The sex robot has arrived, but why is she female?

Kate Devlin maps the history of the sexbot 


A recent article in the Evening Standard describing how robots might someday take our jobs mentioned there were currently ‘plenty of robots in the sex industry’. Ah, that it were true! The reality, however, is that although we have long dreamed of artificial lovers, we are still some way from seeing those wishes fulfilled. 

Our perception of the sex robot as an alluring, seductive, attractive woman is fuelled by years of influence from sci-fi books and films. It goes much further back than that though: right back to the ancient Greeks. Classicist Dr Genevieve Liveley from the University of Bristol has studied the origins of the fembot and explains how the earliest story we have is of Pandora who, according to the poet Hesiod, was the first human woman to be made by the gods. We now know her for her box (which was a jar, by the way - that was an error in translation) but Liveley says Pandora can actually be viewed as the first of the sex robots - a created human figure gifted with an artificial intelligence (AI). Referred to as a “beautiful evil”, she was the manifestation of feminine guile, the temptress analogous to the biblical Eve. 

The robot Maria in Metropolis

In today’s popular culture it all starts with Maria, the character in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis. Maria, the beautiful heroine, brings hope to the exploited workers with visions of a better future, but her prophecies unnerve the leader of the city and he orders a Maschinenmensch - a robot double of Maria - to deceive the proletariat. Maria’s beauty and passion are central to the plot and at one point Robot Maria performs as an exotic dancer. She is said to be the first portrayal of a robot in film and her introduction sows the modern seeds of the widely recognised, beautiful but dangerous gynoid - the robot in female form.  Gynoids are designed to play to cultural stereotypes, generally taking an eroticised form - shapely, sexy and obedient. There’s an essence of the femme fatale about some of them too - the perfect woman but with the underlying potential for danger. We see the gynoid appear across the decades: The Stepford Wives in the 1970s, Weird Science in the 1980s, Eve of Destruction in the 1990s, Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the 2000s, and the Westworld reboot of 2016, In each, perfect artificial women are built by men as companions and lovers. Is it any wonder we expect the real robotic technology to go the same way? 

Interestingly, the writer Isaac Asimov, whose seminal science fiction inspired countless authors, did not attribute sex or sexuality to the robotic creations in his stories. Although the majority of robots had masculine names, he claims this was no comment on robotic gender. (This interestingly reflects the sexist assumptions that feed into the technology we use today and which male developers tell us makes no comment on the users’ gender. Unconscious bias has a lot to answer for.) So why do we see this emphasis on the gynoid? Why are male robots - androids - so thin on the ground as sex robots? The 2001 Spielberg film, A.I., featured Gigolo Joe, a male sex worker robot programmed with the ability to mimic love, but society mostly expects the robot to be female, despite the preponderance of sex toys designed for women. 


Lovebots Ashley Scott and Jude Law in A.I. Artifi cial Intelligence

The rise of digital assistants like Siri, Cortana and Amazon’s Echo all have one thing in common: they were originally designed to have a female voice. If you ask Alexa about her gender she’ll tell you that she’s female in character. It’s true that it’s hard to design a genderless voice when the voices used are intended to sound human - but maybe we should be ethically and morally obliged to rethink that. And if we ought to rethink our digital assistants, let’s also rethink our sex robots. 

If you want to buy a sex robot today, your choices are limited. Most widely known are those created by the American company, Abyss Creations. Their RealDolls (“The World’s Finest Love Dolls!”), are the state of the art in artificial lovers. The company has been producing RealDolls since 1996 and are currently in the process of adding AI to them. With customisable genitals, swappable faces and newly added digital personalities, you can create your own proto-sex-robot to suit your specification - provided you have upwards of $10,000 to pay for it. New Jersey company TrueCompanion offer Roxxxy, a life-size doll with synthetic skin and an AI engine primed to learn the owner's likes and dislikes. Douglas Hines, the engineer who designed and built Roxxxy, claims he’s had over 4,000 orders for his doll - but no one seems to have received one yet. Roxxxy, he says, comes programmed with several personalities, from wild to kinky to naïve. The website banner image of a beautiful (human) woman arching her back in pleasure is somewhat incongruent with the actual photos of Roxxxy’s features, which resemble a 1980s shop sale mannequin. This is the reality of the current sex robot.

Angela Sarafyan as a programmed prostitute in Westworld rebooted

The gendered, stereotyped and clichéd options we have today don’t have to dictate that this is what a sex robot must be like. In fact, we have wonderful materials, technologies and opportunities that move us into new and more interesting territory. Advances in human-computer interaction mean we can communicate with technology via touch, speech, gesture  and even our brain waves. We can stream data from our bodies to give us instantaneous readings of our skin responses, heart rate, muscle movement and facial expressions. We have at our disposal a wonderful and exciting range of smart fabrics, conductive paint, soft robotics, and sensors. Let’s build a robot that we can stroke or fuck; a robot that can respond to our caresses and touch us back. Why not one made of velvet or silk? Or something abstract, smooth, sinuous and beautiful? We can create technology that, à la William Morris, we know to be useful and believe to be beautiful. The world of the sex robot is intrinsically linked to the world of sex technology and there are collaborations to be forged, ideas to be crafted, and designs to be shaped. Let’s think outside the box. 

This article appeared in the May issue of The Amorist

Kate Devlin is a senior lecturer in the Department of Computing at Goldsmiths, University of London, as well as a campaigner for mental health issues, gender equality and women in tech

My most beautiful of all little blue grey mouse catching, pearly bottomed, creamy-thighed, soft-waisted mewing rat-pursuers! Letter from Peter Pears to Benjamin Britten, 1941