Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots

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By Kate Devlin.
Published by Bloomsbury Sigma.

In 2005 an 8in stone phallus was discovered in a cave in Germany. It was not the first archaeological artificial penis to be excavated, but computer scientist and author Kate Devlin believes that, at 28,000 years old, it is “one of the oldest”. What she finds more amusing is that the dildo might have been invented over 20,000 years before the wheel. 

Her first book charts the long history of the world of sex toys and “companions”. Devlin reminds us that Ovid’s story of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with his female ivory carving, was also one of the earliest examples of agalmatophilia — the sexual attraction to a doll, statue or mannequin. She goes on to cite 11 more examples of “statue sex” from the classics, all listed in a 1975 academic paper she unearthed that was charmingly entitled Perversions Ancient and Modern. 

This just about sums up what to expect from Turned On, a fact-filled romp that reveals that having sex with inanimate objects is far from a uniquely modern indulgence. “If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from my background in archaeology, it’s that human behaviour isn’t all that changeable,” Devlin writes. 

Industrialisation and our continued preoccupation with sex has turned the sculptures of yesteryear into the sex dolls and toys of today. But what of the ethics and taboos of having a “relationship” with these objects? Devlin concedes that throughout history, and until the present day, patriarchal society has deemed this more acceptable if you had a phallus of your own. In the 2013 Spike Jonze film Her, it certainly wasn’t a lonely woman who fell in love with her operating system. 

Devlin takes against her colleague Dr David Levy’s prediction in his 2007 book Love and Sex with Robots that we’ll all be marrying them by 2025, and is instead more interested in the likelihood of being surrounded by “machines that might one day care for us and about us”. 

Yet at the heart of her book lies the frustration that there are no credible walking, talking sex robots out there today, only sex dolls. 

Filling the void are a handful of manufacturers in China, Japan and the United States, some of whom Devlin visits in a chapter entitled Silicone Valleys. 

Here we meet Harmony (RRP $10,000) from RealDolls in California, who can turn her head, blink and move her lips to speak in a soft Scottish accent, but is literally dead from the neck down. She will arrive in an unlabelled crate — it’s suggested that neighbours are told she’s a “grandfather clock”. 

Samantha is more lively. The product of a Spanish engineer called Sergi Santos, she has 11 sensors embedded in her body and boasts six modes, ranging from Family to Romantic to Sexual. 

Will more sophisticated iterations of Sam and co one day mean an end to human relationships? 

Again, Devlin thinks not. She believes the current “hyper-sexualised gynoids” will constitute a small market (of frankly sad and lonely men) and that “it seems more believable that care and companion robots could in the future have their intrinsic purpose extended to include sexual functions”. 

For anyone interested in both sex and tech, Turned On is illuminating, witty and written with a wide open mind. Its audience is doubtlessly one curious to know if sex with a robot legally constitutes adultery (it doesn’t) or if Westworld — the hit TV series set in a futuristic park where robotic “hosts” act out the visitors’ fantasies — is achievable any time soon (it’s not). 

Because the truth is this: a roundworm has 302 neurons or nerve cells. A cat has about 760m. We humans have 86 billion. “We don’t even fully understand the nervous system of the poor roundworm with their mere 302 neurons,” writes Devlin. “There is simply no way we can currently mimic all the vast complexities of the human brain in a computer.” 

There isn’t a robot in the world that can currently make you a cup of tea, negotiate the stairs and deliver it to you in bed, never mind the trickier ask of facilitating a female orgasm. 

For the foreseeable future it’s back to our human sex lives, however animated — or robotic — they may be. 

Jackie Annesley