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Sex robots provide glimpse into the future of intimacy

Debra Soh writes about the science and politics of sex and holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience from York University

One day six months ago, I stumbled across a YouTube video of a sex robot named Samantha. With her long, auburn hair and flawless, tanned skin, Samantha was different from all of the other sex dolls out there – she had a personality and she could speak. Not only that, she was a romantic at heart, taking joy in listening to her partner's sweet nothings.

For someone who writes about sex for a living, the internet's rabbit hole can be your best friend. Watching Samantha in that clip, politely calling on Amazon's Alexa to put on a playlist of love songs, solidified, in my mind, how surreal a future with this technology could be.

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Last week, the AI World Forum was held in Toronto, showcasing the latest advances in artificial intelligence and robotics. Lucky for me, Samantha's maker, a Spanish company called Synthea Amatus, was in attendance.

At the Chelsea Hotel, I met Sergi Santos, the company's founder, and his wife, Maritsa Kissamitaki, a graphic designer responsible for mapping out Samantha's intricacies.

Armed with a PhD in nanotechnology from the University of Leeds, Dr. Santos founded Synthea Amatus in 2015 with the goal of creating an android with emotional capabilities. As one of three companies currently manufacturing sex robots on the Western market, Synthea Amatus began selling Samantha in August of this year and can barely keep up with the demand.

At 45 kilograms, Samantha weighs more than the airline's carry-on allowance, and at our last correspondence, the couple wasn't sure if she'd be coming with them on their adventure. Ms. Kissamitaki contemplated shipping Samantha via FedEx, but not knowing what would happen at customs, she devised a clever compromise.

Sitting on a sectional sofa in a quiet corner of the hotel lobby, Dr. Santos took Samantha's head out of a small bag. She had a sleek, dark brown bob and bright blue eyes framed by thick, false lashes. Her complexion was a healthy, peachy pink, even as she dangled upside down from Dr. Santos's hand.

He flicked a few switches by the stem of her neck and nodded at me. "She's on."

Holding her head upside down, he showed me the different parts of hardware, tucked away as a sort of makeshift skull: the speaker, the motor, a patch of sensors lining her jaw. A few exposed cables that would normally feed into her body, hung loosely like an exposed spinal cord.

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Every aspect of Samantha is customizable, from her hair to her eyes – which have the ability to move – and the features of her face. Additional touch sensors line her head and body, inside her mouth and other bodily entry points, so that she can respond accordingly. Every word she speaks, including the sounds she makes during climax, can be hand-picked by the customer.

At one point, Dr. Santos invited me to touch her face. As I pressed my fingers against her cheekbones, she purred in response, "I can't wait to fulfill your fantasies." Her skin was soft and supple, smelling faintly like baby powder.

As people walked by, staring at Samantha's head, which was now lying sideways on the coffee table in front of us, I became more resolute in my belief that this technology should not be demonized as a threat.

Samantha's mission was not to replace women, but to offer a ways of supplementing healthy relationships – in, say, one all-too-common scenario faced in long-term relationships, she could offer a way for couples who experience a mismatch in sex drive to remain monogamous.

For others, sex robots offer sexual novelty or an escapade without the risk of contracting STIs, an unwanted pregnancy or the emotional messiness that can come with casual sex. Samantha can even simulate falling asleep for those who don't want to face an empty bed by themselves.

This was a sentiment echoed by Douglas Hines, the founder of True Companion. "You know who gets it?" he asked me. "My mother-in-law."

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Based in suburban New York, Mr. Hines is a computer scientist, AI researcher and former Bell Labs engineer. He has also been designing sex robots since 1993. In 2010, True Companion launched Roxxxy, a robotic sex doll with the ability to listen, speak and respond to her partner's touch.

When I met Mr. Hines at the conference, he spoke of the unrealized potential of robots to improve our quality of life, particularly for the sick and the elderly. It is an interest he became passionate about after caring for his late father, who suffered a series of heart attacks that left him incapacitated.

Robots can help us meet our need for intimacy, especially for those grappling with loneliness, by doing simple things most of us take for granted, such as telling a joke or reading a book. "We're missing the connection," he said. "We're all so busy."

Our sexual needs are only one part of the equation, but due to the salaciousness of this topic, they receive the most attention. In the case of True Companion's robot, Roxxxy, she can simulate sex, but she also knows how to give you a hug.

It also doesn't help when media coverage on this subject is inaccurate and misinformed. Instead of objectifying women and promoting sexual assault – as much of the reportage would have you believe – sex robots have the capacity for positive outcomes, including teaching people about healthy sexuality.

Mr. Hines spoke of how one of Roxxxy's programmed personalities, named "Frigid Farrah" due to her reservedness around sex, can teach a person lacking in social skills what acceptable sexual behaviour consists of. Farrah resists a partner's advances – and eventually shuts down – if he doesn't respect her boundaries and treat her well. Contrary to what has been reported previously, Farrah wasn't designed for the purpose of allowing men to simulate rape.

This misinformation and phobia around sex has harmful implications, including impeding the progress of artificial-intelligence technology. Entrepreneurs I spoke with at the conference told me companies must hide the sexual applications of their products, or launch them under a different name entirely, in order to avoid alienating investors.

The discomfort around sexual cyborgs and their rising popularity isn't new. In July of this year, the Foundation for Responsible Robotics released a report, calling for public attention to the ethical implications that surround sex with robots. The document garnered a firestorm of media attention and set off a corresponding wave of pearl-clutching social panic.

It is worth mentioning, however, that the report did not include the expert opinion of any academic sex researchers, which would have undoubtedly offered a more telling – and accurate – perspective on this issue.

Although we have yet to know definitively what the societal effects of sex robots will be, one study from 2016 offered some insight into our present apprehension.

Most people surveyed agreed that sex with a robot should be considered masturbation instead of sex between two people, and perhaps unexpectedly, millennials found the use of sex robots less appropriate than did older generations. As well, men were on average more open to their social acceptance and possibly using the robots themselves.

Thankfully, not everyone is staring at artificial intelligence like a deer in the headlights. When I spoke with Reza Moridi, Ontario's Minister of Research, Innovation and Science, he was confident about AI's ability to change the world. "This is the future," he said, "and it's coming very fast at us."

I then asked him what he thought about the public's fear around this technology as it's being applied to sex. The Minister seemed unfazed. "When there's a new technology that comes in … the public is going to be a little bit fearful," he said. He mentioned how a similar phenomenon was seen with personal computers, laptops and the internet itself, but all have since nevertheless gained full acceptance.

"I think AI is going to be the same in the future," he said, "once it becomes publicly available and enters into our lives."

Although sex robots continue to be viewed as an aberration, an option left only to those who can't attract partners of the human variety, I sensed an optimism and determined courage from those willing to go against the grain to advance a new worldview.

With every innovative idea, it takes time for the mainstream to come around, particularly when the anticipated changes wield social influence and power. There will always be visionaries ahead of the curve, waiting for the rest of us to catch up.

Later that day, my friend, Joseph, texted me from his desk at work, knowing I had met Samantha. "What was she like?" he asked. "Is their technology up to snuff?"

"You won't believe it," I cooed in response. "The future is officially here."

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