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Metal Fingers in My Body: Interview with David Levy, Author of “Love + Sex With Robots”

December 27th, 2007 by Jeff Simmermon

Robin -  Fetal Positioned Red Head Freckled Jazz Singer With Bar

A few months ago, I saw David Levy give a presentation based on his new book “Love + Sex With Robots” at the Museum of Sex in Manhattan. While the presentation had a pretty interesting premise, I had so many questions afterwards and could’ve run roughshod over the Q&A session.

I bought the book and read it for myself, and just like the presentation it left me wanting so much more. Levy lays his belief that one day, people will have sex with robots, out like a master’s thesis that drops every idea down brick by thudding brick, cementing with precedent and detail in a way that makes you believe him while thinking “alright already, I get it. Where’s the fun stuff?” I have no problem buying the fact that pleasure robots are on the horizon … what I want to know is how they’re going to fit in, how society will change.

The book’s been talked about in a number of places online since Levy’s presentation. Wired, MSNBC, and The Globe and Mail have all done pieces on the book and its premise. I tend to agree the most with Joel Achenbach’s recent review in the Washington Post’s book section, but in all of this chatter, something’s been missing.

David Levy was kind enough to grant me an e-mail interview for this blog in an attempt to scratch my itching curiosity. The interview follows, after the jump …

It could be argued that the written word destroyed short/long-term memory and computers are outsourcing human intelligence to the extent that we cannot think or remember without them. What essentially human traits do you envision future sexbots changing forever?

I believe that sexbots will change our perceptions of human relationships, and in some ways we will become more demanding with respect to what we want from a human partner. This is not entirely a good thing. If someone has great sex with their robot, they will want the sex with their human partners to be great as well, which could lead to disappointment. On the other hand, sexbots will be excellent tutors, so people will be able to be taught the skills necessary in a great lover.

Obviously, not everyone will be able to afford robots for sex straight away and top-of-the-line ones will undoubtedly command top dollar. One could conclude from your book that we will one day live in a world where robots designed for sexual pleasure are very commonplace. Do you think there is room for the poor in this vision?

Eventually, yes. You are quite right of course about what will happen in the early days of sexbots ñ very few people indeed will be able to afford to buy one. But the robots-for-hire business model will work. As more and more people experience robot sex and communicate their experiences to their friends, and in the media, so the demand will increase and the price will drop. ìEventuallyî is a very long time, but consider television ñ in the early days very few could afford it, but nowadays some homes have 3, 4 or more TVs.

Your book implies that robots designed to love and sexually gratify humans will greatly reduce, if not eradicate human loneliness. Do you think that is the case or are loneliness and dissatisfaction inevitably part of the human condition? Do you think that those feelings can be eradicated or changed? How?

To a large extent I believe that loneliness and dissatisfaction are now part of the human condition because they have become so, and therefore I believe they can be largely eradicated. I feel that this particular argument is difficult to refute. If someone is lonely because they have no-one to talk to, no-one to love, no-one to love them, then surely if those deficits are removed from their lives then these people will become much happier, their lives much richer. Pet animals have been found to have this effect, so why not robots who have the additional ability (relative to pet animals) to speak, listen and make intelligent and emotion-ridden conversation?

People buy used laptops and iPods all the time — but on the other, the secondhand market for vibrators, butt plugs and other sex toys is nil. Do you foresee much of a secondhand/refurbished market for sexbots?

An interesting question that Iíve never been asked and never considered before this interview. I find it difficult to answer this because I just donít know. On the one hand, as I point out in my book, STDs will be transmitted via badly kept sexbots ñ my book gives an example that occurred via a sex doll. But if the depreciation rate is anything like that for motor cars, then presumably there will be a secondhand market for reasons of cost.

I find RealDolls (and the people that use them) to be utterly creepy. While the Keepon is cute and a great dancer, it doesn’t exactly turn me on either. How do you envision sexbots overcoming the “uncanny valley” phenomenon?

