica, which is exploding quicker than, well, you get the gist. The most popular platforms launched in quick succession too, proving that the desire for robots talking dirty was there; in 2018 came Dipsea, then in 2019 Quinn arrived and in 2020 Bloom entered the chat (literally). Since Bloom launched its feature in September 2023, in which users can have flirtatious and sexual conversations via text and in real-life with different characters on its site and app, over 50 million messages have been exchanged, and almost 4000 hours of audio consumed. In 2021, the global sexual wellness market was valued at $80 billion (£63 billion) — and it’s predicted to hit $120 billion (£95 billion) by 2030. This is an industry in its infancy.

It’s unsurprising that love, indeed pleasure, at first swipe is booming. We’re intimate with our phones in a way we aren’t with other pieces of technology; we cradle them, talk to them, tend to them. ‘There is such a thing as a digisexual, and that is when a person gets some kind of pleasure from digital devices,’ sex coach, Suzannah Weiss, tells ELLE UK. ‘When used alongside human interactions, it can be a really positive thing to engage with these platforms to really build confidence.’

the rise of sexual artificial intelligence
Realbotox, an artificial intelligence firm, introduced sexbot Harmony in 2022.Realbotox

Blooms’ co-founder, Michael Albertshauser, created the app’s new function to enable people to embrace and channel their deepest desires. After finding that people were struggling to learn how to flirt and engage with their fantasies, he began developing software that would enable Blooms’ users to practice with AI.

But as sophisticated as AI in the sexual sphere becomes, experts are becoming increasingly concerned as to the adverse effects of becoming emotionally dependent on digital lovers. We’re living in an epidemic of loneliness – research from 2023 found that one in three people in the UK feel lonely – which is unfurling against a bleak backdrop of spiking inflation, rising rent and mortgage rates and an increasingly fractured geopolitical scene. This isn’t just a product of the pandemic, either. Other research has shown that, in 2019, the year before the pandemic, 61% of adults experienced loneliness. Experts have nodded to the fact that having a companion that’s there when you need something – or someone – to be, seems like a solution of sorts. And in an age where most of our lives our digitised, and most of our interactions are had at our fingertips with avatars of people we know, is this not the next logical step in our increasingly virtual relationships?

Clinical psychologist, Dr Kate Younger, at The Blue Door Practice is not so sure. ‘You need to be able to learn how to navigate complex things, like intimate relationships, in real world settings,’ Dr Younger says. ‘It can't just be in an artificial context. Sexual intimacy is a physical manifestation of an emotional connection.’

Last year, a man convicted of treason was found to have exchanged 5,000 sexually charged messages with an AI chatbot before arriving at Windsor Castle with plans to kill the Queen in 2021. Jaswant Singh Chail was arrested on Christmas Day 2021 while the Queen was staying at the castle and, on the second day of his sentencing, the Old Bailey heard that Chail had formed an ‘emotional and sexual relationship’ with a chatbot, who he called Sarai and referred to as his 'girlfriend'. Proof that the epidemic of loneliness was in part to blame for Chail’s actions, psychiatrist Dr Nigel Blackwood told the court that Chail was ‘socially isolated’ and had difficulty developing relationships.

handmaids tale
Courtesy of Hulu

It’s this very echo chamber that engaging intimately with artificial intelligence, whether it be sexbots or audio erotica, has troubled professionals. Without the mutual back and forth establishment of boundaries and respect typically found in a conventional relationship, problematic tendencies and belief patterns have the potential to metastasize.

‘Developing a relationship is about the mutual sharing of vulnerability,’ says Dr Younger. 'Relationships are about a give and take; you give a little bit, and you see how the other person takes it and then you expand upon it, and you grow together. It's quite an organic process. But if you're practicing intimate relations with something that’s a projection of your wants, then you're not growing. There's no vulnerability. You're not being exposed to a different perspective.’

The ventriloquism that sexual AI proffers, the lack of reality that tethers it, is what has the potential to both enable and disable the industry’s future but make no mistake: the sexbotcalypse is coming.


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