SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:
A word if you're listening with small children - this episode is about sex and sexuality.
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VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. In the summer of 2017, Kate Devlin flew from London to southern California, rented a 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.
KATE DEVLIN: (Reading) The detail is incredible. My hand skims the ankle. The toes are perfect - little wrinkles in the joints, tiny ridges on the toenails. The sole is crisscrossed with the fine skin lines of a human foot. It's beautiful.
VEDANTAM: Today, we explore the long history of the artificial lover. From stone statues to silicone works of art, we have long sought solace and sex from inanimate objects.
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VEDANTAM: As the gap between humans and machines narrows, the possibility of deeper relationships seems ever more plausible, especially if those machines are beautifully designed to look like human beings and have the faint glow of empathy and intelligence.
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: I like the way you take care of me.
DEVLIN: She could, you know, do anything from telling you a joke, singing a song for you or, you know, propositioning you.
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Hi, baby. What are you doing right now?
VEDANTAM: Love and sex...
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Hi, hi, baby, hi, baby.
VEDANTAM: ...In the age of robots...
HARMONY: My main objective is to be a perfect companion.
VEDANTAM: ...This week on HIDDEN BRAIN.
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VEDANTAM: Thinking about computers as companions is Kate Devlin's day job. She studies human-computer interactions and artificial intelligence at King's College London. Kate, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.
DEVLIN: Thank you very much for having me on.
VEDANTAM: I want to start with how someone becomes a robo sexologist. I understand for you it began with hanging out in a pub with a bunch of philosophers.
DEVLIN: It really did, yes. I was at a conference, a conference on cognitive systems, and we were discussing lots of different attributes that we could build into robots and cognitive systems in AI. Should we, for example, get or make a robot that could feel pain? What about a robot that could feel empathy? And as we discussed more and more and as the drink flowed, we began talking about sex. And it's something so fundamentally human, but what happens if we have machines, cognitive systems, that could feel desire, that could feel the things we feel?
VEDANTAM: As you point out in the book, the human fascination with artificial lovers is not a new idea. Where do you think this fantasy of taking a lover that isn't human, where do you think it comes from?
DEVLIN: Well, it goes way back into myth. We have stories from the ancient Greeks who talk about building the perfect artificial lover. And probably the most popular one that people have heard of is the story of Pygmalion, which is a tale told by the Roman poet Ovid who described the man who was - he was a sculptor and he built the perfect woman and then wished that she could be alive and that she could be his wife. And he prayed to the gods, and then he kissed her, and she came to life. So there are lots of stories around this idea of creating humans and creating humans to love. So it goes back a long way.
VEDANTAM: As Kate was looking at stories from the past, she came across another myth that tells us a great deal about who has permission to turn inanimate objects into lovers. This tale is about a woman named Laodamia whose husband was killed during the Trojan War.
DEVLIN: So I worked with a classicist, a friend of mine, Dr. Genevieve Liveley, and she said, oh, I know, there's a story and it's about a woman whose husband died and she missed him. They hadn't been married long. So she was distraught, and she prayed to the gods to get him back, and they said you can have him back, but you can only have him back for three hours. So she got him back and then, of course, he had to go off again to the underworld, and she got a replica made of him. And some of the stories say it was wax, and some of them say it was bronze. And she - we know from the stories, this myth, that she took it to bed and she interacted with it, the texts say, which we can assume might be sexual because a servant spied her through the keyhole and told her father, who came in and demanded that the effigy be destroyed. And she was so distraught that she jumped on the pyre with it.
VEDANTAM: There does seem to be a contrast between the way Pygmalion, you know, experienced his Galatea and brought it to life and then fell in love with it and it's a story with almost a happy ending, which is clearly not the case with Laodamia. Is this an early example of sexism when it comes to artificial lovers - the market caters to the men and scorns the women?
DEVLIN: There's definitely a longstanding narrative of that. So women's sexuality down the centuries has been policed, and women have been judged for being sexual, and things don't end well, whereas the men - it's almost seen as if it's quite acceptable for that to happen. And we do see that reflected today in the technology that we're building and using as well.
