Home Culture Loving the Algorithm: How the Future of Sex Lies in Artificial Intelligence

Loving the Algorithm: How the Future of Sex Lies in Artificial Intelligence

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Illustration by Sarah Maxwell

By Lynsey G.

For those of us who greet the future of artificial intelligence with a mix of excitement and dread, 2017 was a minefield. In June, Facebook’s Artificial Intelligence Research team reported that two of their AI agents had developed their own language, indecipherable to humans, and had to be reprogrammed to stick to English. In July, Tesla CEO Elon Musk warned the National Governors Association that AI poses “a fundamental existential risk for human civilization.” Blade Runner 2049 hit theaters in October, serving up strained feelings about human-android relationships. And in November, a Newsweek headline warned, “U.S. Is Losing to Russia and China in War for Artificial Intelligence.”

But AI isn’t only prominent in entertainment, social networking and the military. The sex industry has been keeping pace with AI innovation, too. In early January 2018, porn streaming site xHamster reported a near 100-percent increase in search frequency on the site for sex dolls from 2016 to 2017. This may have been in response to the news last spring that the makers of the RealDoll—a sex doll that’s been on the market for years—unveiled Harmony, an AI-powered sex robot. Predictably, most media coverage suggested the inevitable replacement of humans with sexbots. Cue concerns over us approaching Skynet.

Not so fast, says Matt McMullen, the creator of the RealDoll. At this point, the Harmony AI is only “an app that we’ve developed that allows a user to select from a group of personality traits,” McMullen tells me. “Based on which traits you choose to be more dominant, your interactions with the AI will be different.” Although Harmony is paired with a sex doll, McMullen stipulates that “sexuality is only one of the traits that are available…The sex part is a very small piece of what we’re actually trying to do. This is really a lot more about companionship.” In that regard, Harmony AI sounds more closely aligned to the device in Her versus Ex Machina.

There’s a long way to go before Harmony’s AI interface can become a fully functional companion, though. Right now, Harmony-enabled bots can only move their heads from side to side, their eyelids up and down, and their mouths for speaking; their bodies remain inanimate (aside from a self-lubrication feature that was rolled out just in time for the 2017 holiday season). The AI isn’t even onboard yet; users must utilize a tablet to communicate with Harmony—a somewhat clunky interface for a companion. “The current iteration of Harmony has only one sense for perceiving the world, and that’s hearing,” says McMullen.

Hearing was also the basis for another development in sex-industry AI. In the aftermath of the panic over Facebook’s AI agents inventing their own language, xHamster announced in August that it was doing the exact opposite with its own AI. In a press release, the company wrote, “xHamster is incentivizing its AI bots to create a new language utilizing sound bites [sic] from the content users have uploaded to xHamster. All that moaning and groaning could soon mean something besides sweet love making, it will help create a better experience for users.” The press release was accompanied by a cacophonic clip of the audio the agents were learning from.

“The sex part is a very small piece of what we’re actually trying to do. This is really a lot more about companionship.”

Mike Stabile, a spokesperson for xHamster, tells me that the audio portion of the AI learning experience is just one part of a larger AI framework that the company is building to improve user experience on the site. “AI helps us connect seemingly disparate videos, ones with no tags, to other videos that are similar” across a variety of data sets ranging from audio data points to face and body recognition to specific sex acts and beyond. “Right now, we’re using AI to map bodies and faces, so that you can find other people starring in those videos even if you don’t know their name, or connect you with people very similar.”

The folks at xHamster hope that AI functionality could someday be used by producers and users to locate illegally uploaded materials, and to deepen the user experience exponentially. At this point, though, they’re operating strictly on the back end. “Our AI system has catalogued over a million videos, and over 30,000 performers,” says Stabile. But there’s still a long way to go to.

Despite sex industry insiders’ assertions that AI agents aren’t yet poised to replace the “human” in human sexuality, the media response to these developments has been less than enthusiastic. For those who fear robot overlords—especially when it comes to our sex lives—2018 might be a scary place. That’s especially true with the Campaign Against Sex Robots now trumpeting the fear that “the development of sex robots will further reduce human empathy” in a world where sex trafficking is already prevalent.

