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Sex Machines: Love In The Age Of Robots

Kate Devlin, who studies human-computer interactions, says we're on the cusp of a sexual revolution driven by robotics and artificial intelligence.
Kate Devlin, who studies human-computer interactions, says we're on the cusp of a sexual revolution driven by robotics and artificial intelligence.

In the summer of 2017, Kate Devlin flew from London to southern California. She rented a Ford Mustang convertible and drove to an industrial park in San Marcos, a city south of Los Angeles. Her destination: Abyss Creations, a company that makes life-size sex dolls. In her new book, Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots, Kate describes the moment she first gazed up close at a life-size silicone woman.

"The detail is incredible," she writes. "My hand skims the ankle. The toes are perfect: little wrinkles on the joints, tiny ridges on the toenails. The sole is crisscrossed with the fine skin lines of a human foot. It's beautiful."

Part of Kate's interest in these dolls comes from their newest incarnations. Sex doll manufacturers are now prototyping models that come equipped with robotics and artificial intelligence. This is right in line with Kate's expertise. She studies human-computer interactions and artificial intelligence at King's College London. Kate says one of the more advanced models she viewed, a robot named Harmony, is programmed to offer both friendship and sex.

"She could do anything from telling you a joke, singing a song for you or propositioning you."

While some critics worry that sex dolls, especially ones with AI, cross a dangerous line, Kate believes much of the criticism comes from a fear of a technological landscape that feels unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

"I think that we have expectations that people have to meet a particular checklist of things in their life ... that you should meet someone and then you should marry them and then have children with them, and these are all very kind of macho normative stances that societies impose. And you know what, if people want to shake that up, I think it's good."

This week on Hidden Brain, we reflect on the narrowing gap between humans and machines. What are the possibilities for deep, intimate relationships with artificial lovers? And does it help if those lovers are beautifully designed to look like human beings, and have the faint glow of empathy and intelligence?

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.