Personally I do not have much faith in the uncanny valley. The original publication on this topic (dating from 1970) was not based on any empirical research ñ it was more an intuitive feeling expressed by Masahiro Mori that has since been hyped into an assumption of fact. And recently another Japanese roboticist wrote that the uncanny valley has already been crossed. So if there was such an obstacle, there probably isnít any more. That is my pragmatic answer to your question. But looking behind your question, you raise an important point about what is needed in robotics development to ensure that no such antipathy exists on a large scale. I believe the answer will be the creation of very humanlike, lifelike robots. In my book I give the example of the waxwork at Madame Tussaudís. When robots become that lifelike in their actions as well as in their appearance, that will answer your real question.

Is it ethical for an adult to have sex with a sexbot designed to look like a child but programmed to “perform” like an experienced adult? Why?

I believe that it is ethical provided that the reason is [a] to attempt to cure the adult of their deviance; and/or [b] to attempt to stop them, even though they might not be cured, from going after children. Apart from these cases I can see no other reason.

Would you personally use one of these robots?

I would certainly experiment with one, to find out what it was like — how much like the real thing.

Would your wife?

Probably not — she is not interested in anything of a technological nature.

Would she mind if you used one? Surely you’ve talked about it by now …

Actually, no, because it is purely hypothetical since they do not yet exist.

I ask because I was talking about this with my girlfriend, who, had she found one of these in my closet in the early stages of our relationship, would have hailed a cab and never seen me again.

She says that, but why? Has she never used a vibrator? And if she has, why does she think that you shouldn’t have left her immediately you found out?

To what extent do you think sex robots and their primal pre-cursors, Real Dolls, actually PREVENT people from forming healthy, normal relationships?

I don’t believe they would do so at all, because it is part of human nature for (almost) all of us to form normal human relationships. But a number of interviewers have asked this or similar questions, so clearly many people are wondering about this. Perhaps I’m too much of an optimist, but I see sex robots as being hugely beneficial for society.

Porn culture has pretty well infused pop culture at this point — clothing is more provocative, we see stories about porn stars on the news, and elements once relegated to porn films have entered the mainstream. According to your book, a similar wave will permeate mass culture when robots reach popular acceptance. What sorts of things do you think might catch on or wind their way into the popular consciousness once sexualized robots become mainstream?

The idea of sex with robots being normal, and something we can talk about in polite conversation. There was a time when sex would never have been a major topic in a dinner party conversation between a group of couples, and that was reflected in the lack of sex on TV and in mainstream media at that time. But ideas change, moral values change, and nowadays there is little or no embarrassment in talking about sex. So when people start to have sexual experiences with robots in big numbers, I expect the subject to become mainstream, and therefore the idea will become normal.

This is a little broad, but I’m curious to see how you might finish this story:

A group of adolescent boys finds a working, discarded secondhand sexbot and keep it in their treehouse/shed in the woods, much like some of us oohed and aahed over a crinkled stolen Penthouse in the days before internet porn. Difference being, they actually take turns using the thing. What are the moral implications? Is this a positive experience? A negative one?

They are learning about sex. I do not see anything morally wrong in adolescents learning about sex.

Last night I lay beached and gasping on my girlfriend’s bed, blissfully tripping on oxytocin and watching paramecium-shaped fireworks explode on the back of my eyellds. “What are you thinking,” she asked, smiling and handing me a glass of water. “Nothing at all, for once,” I said.

What I was really thinking was:

The day this can be reliably faked is the day that humans are obsolete.

I have no idea why I couldn’t say that out loud.

Hey, techie people — see that Digg button up there? You’re supposed to be able to press it and Digg this story up, right. Well, if that button reads 0 (zero), it’s broken. Again. When I go in to fix the code, multiple slash marks appear in the link that seem to hose the thing. I delete ‘em and save — it works for a while and then breaks again. I’m doing this in Firefox, with WordPress, on a Mac. If any of you know how to fix this or prevent it, please, PLEASE let me know in the comments.

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