Are these fears warranted? For better or worse, technology already mediates and enhances our sex lives to an unprecedented degree. Dr. Neil McArthur, director of the Center for Professional and Applied Ethics, and sex therapist Dr. Markie Twist are the coauthors of a recent paper published in the Journal of Sexual and Relationship Therapy on the rise of “digisexuality.” They believe that digisexuality, a sexual identity that centers on the use of technology, is already altering us. “This includes the use of online avatars. It includes the use of online pornography…And things like sexting or web sex or dating media and apps. All of those constitute a form of first-wave digisexuality,” Twist says.

The authors believe a second wave of digisexuality is coming, driven by AI. “The second wave is a more immersive experience, like virtual reality sex, robot sex, sex dolls,” continues Twist. “This is where it isn’t necessarily going to be about connecting with another human. It’s going to be about the person’s identity, […] their sexual interaction and involvement with the technology itself.” With AI-enabled sex dolls becoming more sophisticated and AI agents working on serving us porn hand-picked in their own indecipherable language, it may feel as if the digisexual takeover is nearly here.

In mid-2017, the Foundation for Responsible Robotics released a consultation report called “Our Sexual Future with Robots” with the goal of directing the development of policy and larger conversations around the rise of sex with AI-enabled sex robots. But the foundation’s co-director, Dr. Noel Sharkey, isn’t jumping the gun. “If your bar is not high and you just want an orgasm, then these objects—and they are just moving objects—could give the impression that they are [intelligent] beings,” he says. “But for a very long time into the future this will be an illusion of personhood. They will be able to express human emotions and classify the user’s emotions, but they cannot feel—there is no one home.” Sex robots may be able to be trained to respond to us in ways that we like, Sharkey says, but “they don’t understand us in any meaningful way.”

Sexuality is nuanced, subjective and often outright scary for humans, now more than ever. But AI agents have no such emotional baggage.

It’s actually that lack of meaningful understanding that might have the greatest potential in sex-technology AI. Human sexuality is fraught with miscommunication, judgment, shame and fear. Our inability to communicate clearly about it has resulted in an admitted sexual predator in the Oval Office and a legion of Harvey Weinsteinswhose toxic existence at the hearts of many industries has only recently been outed via the #MeToo movement. Sexuality is nuanced, subjective and often outright scary for humans, now more than ever. But AI agents have no such emotional baggage. Matt McMullen’s Harmony, for instance, won’t judge a user for a predilection toward anal play or any paraphilia. She’ll just note that the user enjoys that type of thing and incorporate it into her operational intelligence moving forward.

That could be huge for many of the people who purchase RealDolls, many of whom, says McMullen, are “super-nice people who are just cripplingly shy, and have a hard time interacting not only with women, but with other people in general. That’s a very real thing that people are suffering from, and if this can help them to get through that, or help to create a bridge for them to eventually have a real relationship, or real intimacy, then I think that [Harmony is] definitely a good thing.”

“What AI offers us is the ability to really map out an individual’s sexuality,” says Mike Stabile of xHamster. “A lot of [porn] fans don’t and might not ever have the ability to act on their desires. Maybe they’re closeted. Maybe they’re elderly or disabled. Maybe they live in a rural area. Maybe they just have a hard time finding people to be with.”

AI, whether installed into a sex robot or programmed into a porn site, could be the interlocutor between a human being and their own subconscious, providing a deeper understanding of what we really want and desires we’ve previously been unable to to admit to ourselves. “Being able to articulate desire, even privately, is the first step in being able to make it real. There’s so much about our sexuality that’s ineffable, and for too long we didn’t have the words or concepts to accurately express what turned us on.”

Stabile adds, “In 2018, we’re looking to meet with sex doll manufacturers to talk about how we can use our data to help them understand what people are looking for.” The end result could be a sex robot that’s been engineered, in part, by AI learning—a machine built by machines that, ironically, could help us understand our most human impulses better than ever before. “We don’t want to replace humanity,” says Stabile. “We’re augmenting reality, not replacing it.”