Sex, Love and Robots at the Being Human Festival

24th November 2016 Off By Siarlot Lloyd

Gemma Chan as Anita in Humans, which recently returned to Channel 4

With the return of Humans to Channel 4 and new programme Westworld on Sky Atlantic, whether they’re called synths or hosts, androids and artificial humans are pretty big in pop culture right now. Even in Fallout 4, Bethesda’s continuation of the post-apocalyptic RPG franchise, artificial humans played a key part of the storyline.

All of them return to the question: “What separates a human from a robot?”

It’s a question to which computer scientist Dr Lynne Hall and professor of sexual cultures Dr Clarissa Smith hope to explore in their talk “Sex, Love and Robots” on November 24, as part of the nationwide Being Human festival.

The talk was something they’d been discussing for some time; Dr Hall was invited to the Love and Sex with conference in Malaysia in 2015, which was then cancelled by the police for being “illegal”. But not to be deterred by the actions of the Malaysian police, Dr Hall and Dr Smith will instead be bringing a talk to Sunderland for the Being Human festival.

“The theme of the festival is Hopes and Fears. [Sex, Love and Robots] fits really well with the theme… [and it’s] a really good way of getting people to engage out of universities. We’ll be asking people their hopes and fears about robots and love and sex and how that all fits together.”

Perhaps the most interesting thing mentioned was that currently, our ideas of what a sex robot might look like or the way it might behave come directly from science fiction, as Dr Hall explained:

“The key thing with robots is that we’re completely inspired by science fiction. Everybody’s view of what a robot’s going to be like is inspired by what they’ve seen on TV or in a movie, like Humans [the Channel 4 show] at the moment. We’re going to try and make people think a bit bigger than that.”

And while synths and hosts may have captured our imaginations at the moment, the so-called ‘sex-bot’ is hardly a recent invention it turns out:

“It’s kind of easy to think of [the sex robot] as something that’s just very current, but you’ve got films like Metropolis (1927) with the same kind of idea.” Dr Smith elaborated.

“We call it an android but that suggests it’s male. Actually, they’re not, they’re ‘femdroids’ or some other term.”

And it’s not just the basic idea of the sex robot that has remained the same for nearly 90 years. Dr Smith also wants to discuss just why exactly the idea of the sex robot has stayed the same so consistently for such a long time and indeed, why we think that a sex robot would have the same gender representation as those that we have now.

But Dr Smith suggest that the hopes and fears of sex robots are part of a larger fear:

“Once we get into the messy business of sex and ideas of intimacy… then a whole raft of more general fears [about human-robot interactions] become really important. Some people actually start getting upset by the possibilities… A lot of our fears are more about sex than they are about technology”

 At the moment, realistic sex robots still remain firmly in the realms of science fiction, as Dr Hall pointed out.

“Everything we’re imagining a robot doing actually it’s very unlikely that a machine could do it – It’s all what a person could do. And I think that’s something we’ll see a lot of at this event a lot of discussion of hopes and fears of humans than of the robot itself.”

That said, do Dr Hall and Dr Smith think that we’ll see sex robots in our lifetime?

“Oh yeah. I would think by the time I’m dead, 20 years or so there’ll be [here].” Dr Hall said. “They’ve said with educational robots we’re not expecting that to go mainstream until the end of the 2020s, but that’s educational robots. But there is more push to have sex robots than educational robots in many ways – because there’s money to made.

And it’s the porn industry that is coming up with some pretty creative ways of harnessing the new technology:

“The porn producers are looking at using VR glasses and sex toys, where all of the imagery is wraparound 3D, and it looks lovely, it looks real. They did a thing where they got these people in…sat them in this room where there was a pole, and then [the people] put their 3D glasses on and watched someone twirl around the pole, and they couldn’t believe when they opened their eyes that there was nothing there, because it was just in 3D in their [headsets].”

“So, one of the biggest problem with robots is what do they look like, but if they don’t really need to look like anything because you don’t see them, what bits do you really need?”

So while sex robots maybe be realised in the next 20 years, they may not be the idealised version of ourselves so prevalent in science fiction.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of Sex, Love and Robots, the Being Human festival talk is at 7pm on Thursday 24 and you can still book a free ticket here.