Monday, May 05, 2008

Scott Webb: Robosexuals

Scott Webb
ENG 230: Introduction to Literature


Human sexuality is a basic human drive virtual from cradle to grave. But what about when that sexuality doesn't contain a human, or even sex? What are the possibilities when one's partner is not human but is rather a script, a program, or a machine? Is what results a harmless curiosity, or a threat to what it means to be human? What do we have today, and where are going?

Already, the Internet allows us increased opportunity to replace physical human relations with "virtual" human relations. We replace face to face human conversation with 'IM' based "chats" and rush to sexual conquest with cybersex. Improved technologies such as voice and video conferencing put us in more personal contact with one another (as opposed to a purely text based IM), but they are still abstractions; layers of technology standing between us and our partner(s).

But with anonymity being inherent to the very nature of the medium, there's no promise that the person on the other end is a person at all. Through this anonymity, technology allows us to interact with scripted partners that are programmed to respond to what we say. A well-known old example of this would be the program ELIZA, first written in 1966 by Joseph Weizenbaum (“ELIZA”). Programmed to mimic a Rogerian psychoanalyst, one could carry on limited conversations with ELIZA. While quite frustrating for use in cybersex, a program properly scripted thus could do a lot more, and to a limited degree, have. Already in chat rooms there are ad 'bots' which enter, pretending to be a cute 19/f/ca with pics and a webcam and definitely interested in some sexy chat--so long as you go to her webpage and sign-up (small monthly fee required).

Other programs further these abstractions by giving us a virtual world in which to explore our curiosities. The most popular and comprehensive of these is Linden Resarch’s Second Life®. Here users, controlling digital avatars, can interact with other users doing the same. The opportunities for sexual exploration have not been lost on the residents. Groups relating to bestiality, robot love, BDSM and a number of other fetishes have already sprung up. In the real world, one cannot indulge in their interest with have sex with a hermaphrodite robot with demon wings and a canine penis--or even know they had such an interest. In Second Life®, it becomes a possibility to role play it--complete with visuals. A user is limited only by their imaginations, and the medium. Whatever is possibility within the rules of the abstraction is possible for them (“Second Life”).

What must not be forgotten is what happens is indeed role play, and nothing more. One person is pretending to be the herm robot, or whatever character suits them, and another is pretending to be the other. That doesn't always have to be the case, though. It would not be too large of a leap to have a program controlling the avatar on the other end. The use of doing such is questionable, but not beyond the realm of what is possible even now.

As artificial intelligence and robotic engineering become more and more sophisticated, we will see a growth in the sex industry in this area as well. The abstractions of technology between human and human will end the requirement for another person--and end being abstractions. What starts as scripted programs on one's computer can easily be applied to a programmed robot. For many years science fiction has focused on the idea of sex and relationships involving man and machine. Steven Spielberg's Artificial Intelligence: A.I. had "Gigolo Joe," an android designed to look like a male built for the purposes of sex (Spielberg). Steve De Jarnatt's Cherry 2000 also covered this. In Cherry 2000, Sam Treadwell is a supervisor at a local scrap plant, and is happily coupled with Cherry, his robot "wife." However, in a case of kitchen nookie gone awry, her circuits are fried and Sam is left missing his "love." Although offered his pick of many of this other models Sam is, as the local robot mechanic puts it, a romantic, and must have his Cherry 2000 model. Sam is forced to go into the lawless zones of the desert to find a new model, where instead he meets E. Johnson, a spunky redhead human that catches his heart (Jarnatt).

In this story, relationships in the city are marked by going to various clubs, previewing a woman's "demo" tapes, and then haggling with her lawyer over how long their "relationship" will take place, and what the terms (and price) will be. One might consider it little surprise that Sam prefers his obedient and doting Cherry (interestingly enough, when we first meet E. Johnson, she is wearing a shirt which says "Dignity," as if to put into writing the difference between her and the status quo of modern human relationships and robots) (Jarnatt). While Sam found what he really wanted was a meaningful relationship, one with a human, there's no reason plenty of other men (and women) might be satisfied with a robot. And that is perhaps the real question. Can one love a machine? We can love pets easily enough, and many develop strong affinities for their automobiles. The idea might be scoffed at by some, but is not necessarily beyond reason. In cyberspace, people can develop strong feelings for people they've never met. Just there being a real human on the other end doesn't have to be a big issue, as the facts of that person's existence might not be what they seem, and one's emotions are directed at both that which they cannot see and, ultimately, a lie.

One example of this involves the events surrounding Dr. Sanford Lewis, a psychiatrist who posed as a disabled bisexual woman in online chat rooms. Soon things got out of hand and the truth was discovered. Although the people were genuinely helped by the advice of Dr. Lewis (posing as a woman), they were greatly affected emotionally by the deception. It wasn't the deception in the online sexual role play that angered so many, but the trespassing into the woman’s mental space. Abstractions lay between the parties involved with the cybersex; the thoughts and feelings shared were real (Gray 136).

If these experiences show us anything it is that people have a capacity to “love” and gain sexual pleasure by proxy, or through layers of abstraction. If we can get our kicks without a direct human component, can we get them from machines or, more specifically, robots?

Obviously the answer is yes, for some. Even if one did not have personal experience of such, the answer is in our language as we have words for this phenomenon. Agalmatophilia is an attraction to dolls, mannequins, statues and/or other related objects and can be applied, analogically to robots (“Agalmatophilia”). One need not even pry this deep for proof of our ability to sex it up with machines and enjoy it to; one look at the sex toy market be it dildos, vibrators or synthetic vaginas and blow-up dolls and they will have evidence enough.

