Sex! Oh, the variations! Oh, the possibilities!
In this age of evolving cybernetics and encroaching artificial intelligence (AI) the realm of paraphilia is substantially broadening its horizons. Paraphilia? It’s a slick word. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means, “Sexual desires regarded as perverted or irregular;[specifically] attraction to unusual or abnormal sexual objects or practices...” Got that?
Kate Devlin, author of “Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots,” is a professor in the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London. She is an expert on the rarified subject of cybersex, machine sex, cyborg sex — take your pick — and other related titillating oddities. Referring to herself as a “Robosexologist,” Devlin says that she is exploring the terrain of “intimacy and technology, computers and psychology.”
Stories and myths about inanimate things becoming objects of deep human affection go back a long way. Young Laodamia’s husband died in the Trojan War. To mitigate her grief, she commissioned a bronze likeness of her slain spouse. Laodamia’s intimate interaction with the statue outraged her father who ordered the effigy burned. In uncontrollable anguish the poor lady could not bear her loss and leapt directly into the flames.
A better known ancient Roman tale comes from Ovid who wrote of Pygmalion, who sculpted a gorgeous statue and then prayed to Aphrodite to find him a real live woman equal to his creation’s rapturous looks. On kissing the stone figure, Pygmalion saw it suddenly enlivened and the beautiful Galatea stepped forward. Astonished and delighted he would marry her and sire a child.
Apparently, actual amorous infatuations with statues were noted in ancient Greece and Italy. There is even a word for this sort of thing: “agalmatophilia — sexual attraction to a statue, doll or mannequin.” Of course, such items are a far cry from a sophisticated cyborg but at this early stage of her book, Devlin is just getting warmed up.
Devlin takes the reader on a romp through the histories of various sex toys like dildos, vibrators and other paraphernalia. The industry will hit the $30 billion mark next year. Devlin specifies that doesn’t include profits made by “online porn, which alone generates as much as the Hollywood movie industry.” You didn’t know that, did you?
An interesting investigator of the outer regions of sexuality who is introduced in Devlin’s pages is Trudy Barber who got her doctorate “in Computer Fetishism and Sexual Futurology, a particularly avant-garde subject even now.” Devlin describes Barber as “a pioneer of teledildonics and the queen of cybersex — a way of exploring how people use various types of technology for sexual purposes.” Teledildonics refers to the remote control of a stimulating device “allowing the user with the sex toy to feel tactile sensations that have been initiated by someone else, somewhere else.”
What about those special dolls? The inflatable sex doll arrived in the 1970s. “Often sold now as a novelty joke item,” writes Devlin, “it was actually banned in Britain until the late 1980s on the basis that it was obscene.” Dolls today are far more realistic and can cost as much as $10,000. They are manufactured in China, Japan, France, Germany and the United States. Some smaller, cheaper versions are known as “mini dolls.” Devlin admits “their child-like size is incredibly disturbing.” Indeed. Although there are some male dolls, most at present are undoubtedly female in form and appearance. Abyss Creations, a doll manufacturing operation in California, promises to have a refined sex robot available soon. Things could get very strange.
Robotic entities may play a role other than serving the salacious needs of their owners. The government of the U.K. now has a minister for loneliness, Parliamentarian Tracey Crouch. It has been determined that loneliness is a growing and deleterious phenomenon that has a measurable negative impact on the health of human beings. It is proposed that “companion robots” could ease social deprivation although they could not replace actual human interaction. Yet according to Devlin, one researcher observed “that when people engaged with robots they formed an emotional relationship, much like the relationship with a pet.”
But, back to sex. What are the implications of cyborg sex as machines become more versatile, more lifelike and more capable of being perceived as sentient? What happens when a cyborg can be designed to look like your favorite male or female movie star? Or maybe your deceased wife or husband? Or that sexy cheerleader who ignored you in high school? Or a beautiful cybernetic creation with the dimensions of a child? Remember they are all machines no matter how human and convincing they may appear. Legal, moral and ethical questions have yet to be thoroughly assessed.
While Devlin maintains neutrality in judgment about cybersex, she refers to anthropologist Kathleen Robinson who sees serious trouble in this mishmash of cutting-edge technologies and the vagaries of carnal desire. She has been outspoken in a campaign against developing robots for sex. Robinson writes: “It’s only in sexual encounters with others that we can learn the depth of sexual feeling.” Devlin demurs from Robinson’s hardline perspective. Is it too early in the romantic interplay of people with humanoid machines to determine the efficacy of Robinson’s humanistic critique? Of course, today’s technological wonder can be tomorrow’s ho-hum.
One local wag, an entrepreneur in the Pike Place Market, on learning of Devlin’s take on the potential of lubricious cyborgs, suggested that inevitably some ridiculously expensive and beautifully fabricated simulacra would either lose its appeal to the owner or be simply discarded for a new more exciting model. He suggested that this could open up a new business, like used cars: the used sexbot lot. Imagine an advertisement: “Why spend tens of thousands for a new mechanical lover when you can get a perfectly functioning bot for only a few thousand dollars! And don’t forget our Memorial Day Sale! Only a few days left and the bots are going fast! Don’t delay!”
Devlin’s book is an insightful stroll through an unusual sector of our world. She conducts her study with ample doses of humor and simultaneously provides a serious evaluation of a subject that holds weighty challenges. Did you know that there are bordellos in a few cities around the world that provide only dolls to customers? Now you do.
“Turned On” is filled with much about dimensions of human behavior and technology that readers will find fascinating and informative.
Read the full August 7 - 13 issue.
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