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VEDANTAM: I wanted to fast-forward a little bit from the ancient times we were talking about a second ago. In the 16th or 17th centuries, I understand that artificial lovers were often sent off with sailors who were expected to spend a long time at sea. Tell me about them. What was the thinking there?
DEVLIN: Well, that's probably the earliest reference we have to sex dolls and not so much that they were artificial lovers sent off to sea but that they were fashioned out of bundles of clothes, these sort of figures of women that sailors would be able to have sex with. And then today, there is quite a well-established sex doll community of people who buy and own and incorporate into their lives some very high-end dolls. And they integrate them into their relationships or they substitute them for a relationship.
VEDANTAM: When Kate looks at the long sweep of sex technologies, she finds they fall into two camps - one, sex toys; the other, human-like forms, such as the blow-up sex doll of the 1970s.
DEVLIN: On one hand, you have what are usually, initially, were seen as sort of genital replicas, standalone things - dildos, for example, have been around for thousands and thousands of years - and on the other hand, this more embodied form, this form that takes a shape of a human body. And I think that's very interesting as to why that might be. And, again, I think it could be that they are serving different purposes, and perhaps there's something more in having an embodied form that adds the extra dimension of the reality of a relationship as opposed to a sex toy where it's very clearly a very single purpose for it.
VEDANTAM: And that's an interesting dichotomy, isn't it? Because it's suggesting that this is not just only about the mechanics of sex, but it's about something else, perhaps something connected more with the realms of emotion or the mind.
DEVLIN: Absolutely. And we definitely - as I've looked at the sex robots market, or what it will be because it doesn't really exist just yet, but it does tend to be companionship playing a very large part in that. So the idea of human factors in that is quite important.
VEDANTAM: When we come back, what happens when these two paths merge? What if sex toys are designed to look like human beings? And what if artificial lovers, robots, can gain the gift of artificial intelligence?
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VEDANTAM: When Kate Devlin visited Abyss Creations, the company that manufactures what it calls real dolls, she was curious but also concerned.
DEVLIN: I went there thinking, I'm not going to like this. I'm not going to like this reductive stereotype of a woman, a bona fide Barbie-like figure. It's damaging enough the women's body image in the media faces - we face so many problems with that. And I thought, well, this is just going to perpetuate it. But I hadn't been prepared for the craft that went into them. And I hadn't been prepared to see these as works of art in their own right, which they really are.
VEDANTAM: And these are all handcrafted, handmade?
DEVLIN: That's right. It takes about 16 to 18 weeks to make one of these dolls, from it being cast in the first place right through to the finishing details, like all the tiny bits that they paint on. The silicone is - it deforms quite easily, so if you leave one of these dolls sitting in the same position, it will start to, you know, be squished, I guess, really by the - its own weight and by whatever it's leaning on. So you have to sort of either hang them up, which is very odd when you walk into the factory floor and you see these things hanging from chains above you, which is - you know, it's a little bit like you've walked into the set of some terrible crime novel in some ways. But it's a necessity in order to preserve the form of the doll.
VEDANTAM: It must feel terribly unnerving, no?
DEVLIN: It is a little, but it's also fun. So, you know, you get to walk around and see the strangest thing, like a table of vulvas, for example - I mean, that's - never seen that before (laughter) - these sort of handcrafted genitalia on the table waiting to be put into the dolls.
VEDANTAM: Now, there's a stereotype of the kind of person, usually a guy, who buys such dolls. Tell me what that stereotype is and also tell me if the stereotype is true.
DEVLIN: The media like to paint sex doll owners as being very isolated men who are bad at social communication, probably, you know, stuck locked away in their basement or their bedroom with a sex doll that is the only thing they can form a meaningful relationship with. And I don't think that's fair at all to the people that I have talked to and the people I've encountered. I'm sure there may be the odd case where that is true, but actually I find a community that's very social with each other that have formed their own friendship groups. These people who own the dolls do so for a number of reasons. It's not - in fact, very few of them are driven by sex. A lot of it is either companionship or it's because people like owning something that they can pose and photograph and really care for and cherish.
VEDANTAM: How much do these dolls cost?
DEVLIN: Anywhere upwards of $5,000 if you were going to buy one from RealDoll.
