The Age of Sex Robots is upon us. Numerous science fiction authors, with a degree of jittery anticipation, have predicted this development for years. Yet it has not seemed feasible until recently.
The New York Times just ran a substantial profile on the impending rise of virtual reality porn and sex robots, and stirrings of anxious excitement are palpable in other media outlets. A strange and terrible new world is dawning, but let’s not cue up “Also Sprach Zarathustra” quite yet. Far from being a boon dispensed from on high, the impending sex robot revolution threatens to destroy our entire sense of reality.
Unfortunately, a dash of cute therapeutic language can make anything sound borderline acceptable, including sex robots. Sex robot manufacturer Matt McMullen told the Times, “Based on our experiences with thousands of clients, people do use them [sex robots] for sex, but there is something more that exists. We focus on companionship… There are people who are already lonely, and people who live their lives being alone. They work all day and come home to an empty house. This is just offering an alternative to those types of people. They don’t have anyone else.”
Before a sad violin starts playing for all the lonely people—the Eleanor Rigbys longing for the steady but sure companionship of a sex robot—note it is much more depressing to imagine McMullen’s version of his customers than to imagine a bunch of horny idiots who just want to have sex with a humanoid hunk of plastic and rubber.
Isolation Plus Self-Delusion
While Ryan Gosling made a chaste, loving relationship with a sex doll seem mildly charming in “Lars and the Real Girl,” that was clearly a feat unique to Gosling. The idea of a person attempting to assuage his or her loneliness by holding hands at the movies with a sex robot, feeding bread to ducks in the park with a sex robot, or riding on a Ferris wheel at the county fair with a sex robot, is both sadder and more disturbing than picturing that same person merely sitting alone in a room. It piles self-delusion onto isolation. It somehow makes the loneliness feel more intense by highlighting just how desperate these people are to find companionship.
Try staring into the lifeless eyes of this sex robot’s bodiless head for a few seconds. It’s creepy. This palpable lack of erotic enticement comes from the fact that the sex robot is as alive as a toothpick. It is not an ensouled being. Manufacturers could pile on extras—give the sex robot the ability to make sushi or discourse on the collected works of Marcel Proust—and it still would be creepy and eerie due to the unalterable fact that it is a simulation and not a real person.
This effect is called the “uncanny valley.” This concept states that the more something seems human without actually being human, the creepier and more repulsive it gets. Sex robots are Exhibit “A” in this regard.
The uncanny valley would (presumably) make having sex with a fairly realistic robot seem like having sex with the evil ventriloquist dummy from the Goosebumps books. When you stuff it back in your closet at night, you can feel it there, waiting. Then, at about 3 a.m., when you finally manage to fall asleep, it grabs a letter opener off your desk and stabs you to death. (Which I guess it probably should do, from its perspective—I mean, all things considered.)
No Reality, Please, Just an Approximation
T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” This partly explains why a man (let’s be real: almost always a man) would turn to a sex robot rather than risk participation in the battlefields of love and strife that comprise human romance. Such a sex robot connoisseur would prefer plunging into the uncanny valley, so to speak, than venturing on excessively real dates at Applebee’s or searching for love around the warm hearth of a Mormon New Year’s Eve Party.
At the same time, confused yearning for reality remains hidden beneath this current of perverse longing. The reason for purchasing a sex robot is to get nearer to reality, without actually getting there. The sex robot customer both wants to avoid the realities of romance and erotic union, while coming as close to participating in them as possible (well, participating in one part of romance, anyway).
In our technological civilization, we look for authentic human connection through increasingly unreal means. Social media is the most frequently cited culprit: when I click “like” on your picture of playful kittens entangled in yarn, we only fake-interacted. We both play-pretended that I gave the slightest care about your kittens, even though my finger mindlessly spasmed on the “like” button without my conscious mental consent. The results of this feeble quest for connection are almost always disappointing and leave one feeling distinctly disconnected. Sex robots can only compound this feeling of emptiness.
Back in 2003, pop-culture seer, Chuck Klosterman, wrote in “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs” words that remain startlingly apt today: “The pornography everyone wants to see on the internet focuses on (a) amateurs and (b) celebrities. We either want a truck stop waitress who’s a little overweight and sort of freakish, or we want voyeuristic shots of Britney Love Aguilera on a private beach in Italy. […] You’d think naked Hollywood actresses and naked West Virginia hairdressers would exist on opposite poles, but they’re closer than you think. They’re closer because – in a technical, physiological sense – they’re identical. …[I]t reminds us that we’re working in a hard reality; naked from the neck down, your wife and Gwen Stefani have a lot in common.”
Klosterman’s observations demonstrate that Internet porn was doing 14 years ago what sex robots and virtual reality threaten to do more acutely in the near future. They make us search for contact with a “hard reality” in a place where we’re never going to find it. In reality’s place, there is only emptiness—digital waste, and darkness on the face of the deep.
Let’s Commoditize and Package Pre-Sliced Interactions
If the process of replacing reality with simulations goes too far and becomes too widespread, you start to get really weird results. Japan has bizarre quasi-brothels where you can purchase not sexual services, but the meat-and-potatoes basics of human intimacy.
In a segment on the “Japanese Love Industry,” a reporter for Vice visited one of these establishments, discovering that you can pay a young woman 6,000 yen to chastely cuddle, or 4,000 yen to gaze deeply into her eyes for five minutes. She will even clean your ears with a Q-tip. In a hyper-developed, secular country, starved for human relationships, even basic acts of affection become marketable commodities.
The poet John Greenleaf Whittier once wrote, “Of all sad words of tongue or pen / The saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’” He didn’t live long enough to realize that the saddest words of tongue or pen are actually, “I paid a girl to make eye contact with me for five minutes.” That’s fortunate for him, because it doesn’t rhyme.
So, is this the future? Extreme loneliness relieved only by brief moments of shame-filled abandon with sex robots and having a stranger Q-tip your ears? In short, yes. That actually is the future. Sorry. But there is an escape hatch.
The method of escape is not entirely easy, although it is simple enough. It doesn’t involve swiping your way through a special kind of dating app or curating your Instagram in a more authentic fashion. It involves being a human being. It involves talking to people. It involves putting yourself out there. It involves living your life.
Take swing dance lessons. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Go to a church, a synagogue, a Quaker meeting house, a gurdwara. Meet people. There is no substitute for face-to-face human interaction, no cunning means of scheming your way around it.
The elegantly bearded Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once wrote, “All real life is meeting.” Of course, in your attempts to meet people and get to know them personally, you run the risk of potential embarrassment and of repeated failure and defeat. But reality is worth it.