It’s an increasingly common claim among futurists that sex robots are about to derail humanity. The basic idea is sound; the idea of an always ready, always willing sexual partner is the dream, right? If people can have selfish sex with a feelingless bot, who’s going to want to go on dates and buy flowers?
But much like the idea of commuting to work in a jetpack or eating every meal in pill form, the idea of sex robots has more appeal than the current reality. Just look at the state of the art robots entered in DARPA’s competition. This is the cutting edge of robotics and some of them can’t open a door without falling over. If we’re really going to do this, if we’re really going to bang robots, then we need those robots to have a sensitivity and awareness of human anatomy that they simply haven’t been engineered for yet. Also, right this second, having lifelike privates that vibrate isn’t the primary focus of the best and brightest minds in robotics, FYI.
In short, if you’re looking for an Ex Machina-type scenario, it might be awhile. But there’s another, deeper issue at play — namely the fact that we, as a species, hate robots.
The recent video demonstrating “Sophia,” a robot designed to work in customer service, rather aptly sums up the problem of the uncanny valley. Simply put, there’s a gap between the unreal and the real that our minds won’t accept, something “humanoid” robots slam into like a brick wall. Even if the uncanny valley weren’t an issue, there’s an inexplicable human distrust for robots to get over. It’s why a company that invented a robot burger-flipper is opening its own restaurant rather than selling robots to the fast food industry despite years of hype. It’s why the self-checkout lane is fighting a losing battle to remain in stores. We do not, as a species, like robots, and that distaste might be the greatest obstacle of all.
Finally, there’s the question of intimacy. Sex is, for many, more than a physical act, and the links between sex and emotion are complicated at best. Despite Tinder and claims of raunchy movies, the very existence of hookup culture is at best heavily disputed. Our view of sex in culture is largely oriented towards heterosexual males, but that’s not, by a long shot, the full list of people who have sex, and even the idea of the love-em-and-leave-em horndog is more pop culture joke than genuine reality.
None of this is to say that sex robots won’t be out there. They will. There’s money to be made in sex and that will surely lead to money spent. But rather than everyone having a sex bot in their closet next week, look for innovation to start at the medical level. People struggling with sexual trauma, the disabled, and others who have complex physical or emotional issues tied to sex will likely use the advanced sex robots of the future to work through their troubles or satisfy their needs. Perhaps sex robots will serve a genuine social good, in addition to being the butt of jokes.