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Excerpt: Sex, Bombs and Burgers: A Smart Slut

While the overwhelming majority of artificial intelligence research is conducted on behalf of the military, some of it is coming from a surprising source: sex-minded criminals. Indeed, if military researchers don't come up with a human-seeming robot intelligence soon, hackers may very well beat them to it.

Internet scams started with spam-the unwanted e-mail, not the meat in a can, that is. As with every other innovation on the internet, the sex industry took quickly to it. Almost from the moment people started sending each other electronic messages, sex purveyors were acquiring e-mail addresses to pitch their products. This resulted in the development of "spiders" that could trawl the web and search for e-mail addresses and viruses that could infect inboxes and send out messages to all listed contacts. In the early days of the web, this sort of spam generally directed people to porn sites, where they would hopefully sign up for some sort of paid service. As anti-spam filters became smarter and stronger, the solicitations took ever-more complex forms. Simple spam morphed into annoying pop-up ads and then into phishing attacks, where a computer is infected by malicious code when the user clicks on a link.



Read part-1 of the 5-part excerpt from Sex, Bombs and Burgers

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In 2005, while I was living in New Zealand, I was nearly taken in by what was then the latest evolution of these scams. I had signed up to Friendster, a social-networking site that served as a precursor to the likes of MySpace and Facebook, and created a profile with all the standard information-my place of birth, age, interests and the like. While planning a visit home to Canada, I received a message from "Jen." She said she had read my profile and was interested in becoming a journalist and asked if I wanted to catch a Blue Jays baseball game when I was back in Toronto. Being a single guy at the time, I couldn't believe my luck-not only had someone actually read my profile, she also shared the same interests. I checked out Jen's profile and everything looked to be in order, so I replied and asked her to send more details about herself. She answered with a link to her website, saying there was information there. I followed the link and, sure enough, it was a site that required a paid membership to enter-clearly a well-disguised porn site. The jig was up.

After some Googling, I learned that many other men had been fooled by the same ruse. "Jen" had a different name every time, but "she" used the same script with individualized alterations gleaned from Friendster profiles. It turns out Jen was a sophisticated "bot" that was programmed to automatically scrub profiles for personal details, then try to pass itself off as a human in messages to users. Nobody ever did track down where that particular bot originated. I managed to trace the porn website as registered to a law firm in Australia, but my calls there were never returned (Jen must have met someone else).

Read part-2 of the 5-part excerpt from Sex, Bombs and Burgers



The Friendster scam was small potatoes compared to the Slutbot, also known as "CyberLover," that made the rounds on dating websites in 2007. The "flirting robot" was a piece of software developed by Russian hackers that could establish relationships online with ten different people in just thirty minutes. The program, which could be configured into several versions ranging from "romantic lover" to "sexual predator," could carry on full conversations and convince people to reveal personal information by asking questions like, "Where can I send you a Valentine's Day card?" or "What's your date of birth? I'm planning a surprise for your birthday."



Security specialists said the artificial intelligence built into the software was good enough that victims had a tough time distinguishing the bot from a real suitor. "As a tool that can be used by hackers to conduct identity fraud, CyberLover demonstrates an unprecedented level of social engineering," one security analyst said. "Internet users today are generally aware of the dangers of opening suspicious attachments and visiting URLs, but CyberLover employs a new technique that is unheard of. That's what makes it particularly dangerous. It has been designed as a robot that lures victims automatically without human intervention." (My emphasis added.)

The phenomenon provoked some bloggers to declare that the Turing test, devised by legendary British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing in 1950, had finally been beaten. Under Turing's test, a computer intelligence must fool a human judge-who is actively trying to determine whether it is in fact a machine-into believing it is a human. By some measures, CyberLover had beaten the test, but as other bloggers pointed out, "studies show that when people enter a state of sexual arousal their intelligence drops precipitously." Moreover, many of CyberLover's victims were likely hoping it was a real person, and anyone in a state of sexual arousal is in no state to notice that the instigator of their excitement happens to be a computer. While CyberLover may not have truly beaten the Turing test, it came close enough to provoke discussion.

Such online scams are certain to improve, especially since hacking has morphed in recent years from simple teenage mischief into a big profit-driven business. "They're really running it like a Fortune 100 company," says Dean Turner, global intelligence director for security giant Symantec. "Criminals are fundamentally lazy. They want to do the least amount of work to get the most financial gain. If that means they have to devote time and resources to working with groups who are working on things like artificial intelligence, they're probably going to do that."

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Porn You Can Feel

Disembodied artificial intelligences in the cyber-ether are great, but what happens when such programs can get up off the computer and walk around? The answer is obvious: sex robots. But before we get there, a few pieces of the hardware puzzle need to fall into place. The first piece comes from experimenters like Scott Coffman, who is what you might call a serial entrepreneur. The West Virginia native has in his lifetime drawn comics, published a board game, sold herbal supplements, invented paint-ball guns for kids and created the " Growl Towel," a small cloth waved by fans at Carolina Panthers football games. After dabbling in internet porn for a few years, he finally found his calling when he launched the Adult Entertainment Broadcast Network [NSFW]in 1999. The site took the innovative step of charging visitors for the porn they viewed on a per-minute basis, rather than the flat monthly fee most of its competitors charged. The approach worked amazingly well-AEBN has since grown into one of the busiest paid porn websites. Coffman says AEBN has about four hundred thousand paid customers a month, brings in about $100 million in revenue a year and is the world's biggest video-on-demand company, in or outside of porn.



