Our Next Lover May Be A Sex Robot | Hidden Brain From stone statues to silicone works of art, we have long sought solace and sex from inanimate objects. Time and technology have perfected the artificial lover: today we have life-size silicone love dolls so finely crafted they feel like works of art. Now, with the help of robotics and artificial intelligence, these dolls are becoming even more like humans. This week we talk with researcher Kate Devlin about the history of the artificial lover, and consider what love and sex look like in the age of robots.

Love, Sex, And Robots

Unreal Sex

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Kate Devlin, who studies human-computer interactions, says we're on the cusp of a sexual revolution driven by robotics and artificial intelligence. Angela Hsieh/NPR hide caption

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Angela Hsieh/NPR

Kate Devlin, who studies human-computer interactions, says we're on the cusp of a sexual revolution driven by robotics and artificial intelligence.

Angela Hsieh/NPR

In the summer of 2017, Kate Devlin flew from London to southern California. She rented a Ford Mustang convertible and drove to an industrial park in San Marcos, a city south of Los Angeles. Her destination: Abyss Creations, a company that makes life-size sex dolls. In her new book, Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots, Kate describes the moment she first gazed up close at a life-size silicone woman.

"The detail is incredible," she writes. "My hand skims the ankle. The toes are perfect: little wrinkles on the joints, tiny ridges on the toenails. The sole is crisscrossed with the fine skin lines of a human foot. It's beautiful."

Part of Kate's interest in these dolls comes from their newest incarnations. Sex doll manufacturers are now prototyping models that come equipped with robotics and artificial intelligence. This is right in line with Kate's expertise. She studies human computer interactions and artificial intelligence at King's College, London. Kate says one of the more advanced models she viewed, a robot named Harmony, is programmed to offer both friendship and sex.

"She could do anything from telling you a joke, singing a song for you or propositioning you."

While some critics worry that sex dolls, especially ones with AI, cross a dangerous line, Kate believes much of the criticism comes from a fear of a technological landscape that feels unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

"I think that we have expectations that people have to meet a particular checklist of things in their life ... that you should meet someone and then you should marry them and then have children with them, and these are all very kind of macho normative stances that societies impose. And you know what, if people want to shake that up, I think it's good."

This week on Hidden Brain, we reflect on the narrowing gap between humans and machines. What are the possibilities for deep, intimate relationships with artificial lovers? And does it help if those lovers are beautifully designed to look like human beings and have the faint glow of empathy and intelligence?

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Parth Shah, Rhaina Cohen, Laura Kwerel, and Thomas Lu. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.