What robotic, especially android, partners can offer are a mechanical, non-human humanoid body forms coupled with an artificial intelligence—a dildo that can hold you and talk to you about your day. ELIZA was programmed over 40 years ago and fooled some people who conversed with it into thinking it was a person (Franchi and Güzeldere par. 111). Imagine a system programmed today and uploaded into an android sex doll. Walla! Gigalo Joe and Cherry 2000 are at your service. Combine that with the recently developed technology that allows software to mimic any human voice and you have the chance to talk, and sex up, a deceased love one or a famous celebrity (or at least a robot with their voice). The crossover of emotions in such situations could be tremendous (Frank).

As android programming and physical engineering “progress,” so too will our confusion and inability to tell “them” apart from “us.” In A.I., David found himself (itself?) a captive at a local “Flesh Fest,” a gathering of neo-Luddites who destroyed androids because they resented their encroachment on humanity. In a scene closely resembling movie scenes set in the ancient Roman coliseum in which the crowd begs for mercy for a gladiator, David is spared this fate because his cries for help seemed too real. They thought he was a real boy (Spielberg).

Questions arise from this: What happens when a “couple” are married, yet one of them turns out to be an android? If someone “sleeps with” their own Gigalo Joe, are they cheating on their spouse? If it were a David model, would that be pedophilia, or a pet model bestiality? If one is able to, as unlikely though it may seem, conceive from or impregnate an android, what then? An incubator is a machine that acts as a womb for premature infants. What if that technology “improves” so drastically that the human womb need not be used altogether, similar to the hatching centers in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World?." If synthetic DNA and RNA can be developed to such a level as to create synthetic sperm or a synthetic egg so well that they might fertilize or be fertilized by their human component, what of the offspring?

Questions like this are tackled in the television series remake of Battlestar Galactica. In the series there are Cylons, which are robots created by humans to carry out specific tasks (like tools or appliances). Soon however, in a theme common to scifi stories involving robots, the Cylons gain an “awakening” and begin to have free will and enter into a war with the human race. The original, human designed Cylons have a very mechanical look, mechanical devices, but there are also Cylon designed units which appear human to such a degree that they’ve fooled humans. They have lived with them, made love with them, and are so accurate that they appear human even down to their very DNA. But they are programmed, and questions arise about what is free will and what is programming. Questions also arrive about sex with these human-like Cylon models as well as what is to become of the children when it is found that human and Cylon copulation and produce viable, hybrid offspring. (Eick and Moore).

Our science fiction authors and directors have been addressing these questions for many years, and there is a wealth of concocted situations to study over and reflect on. The questions we ask have special relevance because we are not merely dealing with imaginative science fiction, but more likely are preparing ourselves for what soon will be both amazing and terrifying science fact. As with many moral dilemmas, questions abound while answers remain elusive. So it is with our fictional characters, and so too it will be for us.

Works Cited

“Agalmatophilia.” Agalmatophilia - Definition of Agalmatophilia. 27 May 2007.

Artificial Intelligence: AI. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law. 2001. DVD. Dreamworks. 2001.

Battlestar Galactica. Prod. David Eick, Ronald D. Moore. Perf. Edward James Olmos,
Mary McDonnell, Jamie Bamber. British Sky Broadcasting. Burnaby, 2004.

Cherry 2000. Dir. Steve De Jarnatt. Perf. Melanie Griffith, David Andrews, Ben Johnson, Tim Thomerson. 1987. VHS. Orion Home Video, 1988.

“ELIZA.” FOLDOC: Free On-Line Dictionary of Computing. 9 September 1997

Frank, Robert H. “The Downside of Hearing Whoopi at the Mall.” New York Times. 7
August 2001. 29 April 2008.

Franchi, Stefano and Güzeldere, Güven. “Colorful Personalities.” Constructions of the Mind. Volume 4, Issue 2. 24 July 1995.

Gray, Chris. Cyborg Citizen. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. Cutchogue: Buccaneer Books, 1946.

Second Life. 2008. Linden Research Inc. 29 April 2009 .


Susannity said...

That Second Life pic disturbs me. I think it's because the chars look like something for children yet they are doing a sexual act. On top of that, though I don't have issues with what folks do sexually as long as no one is getting hurt, I feel more and more we are bombarded to lose the intimacy aspects of sex. There are times when sex is animalistic (for me anyway) but there is also times when it is intimate. It just seems we are losing some of that.
A volunteer program I did for awhile involved children at risk (had court involvement in their life but with some mentoring and alternate role models, might choose better paths). I learned all about cutting parties (kids getting together in groups to cut each other) and rainbow parties (kids getting together in groups with girls wearing diff color lipsticks and blowing the teenage bows until they were 'rainbowed') and pharm parties and open bar parties and sex parties. It may be I'm getting old and thinking the younger generation is freaking me out like my parents generation before me. Just seems different to me with the lack of respect for oneself and others in regard to sexuality.

Thivai Abhor said...

These parties you mention are an affect of a consumer society that has turned sex into a product that you consume in a distanced manner without any consideration of the act or the power of the connection.

Sex, whether done randomly with a stranger, intimately with a treasured lover, or communally with an open caring group, is a highly charged act that ignites/initiates erotic power (in a fully magical sense) that transforms us at least in the moment, in now for longer...

The children are imitating the superstore multiple brand flavor of the month try them on and discard the next months model mentality... that is what is sad... we are erotic beings from the time we are born. Young people have always had sexual impulses, what is sad and despicable is that they are channeling it into the consumeristic impulse.

Yeah the second life image is very disturbing and that is why I put it there...