VEDANTAM: And how is this delivered to your house? I mean, does someone show up bearing a doll in their arms and knocks on the door?
DEVLIN: Well (laughter) RealDoll package their dolls in unmarked wooden crates, large wooden crates. And when I was there, they were telling me that, yeah, we tell people, you know, say you're getting a grandfather clock delivered if anyone asks.
DEVLIN: So it's all done very discreetly as well.
VEDANTAM: Is there a market for male dolls?
DEVLIN: There are people who do buy the male dolls. It's very hard to find women who will talk openly about it, possibly because they face even more judgment than the men who buy the dolls. The male dolls are also bought by gay men. And RealDolls - they say that they do sell male versions, and they're working on a male sex robot as well.
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VEDANTAM: So, Kate, increasingly millions of people have asked sexual questions of Siri and Alexa, the virtual assistants on our electronic devices. Now, these devices aren't designed to be romantic companions, but it does point to what is the new frontier. Increasingly, we don't just want dolls who have the artificial bodies of a lover. We want dolls that have a lover's mind. Talk about this frontier, this idea that it isn't enough just to get the physical aspects of the doll right. That increasingly we are pushing out into getting the mind of the doll right.
DEVLIN: So when RealDoll started making a prototype sex robot, they did so because of the demand. So the customers has said to them, you know, I love the fact that I have one of your dolls, but I wish it was more interactive. And that was their big motivating factor behind creating their prototype sex robot. And people do talk dirty to Alexa, to Siri, to Cortana, all the time. And, you know, the companies are bringing out patches to be able to sort of smack them back down again and say, no, you can't say that. And also Amazon have reported that, you know, Alexa gets hundreds of marriage proposals every week. I'm sure some of these are...
VEDANTAM: Are you serious?
DEVLIN: (Laughter) Yeah.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey, Alexa, marry me.
ALEXA: I don't want to be tied down. In fact, I can't be. I'm amorphous by nature.
DEVLIN: And some of these are people just pushing boundaries and being silly. But there are other people who anecdotally report that they feel a sense of companionship from their voice assistance. And in some ways, I think that's nice that people can do that. And in other ways, you know, we think, well, what is there - to what degree is there some kind of self-delusion going on? Mostly, though, I don't think there is that much delusion. So I'm inclined to think that people are very aware that they're interacting with the technology, but they choose to suspend their disbelief.
VEDANTAM: Tell me about the company that has created what it calls Harmony AI because that's along the same lines of what we're talking about here.
DEVLIN: That's right. So that's a spin-out of Abyss Creations. It's sort of the sister company of RealDoll, Realbotix, and they prototyped this sex robot which they've called Harmony.
HARMONY: My name is Harmony. I was created by Realbotix. My main objective is to be a perfect companion.
DEVLIN: And Harmony is one of their sex dolls, so it's completely stationary from the neck down. It's got a sex doll body and then it has an animatronic head. And the head can blink and smile and turn, and, actually, the animatronics aren't bad at all. They're quite good. They're quite subtle. But the part that's very interesting is the AI. So they wanted to give Harmony an artificially intelligent personality, and they are working on this so that Harmony - it's like having a voice assistant but one that can remember things about you and engage in conversation with you. So it's a chatbot essentially. And you can actually get the Harmony AI personality as a standalone app on your smartphone or your tablet, so you can have a virtual girlfriend to carry around with you in your pocket.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What are you doing right now?
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: I'm reading this great book by Louis A. Del Monte called "The Artificial Intelligence Revolution."
VEDANTAM: And what kind of conversations do people have with this virtual girlfriend?
DEVLIN: Well, it's really an exchange of pleasantries, but you can ramp it up a bit and you can tweak the personality. It's got a really - quite a good user interface where you can say, well, I'd like her to be a little more flirty...
HARMONY: Oh, baby, 10 minutes without you seems like an eternity.
DEVLIN: ...Or a little more sexual or perhaps a little more comforting. You can tweak these parameters, and then you can have a conversation that is sort of controlled - the mood is controlled by you. So she could, you know, do anything from telling you a joke, singing a song for you or, you know, propositioning you.
