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Advances in robotics and AI bring new concerns to age-old questions about human intimacy

Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots

Kate Devlin
288 pp.
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Sex robots are so hot right now. Robot brothels are popping up around the world, and the sex robot “Harmony” even has her own Tinder profile. (She reportedly matched with dozens of men within hours.) In Turned On, computer scientist Kate Devlin tackles the transition of sex-tech from novelty to just another feature of our technologically enabled environment.

The book is a highly readable romp through the history of computers, robots, and sex toys. In a journalistic and often humorous style, Devlin introduces the technical, social, historical, philosophical, and ethical issues surrounding humanoid sex robots, peppering these discussions with literary, historical, and pop culture references and personal anecdotes.

Turned On focuses on technologies that are currently available or in development. But sex robots are nothing new. They are part of a long history, as revealed in ancient myths, early literature, and archaeological and historical records. Here, Devlin introduces a central theme: the idea that humans have long been fascinated with amorous relations with inanimate objects.

In chapter three, Devlin delves into the origins of the computer, interrogating some classic philosophical arguments about the nature of consciousness; the problem of other minds; and whether or not it might be possible for a machine to feel, think, or be conscious. She is, admittedly, not a philosopher and does not aim to offer more than a cursory discussion of these issues. But I found this somewhat unsatisfying because philosophical assumptions about mentality often inform nonphilosophers’ speculation about artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.

The book is at its best when explaining difficult technical concepts such as machine learning, artificial neural networks, and natural language processing. It also presents memorable examples of how biases are introduced into programmed systems.

After discussing the Turing test, “ELIZA” (the first natural language processing program that could respond to humans conversationally), and the Loebner prize (an award given for programs that can fool humans into thinking they are interacting with another human), Devlin comes to a second major theme: that “a semblance of human-like behavior can be enough for us to assume a degree of sentience.”

Here, she launches into a discussion of love, sex, and attachment from psychological, physiological, anthropological, and neuroscientific perspectives. Canvassing vast swaths of history and anthropology, Devlin includes intriguing tidbits on sexual diversity and the taboos and mores of the past. (In case you ever wondered how many years of penance were required by the Bishop of Worms for the use of a dildo in 1008 AD, for example, the answer is three.) Humans, it seems, can become emotionally attached to all sorts of things—from fish to laptops—and we have no trouble anthropomorphizing and even empathizing with simple animated shapes.

In chapter five, Devlin takes the reader on a behind-the-scenes tour of the sex doll and robot industries, introducing us to designers, entrepreneurs, and avid users (lovers?). She meticulously describes various aspects of sex robot design, ranging from lifelike works of artistry to the mechanical, crude, and tin-voiced. From industry-compiled customer reports, she discovers that users are predominantly male and that they turn to these technologies for a variety of reasons, from sexual experimentation to coping with loneliness.

Next, Devlin engages with some scholarly philosophical works, including David Levy’s 2007 book Love and Sex with Robots. What is love? What defines sex? Could human beings fall in love with machines? Should they?

There are also a range of normative issues surrounding sex robots, including what some perceive as their implicit sexism, concerns about how they might normalize violence against women and children, and questions about how they relate to prostitution and pornography. Here, Devlin raises a host of legal and ethical questions. Should sex robots be used to rehabilitate sex offenders? Should it be illegal to produce childlike sex robots? Do sex robots reinforce harmful stereotypes about women’s bodies or their roles, or the importance of sexual consent? The book offers more questions than answers, leaving me somewhat dissatisfied, once again.

Devlin urges readers to “think outside the bot” in chapter ten, looking to the next generation of engineering and design of sex-tech more broadly. Here, she imagines a future in which a sex robot might have tentacles instead of arms or be molded from sensuous fabrics, rather than from silicone.

“The future of intimacy is not a bleak and isolated vision but a network of connected people who want, as humans have always wanted, to be together,” Devlin writes. Regardless of how one feels about this optimistic attitude (I remain skeptical), Turned On provides the curious reader with an invitation to explore these topics further and a fascinating introduction to the state of sex-tech.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Industrial Engineering and Innovation Sciences, Technical University of Eindhoven, 5612 AZ Eindhoven, Netherlands.