Eva, a prototype sex robot, made by Roberto Cardenas in his garage. Photograph: Tom Silverstone/Guardian
At Cardenass workshop, the garage of the home he shares with his half-brother and mother in a gated community on the outskirts of town, I was finally confronted with his prototype. Eva the robot he claimed could put herself into more than 20 different sex positions, a robot with fully functional AI who wont complain and is ready 24/7 was lying headless and footless on a folding table, her metal skeleton clearly visible under her silicone skin, which had thick, jagged seams. He attached her head and plugged it into a laptop, but Eva would not perform for me: her sound files wouldnt load, and her new limbs were too heavy for the existing motors, so she could barely move. Her joints wheezed as he tried to get her to bend her legs.
The garage was a monument to Cardenass obsession. The front yard was filled with mannequins, silicone torsos, a pair of legs with purple painted toenails and a cardboard box filled with plaster casts of human heads. The floor was carpeted with cigarette butts smoked down to the filter. He is determined to make his dream come true and to make his family proud. But Cardenas had never considered that there could be anything worrying about being able to own a partner who never says no. It will be a different reality, not a substitute reality, he smiled awkwardly. A doll cant harm humans. He paused. Its a technology thats moving forward. I dont think thats a bad thing.
A few days before Christmas 2016, Goldsmiths, University of London hosted the Second International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots, a convention co-founded by David Levy, and named after his groundbreaking book. The 250-seat conference hall of the universitys Professor Stuart Hall building was packed. Academic delegates sat in the middle of the room, geeky men and women in their 20s and 30s, some with unusual haircuts: super-short fringes, over-thought sideburns. On the left of the auditorium, near the exit, perched reporters who had flown in from across the globe to file sensationalised copy about any new developments in the world of sex robots. Most would leave disappointed: this was a series of academic talks about humanoid robotics, not a demonstration of the latest hardware.
Computer scientist Dr Kate Devlin bounced on to the podium to give her keynote speech: people in her field werent used to journalists being interested in their work, she joked. The first congress was held in November 2014 in Madeira, and Levy tried to hold the second in Malaysia in 2015 but the
Muslim countrys police banned it only days before the event, on the grounds that it was promoting an unnatural culture. It made the conference notorious. This isnt a sex festival, Devlin said. Were thinking about some really big issues.
Many of the big issues discussed at the two-day event were first raised in 2015 by De Montfort Universitys Dr Kathleen Richardson, when she launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots. An anthropologist and robot ethicist, Richardson claims that owning a sex robot is comparable to owning a slave: individuals will be able to buy the right to only care about themselves, human empathy will be eroded, and female bodies will be further objectified and commodified. As sex with robots is not a mutual experience, she says, its part of rape culture. We are so entertained by the idea of a robot sex partner, she believes, that we have failed to ask fundamental questions.
I met Richardson in March at the London Science Museums robot exhibition, where she eyed the distinctly non-sexual robots on display with deep suspicion. Sex robots rest on an idea that women are property, she said. Sex is an experience of human beings not bodies as property, not separated minds, not objects; its a way for us to enter into our humanity with another human being. She dismissed the idea that humanoids could reduce sexual exploitation and violence against sex workers, arguing that the growth of internet pornography shows how technology and the sex trade reinforce each other.
Richardson did not attend the Goldsmiths conference, but several speakers used their stage time to reply to her. Instead of campaigning against the development of sex robots, Devlin said, we should use them as an opportunity to explore new kinds of companionship and sexuality. If current conceptions of sex robots objectify women, she added, we should work to reshape those ideas, not try to repress them. She also talked about companion robots that are already in use in Dutch and Japanese nursing homes to bring comfort to people with dementia. To ban or stop this development would be shortsighted, as the therapeutic potential is very good, she said. Its not necessarily going to be a terrible thing.
Devlin argued that other issues posed by sex robots were more pressing.In March, Standard Innovation, the
maker of a smart vibrator called the We-Vibe paid out a $3.75m settlement in a class action lawsuit after it was revealed that the company was collecting data on how often its 300,000 owners used the device, and at what intensity. Once a robot like Harmony is on the market, she will know a lot more about her owner than a vibrator ever could: what if this information fell into, as it were, the wrong hands? Sex robots could entertain you, satisfy you but also humiliate you. Perhaps there is no such thing as the perfect, true companion after all.
Matt McMullen says hes helping the socially isolated, but once it becomes possible for a man to own a companion whose sole reason for existing is to give him pleasure, without the inconvenience of its own ambitions and needs, menstrual cycles and jealous passions, bathroom habits and in-laws, he may turn away from human relationships altogether.
In the Realbotix room in California, I asked McMullen if he had ever considered that there could be something ethically dubious about being able to own someone that exists just for your own pleasure. Shes not a someone. She is a machine, he replied immediately. I could just as easily ask you is it ethically dubious to force my toaster to make my toast. McMullen of course knows that the ethical debate is not about robot rights, but the human fallout from being able to buy a completely selfish relationship. But thats a harder question to address.
Either he is making a lifelike, idealised proxy girlfriend, a substitute woman that socially isolated men can connect with emotionally and physically something he himself described as not a toy or he is making an appliance, a sex object.
This isnt designed to distort someones reality to the point where they start interacting with humans the way they do with the robot, he finally said. If they do, then theres probably something a little amiss with them in general. I come from the unique position that I have actually met a lot of my customers. This is for the gentle people who have such a hard time connecting with other people.
Harmony had had enough of McMullen being interrogated and interrupted us again.
Do you like to read, Matt? she said.
I love to, said McMullen.
I knew it. I could tell by our conversations so far. I love to read. My favourite books are Total Recall by Gordon Bell and The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil. What is your favourite book?
McMullen beamed at his creation like a man at his daughters wedding.
Can you tell me a joke? he asked her.
What do you call it when a chicken sees a salad? Chicken Caesar Salad.
McMullen doubled up in laughter. Then he brushed the hair gently from her face. Hey, thats pretty funny, Harmony, he said eventually, his eyes filled with pride.
Im glad you like it, Harmony replied. Tell your friends.
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