I’ve been thinking about tech predictions for 2008, and have I got a good one for you. 2008 will be the year of the sexbot! That’s right, cooing, ooing, orgasming sexbots. Okay, maybe they won’t be able to actually orgasm, but women have been faking it since long before recorded history (heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if Homo hablis females faked it), so what’s the diff?
I can hear some of you thinking, “Sure, sexbots are a staple of science fiction, and don’t seem unlikely in some far future time, but in 2008? Like next year?” Some of you may even be familiar with David Levy’s book, Love and Sex with Robots, in which he predicts we’ll one day be making it with robots, but not for some decades.
However, Levy envisions something more complicated, and intended for a much more sophisticated interaction than simple sex — more of a companion-bot. Which may be somewhat optimistic. A robot who can accompany you on a stroll through an exhibit of Renaissance art at the Vancouver Art Gallery while conversing about possible connections between theories of hyperspace and religion punctuated with suggestions that to see really good Renaissance art you have to be in Europe, while noting that simply pushing God into the more obscure regions of scientific theory is an endless and foolish attempt to evade the fact that God doesn’t exist, then observing in a Da Vinci sketch a detail not to be found in any European collection, followed by a whispered proposal of dangerous sex in a gallery bathroom . . . well, it’s not something I expect to see in my lifetime. I doubt it’ll even be seen in the lifetimes of my young nieces, and just as well, as it’s disturbing to contemplate them in the company of such a naughty robot.
However, next year is not an unreasonable ETA for a simple sexbot, as it already exists, in form at least, at the high end of the love doll market.
Abyss Creations’ RealDoll is just about the real deal.
Regardless of how you feel about sex with dolls, you can’t help but be impressed with these things. It might be too much to regard them as works of art, but on the level of craft — the attention to detail and application of materials and processes to create the illusion of a human being — they’re really, really cool. Sadly, however, as sex partners, they’re really, really dead.
Filmmaker Nick Holt emphasizes the latter in his documentary Guys and Dolls, about RealDolls and the men who love them. Again and again we’re offered shots of dolls under piles of boxes, or hung up in the factory with their faces off. Holt allows his male subjects to explain themselves without comment, but his deadpan photography makes clear that he’s not exactly in the market for one himself.
The men come from a variety of backgrounds, but they have two things in common; one is money (RealDolls cost roughly $6500 uncustomized, add another grand if you want a chick with a dick; I don’t know what they charge for pointy ears and green skin), and the other is arrested development. They have managed somehow to retain a child’s ability to take an inanimate toy and imbue it with life through simple imagination. Their dolls are, in a sense, teddy bears with whom they can have an ongoing relationship. And fuck. Okay, so perhaps it’s not quite the same thing as a teddy bear.
Those of us whose imaginations have atrophied with age require something a little more to bring the inanimate to life. To that end, a recent example of a non-sexual nature is instructive.
Ugobe’s baby dinosaur, Pleo, is supposed to be an emulation of Camarasaurus, though it’s more an idealization of a rather slow puppy. Making it a dinosaur is mostly a clever strategy, as it excuses Pleo’s slow movements. Still, he’s (she’s?) an impressive piece of work. What separates a creation like this from a simpler automaton is its responsiveness to stimulus, and awareness of environment. Also compelling are its subtle, random movements, creating the illusion that the robot has a mind of its own.
Here’s another vid of Pleo in which the dino approaches the edge of the table it is on. An automaton would walk right off, but not this little fellow. (Be patient; the video could use some editing, especially at the beginning.)
And here’s another from the Sacramento Area Aibo Gathering in 2007. Pleo is not as interesting in this one, as it has just hatched. Pleo is capable of learning (another difference from automatons), but isn’t that bright off the mark.
Most interesting in this vid is the behaviour of the humans interacting with it, especially when it comes to gender. We tend to assume that sexbots will be female for use by males, but given the potential for emotional attachment, I wonder if women won’t be major part of this market. Judging from this video, the robot won’t even need to be that sophisticated to elicit an emotional response.
So, the technology exists now for a basic sexbot. It would be best if facial expressions at this point were kept simple, since subtle expressions are a much easier assignment than the full range of human expression. One fears that any attempt at that would be either comical, grotesque, or both.
Getting credible lip sync and voice generation for even a simple phrase like “Oh, yes, yes, yes” would be challenging, so that’s best left for later also — possibly much later if we want a robot that has an actual vocabulary, understanding of grammar, and ability to generate unique utterances. Simple recordings aren’t really an option, as they would get boring very fast, and in the absence of good lip sync would seem patently false. Better a simple vocab of sighs and grunts and oohs and such, generated in real time by a wee sampler/synthesizer, never exactly the same twice.
To avoid lewdness, I won’t go into much further detail with regard to movements, except to say the robot we’re considering is a cousin to Pleo, and likely won’t be much swifter. So initially, some things may be limited to slow and sweet rather than fast and furious. It’s unlikely early models will even be able to stand up, even though progress is being made with bipedal robots and balance.
The only thing that might scuttle this prediction for next year is price. As with any new tech, the sexbot will at first be very expensive. If it’s solely an option for people who can afford grottoes with hot pools full of actual beauties, it may have a hard time getting off the ground .
But if not next year, then soon. And the sure thing prediction for next year, of course, is that 2008 is the year Linux will finally dominate the desktop! Yay! Right. Well anyway . . .
Seasons greetings to you and yours, and best wishes for the new year, whatever it brings.