One of the more common beliefs about the future is that we will be enjoying ourselves with robots a lot. In fact, futurologist Ian Pearson just issued a paper, paid for by an adult toy website, arguing that between robot lovers and VR systems that let us hook up with a person without meeting them, we’re going to be having lots of inappropriate fun with cyborgs. But are we? Or is this vision of the future a little too narrow?
We’re Already Doing It
Pearson’s essential argument is that as robots become more commonplace and engineering improves, sex in virtual reality will be the norm by 2030, our personal massagers will interact with our VR toys by 2035, and, by 2050, having sex with a robot will be more frequent than having sex with another human. He also argues that because of this, sex and love will become more separate. Depending on your belief system, this will sound like either a utopian future or a dystopian nightmare. But it may also be a bit optimistic.
To be fair, sex with robots is a reasonable thing for futurologists to predict for two reasons. One, we are already doing it in large numbers, and two, any technology will inevitably become more advanced as it gets cheaper and engineering improves. If you consider “personal massagers” to be robots, it’s not unreasonable to assume that sex with machines is already drawing even with sex with humans. On Independence Day, for example, Amazon held a widely promoted sale on Hitachi’s infamous Magic Wand, which should tell you how commonplace it is as a product. And in personal products, as any other form of technology, the march of innovation is relentless, with new processors and new engineering breakthroughs.
Similarly, virtual reality is also relatively prevalent and, of course, entrepreneurs are hard at work building VR systems that do the job, no matter what that job may be. In fact, adult film companies are already investing heavily in VR content. So it’s not particularly unreasonable to assume that something well established and popular isn’t going anywhere and will only improve with time. That’s the underlying assumption of the entire tech industry, really. Still, whenever love with robots comes up, or somebody advocates for the “rise of robosexuality,” it quickly becomes clear that the appeal has nothing to do with sex.
Do We Really Want Sex Without Emotions?
There’s one line from Pearson’s paper that stands out rather glaringly:
On the other hand, that will appeal to some people, who just want sex without the hassle.
And therein, of course, is perhaps the real appeal, at least for some people. If dating is hard and people let you down, why rely on people to satisfy your needs? Why not just cut others out of the equation altogether? Who needs emotions when you have the fine folks at Hitachi building a better friend with benefits?
There’s reason to suspect this is, at best, a blinkered view of human sexuality. Sure, there’s the sentimentality people have for going on dates and forming deep, lifelong connections. But there’s also increasingly a more medical aspect to it; namely, sex is tied heavily to our emotions, for both women and men. For example, Flibanserin, often called “female Viagra,” is designed to address a neurotransmitter imbalance in women. Flibanserin is, by far, the most effective drug treatment for “lack of desire,” and it barely works. Only 8 percent to 13 percent of women reported any effect in trials. Women’s sexuality is only poorly understood by medical science, and it’s increasingly accepted that there’s an emotional component, of some sort, tied to sexual arousal in women. Just what that might be and how important it is up for debate, but it’s undeniably there, and would seem to be a problem for anybody hoping to form a long-term relationship with a product.
Men, conversely, are stereotyped as not needing any emotions at all. The driving theory of Viagra is that all men need is enough blood to flow to the right places and arousal won’t be a problem. Except that hasn’t been true, in practice. It’s well know that psychological concerns can cause erectile dysfunction, and in fact one landmark study showed that anxiety could easily overwhelm even the strongest erotic impulses in men. So the emotional component of sex is undeniable, and it seems unlikely technology can fill in for a human in that regard.
The Future Of Sex
This isn’t to knock the idea of robots in our sex lives, or to say they have no role. For example, it seems likely that people who struggle with physical disability or emotional problems will be able to help solve those issues with the right tools, and robotics and virtual reality seem tailor made to help. And, of course, just because we still spend time with other people doesn’t mean we won’t be curious about the pleasures that robots have to offer. But just like the robots won’t be taking our jobs, they likely won’t be replacing our partners any time soon.