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Q. When most people hear the term “sex with robots” they probably
imagine something from their experience of popular media, whether it’s
a Star Wars robot, Bender from Futurama, or the maid from the Jetsons.
Can you explain what in your writing you mean when you talk about sex
A. I am thinking in terms of androids – robots designed in a humanlike
form – of which many examples can be found on the Web site www.androidworld.com.
But in addition to having arms, legs and a head, sexual robots will
also have human-sized genitalia. This idea is not at all as far
fetched as might first appear.
As long ago as the late 19th century there were manufacturers, in
Paris and elsewhere, who made artificial vaginas and even whole
artificial bodies, designed specifically to provide substitutes for
the female genitals and thereby to allow fornication. These products
were known as “dames de voyage” (ladies of travel) and were
particularly recommended for use by sailors during long periods at
sea. The sex robots that I envisage will, of course, employ 21st
rather than 19th century technology, but the basic idea is the same.
Q. In your most recent book you outline some of the research endeavors
and technological developments already underway that you predict might
produce some of the first opportunities for humans to have sex with
robots. Can you describe some of these?
A. There are many sex-related inventions that have been patented over
the past century or so. In fact there is a whole book devoted to the
subject of sex inventions at the U.S. Patent Office.
In “Robots Unlimited” I describe a recent patent application by an
Australian inventor, Dominic Choy. This is just one taste of things to
come. What I see happening is that the merging of many different
technologies will lead to the creation of robots that provide many of
the physical attributes required of a skilled lover.
Scientists have already developed artificial skin sufficiently
sensitive to distinguish between a gentle caress and firm pressure;
and the complementary capability – an artificial finger that can apply
sensuous strokes. There is also research into silicone-based and
similar types of materials used in the RealDoll and rival products,
materials that provide for the user a measure of simulation of
coupling with a human sex partner. Then add one or more of the
specifically sexual electronic technologies that are already
available, such as those employed for the benefit of women in the
Thrillhammer, the Sybian, or the hugely popular vibrators that
pleasure so many millions of customers; or the male equivalents –
vibrating penis rings. The combination of these technologies and
others will enable robots to deliver sexually awesome experiences.
Q. One of the things I found most surprising in reading your book was
the amount of research that is already underway in this area. In
particular I was excited by the thinking and experimentation around
robot reproduction. Can you explain what is meant by this term, and
maybe describe a few examples of research being done in this area.
A. Robot scientists have already made the first major breakthrough in
this field, with the development by Hod Lipson and Jordon Pollack at
Brandeis University of robots that simulate evolution and can design
new robots based on a trial-and-error process. This project has
already reached the stage where one robot can pick up the components
of another robot and assemble it.
We are, of course, very familiar with the idea of robots on the
assembly line, picking up the pieces of an automobile or whatever and
assembling them into one identical vehicle after another. Yet the idea
of a robot assembling replicas of itself is somehow intuitively
different for many people, probably because it is a little scary. The
science fiction literature is riddled with examples of robots that
reproduce, sometimes until there are so many of them that they are
able to take over the world. Now that the first stage of this process
has become science fact, it would not be surprising if many people
were to view this branch of robotics research with a certain amount of
What I have described so far relates only to the physical construction
of robots. But what about their “brains”, their emotions, their
personalities? A robot’s brain is some form of computer, running
software that has been developed to give the robot its mental
capabilities, including its emotions and personality. Over and above
the research into the physical self-reproduction of robots there is
also a research effort into self-reproducing software, programs that
can evolve into (hopefully) better programs – better in the sense of
being better able to perform its designated task(s). This idea is
based on genetics. The basic method is called a “genetic algorithm”
and, put simply, it works by having parts of a computer program
measuring how well or how badly they are performing and then improving
themselves through a process that simulates natural selection,
spawning a new, better generation of programs. It does not take much
imagination to realize that robots which can self-reproduce
physically, and also self-improve their own software, could evolve
almost beyond the dreams of science fiction writers.