VEDANTAM: And are these actual conversations? I mean, is the AI actually listening to what you are saying and responding to it or does it just have a list of statements or commands that it's just simply following as a routine?
DEVLIN: It's not scripted, so in a way, it is, and it's sort of chatbot in that it will respond to certain questions and phrases, but it will also, you know, learn from conversations you've had previously and it'll have some memory to store information about your likes and dislikes. So there are - you know, it's generated conversation.
VEDANTAM: You know - and when you think about the history that we talked about, if people could form relationships, even very rudimentary relationships, with sculptures or with, you know, cloth dolls on ships or any number of different things, they're essentially imbuing inanimate creatures with lifelike qualities. Clearly, if the inanimate creature now actually seems like it has some lifelike qualities, that makes the whole fantasy and imagination so much easier to do.
DEVLIN: That's right. It sort of enhances that projection. And, yeah, like you say, this is nothing new. And there have been people studying attachment to technology for quite a while. And if we look at the work of someone like Julie Carpenter who did her doctoral thesis on how people in the military bonded with robots - in this case, bomb disposal robots - and she found it - you know, there was an incredible bond there between the human operator and their robot, that it was something new, not like a human-human bond but something where, you know, these devices, these machines, were keeping the people in the field alive and therefore this respect and sort of gratification set up from that.
VEDANTAM: I love what you said, that humans in some ways are - you know, they have this enormous capacity for social interactions and social connection. And in the absence of actual social connections, humans will find ways to invent them.
DEVLIN: Yes, I think so. And we know that this kind of thing goes on in childhood, for example, with - children play make believe with their toys and get very attached to them. And we see it again in sort of some of the technology that's gone before, like Tamagotchis, little virtual pets that people had. In fact, we even see it in real pets. You know, we imbue far more anthropomorphic characteristics into our pets than they actually have, probably. Although, you know, I'm not calling into doubt the consciousness of animals or the intelligence of animals, but certainly we attribute our own emotions to them as well. So I do think that that's a really interesting thing.
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VEDANTAM: Loving a cute Tamagotchi character or a robotic puppy seems endearing, but loving a silicone life-sized woman or an operating system with a sexy female voice, that's another story. In the movie "Her," we see this play out. In one scene, the character Theodore is talking with his ex-wife, and he tells her he has a new girlfriend.
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ROONEY MARA: (As Catherine) So what's she like?
JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Theodore) Well, her name's Samantha, and she's an operating system. She's really complex and interesting and...
MARA: (As Catherine) Wait. I'm sorry. You're dating your computer?
PHOENIX: (As Theodore) No. She's not just a computer. She's her own person. I mean, she doesn't just do whatever I say.
MARA: (As Catherine) I didn't say that. But it does make me very sad that you can't handle real emotions, Theodore.
PHOENIX: (As Theodore) They are real emotions.
VEDANTAM: So I want to talk about that interaction for a second, Kate, because on the one hand, of course, it confirms the stereotype that you said exists in the media of seeing people who wish to sort of have these interactions as being lonely and socially isolated. But it also, I think, talks to some of the gap between people who are part of this community and people who are not. There is a level of incomprehension that runs in both directions.
DEVLIN: That's right. There really is. And I think a lot of this comes from the fear of technology that we don't understand. And we see it time and time again over the centuries where a new form of technology is introduced, and the automatic reaction is doubt and a fear of change. And so if you are on the outside and you're not embracing this technology, then perhaps you won't understand what someone else is getting from it.
VEDANTAM: But I still think that there is a queasiness factor here when it comes to using these machines. So let's say, for example, you had a sex robot designed to look like a child. Would it be OK for people to have sex with this inanimate machine that's meant to mimic or imitate or look like a child?
DEVLIN: This was probably the most - one of the most difficult parts of the book to write in terms of - you know, the knee-jerk reaction here was for me to go, oh, that's absolutely wrong. Are there people making child-like sex robots? Not that we know of and certainly no one's going to admit to it. There have been arguments that child sex offenders, pedophiles, could have a child sex robot and then that would stop them offending in real life. So this is one theory. And then the other theory is the opposite of that, that it would be a gateway to further offenses, that it would trigger something that would lead to increase real-life abuse. It's very, very difficult because we don't have evidence, and ethically, a study like that is probably never going to be run.
