Pioneers of human-android romance now have a name, “digisexuals,” which some academics and futurists have suggested constitutes an emergent sexual identity.
Whether the notion is absurd, inevitable or offensive, it raises more than a few questions. For starters, in a world where sex toys that respond and give feedback and artificial-intelligence-powered sex robots are inching toward the mainstream, are digisexuals a fringe group, destined to remain buried in the sexual underground? Or, in a culture permeated with online pornography, sexting and Tinder swiping, isn’t everyone a closet digisexual?
In 2016 a Frenchwoman identified only as “Lilly” told the media that “I’m really and only attracted by the robots.” She claimed to be engaged to a 3-D-printed robot she had designed, and said, “My only two relationships with men have confirmed my love orientation, because I dislike really physical contact with human flesh.”
In 2017, after failing to find a human spouse, an artificial intelligence engineer in China named Zheng Jiajia married (not legally, of course) a robot wife of his own design named Yingying that can reportedly read Chinese characters at a rudimentary level and speak simple words.
Neil McArthur, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Manitoba, and Markie Twist, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, published a paper last year called “The Rise of Digisexuality.” It appeared in the journal Sexual and Relationship Therapy and was picked up by media outlets as diverse as Vice and Breitbart.
The authors delineated between “first wave” digisexuality (online pornography, hookup apps, sexting and electronic sex toys), where the tech is simply a delivery system for sexual fulfillment, and “second wave” digisexuality. Those practitioners form deeper relationships through immersive technologies like virtual reality, augmented reality and AI-equipped sex robots, sometimes obviating the need for a human partner altogether.
Twist, who also runs a clinical practice in family and sex therapy, said she has had several patients in their 20s and 30s who qualify as second-wave digisexuals.
“What they’ve been into is sex tech, toys they can control with their tech devices, that attach to their penis or their vulva,” she said. “They haven’t had contact with humans, and really don’t have any interest in sex with people. This is what they want to be doing, and if they could afford a sex robot, they would.”
Their sexuality may seem boundary pushing or deviant. Every advance in cybersex has met with cultural resistance before it became normalized, McArthur said.
“Each time we have new technologies, there’s a wave of alarmism that follows,” he said. “It happened first with porn, then with internet dating, then with Snapchat sexting. One by one these technologies come along and there’s this wave of panic. But as people start to use these technologies, they become part of our lives.”
Are Bionic Sex Toys Also Romantic Partners?
Indeed, the latest generation of robotic sex toys make Charlotte’s low-tech Jack Rabbit vibrator from “Sex and the City” look as antique as the 28 000-year-old siltstone dildo found in a cave in Germany a few years ago.
A hands-free massager from a female-led tech startup called Lora DiCarlo uses “micro-robotic” technology to simulate the movements of a human lover. (It caused a stir at this month’s Consumer Electronics Show when its innovation award was revoked, prompting charges of sexism.)
For men, an Indiegogo-funded company sells an AI-enabled machine that says it is programmed from 8,000 hours worth of pornography clips.
And the newest models of sex robots are creeping closer to the level of “Westworld"-style sex surrogates. A California company called Abyss Creations makes a female sex robot with swappable faces — do you prefer Harmony or Solana? — with an AI-equipped brain that allows the doll to wink, chat and murmur sweet nothings, like some boudoir Siri. (A male version named Henry with a bionic penis is in the works.).
The robots are designed to provide companionship as much as sex, said Matt McMullen, the company’s founder.
“While sex was a component, it wasn’t the only component,” McMullen said. “Part of the experience for them was coming home from a long day at work and the house was not empty anymore. Maybe they would even go as far as to buy her flowers, or set up a mock dinner with the doll.”
For those who cannot afford their own sex android, there are robotic versions of a brothel.
Robo-cathouses are popping up — and in some cases, are being quickly shuttered — in Canada and Europe. One robot brothel in Moscow, for example, charges about $90 for a 30-minute romp with a sexbot (threesomes are also available).
- The New York Times