Future Tense

I (Robot) Thee Wed

Researchers claim robot-human marriage is in our future. But is our society really headed in that direction?

A life-size rubber doll named Roxxxy.
Roxxxy, the sex robot, on display during the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas, Jan. 9, 2010

Photograph by Paul Sakuma/AP.

It’s hard to think of a more attention-grabbing title than “Robots, Men, and Sex Tourism”—especially in the academic world.

Written by researchers from New Zealand’s University of Wellington and published recently in the journal Futures, the paper predicts that in the decades to come, humans will patronize robot-staffed brothels, freeing them from the guilt associated with visiting a flesh-and-blood prostitute. Perhaps predictably, it sparked a lively conversation about whether the sex industry could be automated—and not a little squeamishness about the whole idea of robot-human relations.

That at least some of us will be having sexual intercourse with robots in the future should be obvious by now. Somebody out there will make love to just about any consumer good that enters the home (and if that’s not the first rule of product design, it should be).

But will our robot-human relations be relegated to the bedroom, or will love enter the equation, too? Is our society headed in a direction that will support this transition? Looking at current trends, I’d say that the answer is a resounding yes.

For most, contemplating the prospect of robot sex is immediately distasteful. The mind conjures up alchemists’ combinations of rubber and silicone and, I don’t know, hair follicles. It is hard to dismiss that slack-jawed, shark-eyed stare of love dolls, their pale arms covered by gummy, petroleum-product skin.

But those aren’t the siren love robots of the future. Realistic skin, the ability to make eye contact, faux breathing (to avoid that “walking human corpse” feel), convincing conversational skills, dexterous manipulation of objects, and the ability to not walk through sliding glass doors—we can assume that these things will be attainable within the next few decades. Consider the PR2 “personal” robot from Willow Garage; with an open-source brain located in a Google cloud, this machine can already navigate a home environment to fetch beers, load a dishwasher, and precisely fold laundry.

In 2007’s Love and Sex With Robots, Dr. David Levy claimed we humans—that’s men and women, so you’re not off the hook, ladies—will become smitten with new breeds of advanced humanoid robots due to arrive within the next half-century.

Many of our social interactions have been reduced to the barebones transfer of information via various online media: text messages, emails, shared videos and pictures, status updates, and, uh, pokes. We routinely create online profiles that distill our lives to a list of data points—much in the way that a role-playing game stat sheet boils down your complex and multi-faceted elvish archer to only his intelligence, dexterity, and charisma. For people who have been raised on text-based interactions, just speaking on the telephone can be high bandwidth to the point of anxiety.

The complicated, ambiguous milieu of human contact is being replaced with simple, scalable equations. We maintain thousands more friends than any human being in history, but at the cost of complexity and depth. Every minute spent online is a minute of face-to-face time lost. For better or worse, new modes of interaction are steadily eroding the more “traditional” forms of interaction familiar to older generations. New streamlined interactions between human beings may open the door for machines to join us as social peers and not just sex objects.

Another side effect of these new modes of interaction is simply the ability to turn them off. Don’t like what someone wrote? Don’t respond. Tired of somebody? Stop following them. Push the ignore button. Delete, ban, or go invisible. Instant gratification has infiltrated our interpersonal relationships, and in our online interactions, we each have the ultimate power to silence one another.

It’s harder to get away with that kind of behavior in face-to-face interactions with real human beings. However, a robot could easily bring those online social mores into the real world by allowing human users to ignore, ban, or even delete them.

Looking ahead, future generations may learn their social skills from robots in the first place. The cute yellow Keepon robot from Carnegie Mellon University has shown the ability to facilitate social interactions with autistic children. Morphy at the University of Washington happily teaches gestures to children by demonstration. With infinite patience and zero judgment, new classes of social robot are in development to offer the ultimate low-risk social tutor to human beings. If you’re raised (at least in part) by a machine, falling in love with one might not seem so bizarre.

In the end, perhaps it will be the true romantics, not the nerds, who choose to flee from a world of impersonal, digitized relationships and into the arms of simulacrums with manners imported from simpler times.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.