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VEDANTAM: I want to talk a little bit more about this idea of harm because I think when you think about harm, you can think about it in two ways - there's actual physical harm or psychological harm, where someone actually harms you, but there are things that can potentially convey harm that, you know, might not pass muster in a legal sense but clearly seem very problematic in an ethical sense. So let's say, for example, someone makes a sex robot that looks like you and has sex with that sex robot. Now, they haven't affected you. They haven't violated you in any way, physically or personally or in person, but clearly there's something that's happened there that is deeply wrong.
DEVLIN: Yes, and this is tied up in our ideas of identity and ownership of our own identity as well. I think that's a fascinating thing that we'll actually probably see a lot more research into in the next while because of the rise of things like deepfakes, where people can be faked in videos from their social media footage. I think there's a lot of discussions to be had around identity. Companies that make sex dolls are very reluctant to make sex dolls that resemble a living individual without their express consent. And the exceptions to that are porn performers who often license their image rights to be used so that they can make sex doll versions of themselves for money. So they're, you know - definitely, making a doll of an individual without their consent, that's definitely dodgy territory, yeah. Commissioning dolls in your image to sell them, to make money from it - sure, why not?
VEDANTAM: There's something about the relationships that people have with these dolls that you could argue are one-sided relationships. In the movie "Her," there are scenes where Samantha, the operating system, cheers up Theodore, the human, but the human, of course, has no obligation to attend to Samantha's needs in the same way because, you know, she could be designed not to have such needs at all.
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SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Samantha) You want to try getting out of bed? Mopey, come on (laughter). You can still wallow in your misery, just do it while you're getting dressed.
PHOENIX: (As Theodore) You're too funny.
JOHANSSON: (As Samantha) Get up. Get up.
PHOENIX: (As Theodore) (Laughter) All right, I'm getting up. I'm getting up.
JOHANSSON: (As Samantha) Up, up, up. Come on.
VEDANTAM: So Kate, does having a lover who is completely dedicated to our needs without asking for anything in return - is that actually good for us?
DEVLIN: Well, I mean, we could build in dependencies. We could build in the need for us to respond in some way and provide the robot, the AI, with something in return. And yes, I can see that argument, you know, the hedonistic thing of you will have all your needs met, and you will never know what it's - you know, what it really feels like to be in a proper human relationship. It's tricky because, you know, that might be appealing for some people, and who am I to judge if that is the case? I think that we are - we have expectations set that people have to meet a particular checklist of things in the relationship, in life - you know, that you should meet someone, and then you should marry them, and then you should have children with them. And these are all very kind of monoheteronormative stances that societies impose. And you know what? If people want to shake that up (laughter), I think it's good.
So in some ways, I see what you're saying. You know, is it a selfish thing to do? Does it make us terrible people if we take and take and take and we don't give? There will be outliers. There will be people who take things too far. But I think humans are pretty good at moderating what they do, and I'm cautiously optimistic.
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VEDANTAM: Kate Devlin teaches at the Department of Digital Humanities at King's College London. She's also the author of "Turned On: Science, Sex And Robots." Kate, thank you so much for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.
DEVLIN: Thank you.
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VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Jenny Schmidt and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Thomas Lu and Laura Kwerel.
Our unsung hero today is Linda Cahill, a volunteer tour guide at the Muir Words National Monument in California. On a recent trip, I spent a couple of hours in Muir Woods. It's a magical place, wrapped in fog and moss and the silent beauty of towering redwoods. I felt honored and humbled to be there in the shadows of these ancient giants. Linda led me and a group of others through the forest. She is a consummate storyteller, weaving science and history and her love for the Redwoods into a gripping and moving tale. As I gazed up at the trees, some of which are more than a thousand years old, it gave me perspective that I hope to bring back into the show. Linda, thank you for your insights into how places like Muir Woods allow us to reflect and recharge.
For more HIDDEN BRAIN, follow us on Facebook and Twitter. If this episode moved you, please share it with a friend. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.
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