One aspect of robot reproduction that I personally find very exciting
is the possibility that intelligent robots will be able to copy some
of the characteristics and physical features of their human owners.
Imagine, for example, that your robot has been programmed to “like”
the sound of your voice. When it designs its successors it can copy
the characteristics of your voice into the speech synthesis software
employed in those successors, resulting in robots that talk like you
do. As yet I am not aware of any research in this area, but the
recognition and speech synthesis technologies are already with us, and
I do not believe it will be very long before the idea is explored by
Q. Several times in your writing you slip anthropomorphizing language
in, so suddenly a computer program has intuition, or feelings, where
before it simply had a series of predictable responses to very
intelligent programming. I think for many people this will be one of
the greatest fears, and barriers to conceptualizing a human + robot
sexuality. When you write about the ethics of robot sex it calls to
mind the question of consciousness and sentience. Do you foresee
robotic consciousness? Or put another way, will we eventually produce
robots that are just like us?
A. The sometimes use of anthropomorphisms was quite deliberate. I hope
that in this way the reader will be led somewhat gently to the feeling
that the robots of the future will, at least in some sense, be alive.
I do forsee robot consciousness, and this is the subject of Chapter
12. One problem, of course, with the consciousness debate, is the lack
of a generally acceptable definition of the term. But in the sense
that the word is normally used, yes, I am convinced that robots will
act as though they possess consciousness. And if they do so act, then
we will not be able to deny that they have consciousness.
As to whether we will eventually produce robots that are just like us,
the answer here is “not exactly like us, but close”. Shakespeare’s
sixteenth century test: “If you prick me, do I not bleed?” will detect
one of the differences, and there will be others, but in terms of the
outward appearance and behavior of robots, I am convinced that they
will be designed to be all but indistinguishable to the vast majority
of the human population.
Q. You write that many people may feel threatened by the possibilities
of human robot sexual interactions. This response reminds me of the
very common response many people still have to sex toys and vibrators
in particular. Many straight men feel that a vibrator is a “threat” to
them, believing it could replace them. Many straight women will say
they don’t “need” a vibrator because they have a partner. You write
about how robots could provide sexual contact for people who may feel
unable to have it with another human. To what extent do you think
sexual interactions between humans and robots would replace sex
between two people?
A. I think it is a natural reaction for many heterosexual men to feel
threatened by vibrators, and therefore by robots, especially in
contemporary sexual culture in which the need to be able to sexually
please and satisfy your woman is promoted so widely in books and other
media, and is often the subject of boastful conversation.
Most men would feel inadequate if they believed that their woman
enjoyed better orgasms courtesy of a vibrator or a robot, than those
that the men themselves could provide on a regular basis. But I hope
and believe that one of the great benefits of sexual robots will be
their ability to teach lovemaking skills, so that men who do feel
inadequate will be able to take unlimited lessons, in private, from
robot lovers who possess an unrivalled level of knowledge of sexual
techniques and psycho-sexual problems, combined with great skills as
sensitive, patient teachers. And of course, some women will also wish
to avail themselves of the sexual teaching skills of robots.
You are quite right that many straight women will deny any need for a
vibrator because they already feel completely sexually satisfied by
their regular sex partner(s), and for those women it might be the case
that whatever additional sexual pleasures robots could offer them,
they are not of sufficient interest to encourage them to try robot sex
on a regular basis. But the sales figures for vibrators, and the
psychology literature, both popular and academic, are sufficiently
replete with data on sexually frustrated women, that one cannot doubt
the enormous popularity of robot lovers when they become commercially
None of this is intended to suggest that sex between two people will
become outmoded, because I do not believe for one moment that it will.
What I am convinced of is that robot sex will become the only sexual
outlet for a few sectors of the population: the misfits, the very shy,
the sexually inadequate and uneducable, . . .; and that for different
sectors of the population robot sex will vary between something to be
indulged in occasionally, and only when one’s partner is away from
home on a long trip, to an activity that supplements one’s regular sex
life, perhaps when one’s partner is not feeling well, or not feeling
like sex for some other reason.