It's no surprise, then, that Coffman believes entrepreneurship and innovation are the solutions to weathering the downturn in the porn business. To that end, he launched the Real Touch [NSFW]sex toy in 2009 as his company's play against the encroachment of free online content. The Real Touch is about the size of a toaster, but it has the contours of a woman's hips, which comes in handy because the device is meant to be stuck and held on the penis. The inside is lined with warmed soft silicon that is moistened by a lubricant dispenser to simulate the feel of a vagina. Motors inside the Real Touch move in sync to specially coded movies, which can be viewed online when the device is connected to a computer. The $200 device is the latest in "teledildonics," sex toys that can interact with a computer, and Coffman is promoting it as the natural next step in porn. "Once you add the sense of touch to whatever that girl is doing to that guy in the movie, that's well worth paying for. That is the evolution of what adult entertainment should be."

The Real Touch uses something called haptic technology to introduce the sensation of touch to what is primarily a visual experience. It's not unlike the force feedback found in Xbox and Playstation controllers, or even in your cellphone when it's set to "vibrate." A haptic device uses sensors to detect when it is touching something, then relays that information back to its user, usually in the form of a subtle vibration, thus creating the sensation of touching something remotely. Like the porn industry, mainstream Hollywood is considering haptics as a way of creating an experience that can't be pirated. Montreal-based D-BOX Technologies, for one, is now rolling out motion-synced chairs to movie theatres in the United States and Canada. (The company also sells them for home use.) Watching a car chase, for example, takes on a whole new dimension as the D-BOX chair rollicks and rolls in sync with the action on screen.

Non-entertainment concerns such as Quanser, another Canadian company based just north of Toronto, are also experimenting with haptics in fields such as surgery. Whereas traditional robotic arms allow operators to lift and manipulate objects, they are essentially lumbering oafs that don't convey any sense of "feel" and are ill-suited for precise or sensitive tasks. Quanser, which also builds unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for the military, has designed an arm that uses haptic force-feedback technology in its fingers to relay the sense of touch back to its operator, who can "feel" what the arm feels using a bar-like control apparatus. I tried Quanser's hand at a robotics show in Boston, where I poked a surface with a pencil held in its grip, and it felt amazingly real. Haptic-enhanced robotics hold a world of promise, not only for surgery but also in the field of artificial limbs. Amputees have good reason to hope that they will soon be able to replace lost limbs with fully functional, "feeling" replicas. Such arms are indeed on the way, as we'll find out in the next chapter.

The other piece of the sex-robot hardware puzzle comes from companies such as California-based Abyss Creations, which began selling the Real Doll [NSFW]in 1996. While sex dolls in various forms have been used since at least the seventeenth century, the Real Doll reached a new level of technological sophistication. Using "Hollywood special effects technology" to create an amazingly lifelike female doll, complete with articulated steel skeleton and soft silicone outer layer for that "ultra flesh-like feel," the company is now selling about 350 dolls a year at $6,500 a pop. As of 2009 Abyss offered sixteen different female models, some of which were indistinguishable from real women, at least in the photos. The company also offered a male version, "Charlie," but "retired" him in 2009, with a new model in development. The dolls, of course, have all the necessary sexual openings-or appendages in Charlie's case-and can be customized upon ordering. Those who can afford them have raved about their efficacy. "Best sex I ever had! I swear to God! This Real Doll feels better than a real woman!" exclaimed radio shock jock and sex aficionado Howard Stern.

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Abyss's success spawned a wave of imitators, both in the United States and beyond. In Japan, the sex doll business was already well established, largely because of a different cultural attitude toward such objects. While most Westerners think of sex with dolls as odd, creepy or pathetic, the phenomenon is considered far more normal in Japanese society. Japan has long accepted the standard reasons for having a sex doll-it can provide entertainment for men separated from their spouses for long periods of time and thus prevent marital infidelity, or act as an outlet for those who are unable to have sex with women for various reasons, such as physical issues or simple social ineptitude. Indeed, Japanese scientists achieved media fame in the sixties when they took inflatable sex dolls with them to the nation's research station in Antarctica. There are even, believe it or not, brothels in Japan where customers can pay to have sex with dolls.

The biggest sex doll maker, Orient Industry, sells about fifty a month, priced between $1,300 and $6,900, and exports them to Asia, Europe and the United States. Moreover, the company says the business is starting to go mainstream. "We aren't targeting 'otaku' or people with a doll fetish," a company manager says. "That boom has come and gone. Now we are getting a lot of healthy, normal people."

Tomorrow: "I Can Reprogram Her ... to Like It"

The realistic body of the Real Doll, the haptic feedback of the Real Touch, the artificial intelligence of the SlutBot, the humanoid movement abilities of Honda's ASIMO-add them all up and you could have a decent sex robot.

From Sex, Bombs and Burgers by Peter Nowak. Copyright Peter Nowak, 2010. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Group (Canada)

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About the Author

Peter Nowak has been writing about technology for 20 years, with a focus on trends and how they affect the world. He worked at The Globe and Mail between 1997 and 2004 before moving to China and then New Zealand, where he won the award for best technology reporter at the New Zealand Herald. More

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