Q. Here’s where I start to get worried. I’m afraid that rather than
enhancing a social experience (such as sex), technology will allow us
as humans to avoid evolving socially by using technology to mimic
social interaction rather than add to it. Currently the biggest
problem for people who are socially marginalized (which is what I’m
assuming you meant by “misfit”) is not that they aren’t able to have
sex, or make meaningful connections with others, it’s that our society
functions in a way to systemically keep them isolated. As the
disability activist and academic Tom Shakespeare says “the trouble is
not how can we have sex, it’s who can we have sex with”. And while
there is no doubt that people who are socially marginalized want to
have casual rollicking sex, just as often they report that what they
long for is the intimacy, human contact, and human connections, that
come with sexual intimacy and exploration. If these robots are
intended in any way to increase the opportunity and potential of human
sexuality, using them in this way would be seriously
counterproductive. What are your thoughts on this?
A. I do not see why using robots to satisfy the sexual and intimacy
needs of the socially marginalized is likely to be counterproductive.
If you mean that providing robots to satisfy needs that the socially
marginalized would prefer to be satisfied by humans, will make it less
likely that the socially marginalized will want or be able to find
suitable human partners, then you might be right, but I would still
argue that the benefits to the socially marginalized far outweigh the
negatives. Tom Shakespeare’s words ring true – the socially
marginalized do experience much more difficulty than others in finding
human contact, intimacy and sex.
That is a simple fact, and it is understandable. I feel that the
validity of your “counterproductive” argument, if I understand it
correctly, assumes that the socially marginalized can indeed find
intimacy and sex when they need it, in which case they will not need
to employ robots for these purposes. If that is so, then all well and
good. But my point is simply that there are groups in society who do
find it extremely difficult, almost impossible, to mate with partners
who will love them and satisfy their emotional and sexual needs on a
long-term basis. In many ways robots represent a very good way out of
this problem, just as the Japanese and American governments are now
looking at the possibility of using robots as carers for the elderly.
I firmly believe that in time robots will not only become carers,
sensitive to the emotional and practical needs of the elderly, but
that they will also become our friends if we want them to, and our
companions, lovers and marriage partners.
I would not describe any of this as counterproductive.
Q. I have to say that for me possibly the least interesting part of
the potential for human robot sexuality is the piece about sexual
technique. There are thousands of books, videos, and workshops for
people to learn “better” technique, and while you point out a variety
of ways that robots will allow a more immersive experience, ultimately
I’m aware that technique is just one (arguably small) part of sexual
expression. Have you considered the ways that robots may extend human
experience of sexuality beyond offering technical assistance and/or
providing sexual services?
A. I do not feel that we should downplay the importance of robots as a
means of teaching and enhancing sexual technique. So many
relationships founder because of dissatisfaction in the bedroom, and
so many men suffer, as do their partners, because they are unable for
whatever reason (including embarrassment) to work to improve their
lovemaking skills. That is why I highlighted this particular aspect of
But to answer the main part of your question, yes – I most definitely
believe that sexbots will be able to extend the human experience of
sexuality. Let me try to explain one way that this might be achieved,
using methods from other areas of Artificial Intelligence.
In Chapter 6, which explains in simple terms how computers think, the
topics I cover include discovery and invention, as achieved by
computer programs. Without going into any of the detail here, suffice
it to say that it has already been demonstrated that programs can
discover new ideas from existing knowledge and can even devise
inventions that are suitable for patenting. If such a program were to
be developed, incorporating all the knowledge contained in all of the
world’s sex manuals, and with some basic knowledge of human anatomy,
the result could be a plethora of new ideas for lovemaking, new sexual
positions, that robots could teach us and help us practice if we wish.
Another way in which human ideas of sexuality could be extended lies
in the possibility of experimenting with various group combinations,
groups involving one or more sexbots and perhaps more than one human.
Predicting trends in human sexual behavior is not an easy task, but it
is clear that when sexbots are widely available there will be many
more sexual practices to be tried.
Q. Your argument for the development of a more sophisticated ethical
discussion around human robot sexual interaction is based on the idea
that robot development in this area is inevitable, and we might as
well get ready for it, and start thinking now about the issues that
will come up. Can you give some examples of the ethical dilemmas you
see facing us as human robot sexual interactions become a reality?
A. The ethics of robot sex is a very broad subject, too broad to
discuss in detail in an interview, but I can certainly give some
examples of the types of ethical problem that I foresee.
Firstly there is the question of how one’s use of one’s own sex robot
will affect other people – one’s spouse or partner in particular. Will
sex with a robot be considered unfaithful? Will it be unethical in
some way to say to one’s regular human sex partner: “Not tonight
darling. I’m going to make it with the robot.”? (Some couples will, of
course, own two robots, a malebot and a fembot, and will enjoy
orgiastic sessions in which three or all four of them take part.) Will
robot swapping be viewed as being similar to wife swapping?
Then there are issues relating to the use of other people’s sexbots.
What will be the ethics of lending your sexbot to a friend, or
borrowing theirs? What about using a friend’s sexbot without telling
There will certainly be ethical (and legal) issues relating to the use
of sexbots by minors. Should the age of consent for sex with a robot
be the same as that for sex with a human? And what about the ethics of
an adult encouraging a minor to have sex with a robot? Will it be
regarded as a sex educational experience, or as a corrupting
influence? And how will ethicists and lawyers deal with parents when
one of them wants their child to have sex with a robot, as a method of
sex education for example, but the other does not?
Finally, there is the matter of the ethics of robot sex as they affect
the robot itself. In “Robots Unlimited” I discuss some questions of
robot ethics, which in my opinion is one of the most interesting
topics in the debate on the future of robots. What happens when a
robot’s owner feels randy but the robot’s programming causes it to shy
away, possibly because it is running its self-test software or
downloading some new knowledge and does not wish to be interrupted, or
possibly because its personality was designed in such a way that it
sometimes says “no” for whatever reason.
Under such circumstances, is it akin to rape if the robot’s owner
countermands the robot’s indicated wish to refrain from sex on a
I think you will agree that these examples warn of a minefield for
ethicists and lawyers. “Roboethics” is becoming a respectable academic
topic, for example earlier this year I attended a workshop on
roboethics organised by the Scuola di Robotica in Genoa, Italy, and a
couple of weeks later there was a similar conference in Palermo,
Sicily. So the subject is very much under discussion, although the
discussion is still in its very earliest stages.
Q. There seems to be so many ways that AI and robotics can potentially
have a positive impact on human existence and experience. Where do you
think sexuality fits in the larger picture. Do you imagine that as the
technology improves, sexuality will be one of the early testing
grounds for human robotic interactions? Do you think sex robots will
ultimately be a fad?
A. I believe that sexuality fits in the larger picture in BIG BOLD
LETTERS. What is the word most often typed into Google and the other
search engines? Sex! What was the most prolific use made of video
cassette recorders when they came on the market? Porno movies. What
was one of the first major social changes that came about with the
launch of the automobile? Young couples who wanted privacy so that
they could make love would borrow father’s car for the purpose (and
many still do so today). These are examples of inventions that were
not created with sexuality in mind, but for which sexuality became an
When we create robots that are specifically invented with sexuality in
mind, the level of interest and the desire to use them will, I
believe, be beyond the wildest dreams of product designers and
I think that sexuality will be far more than an early testing ground
for robots. It will not only be the most popular use of robots amongst
adults, it will also create huge social change. There is no way I can
see sexbots as being a fad, any more than one could say that sex is a
Q. Can you talk about what’s next, and what you’re working on now?
A. As I was collecting the research material and writing the book I
became increasingly fascinated by the subject of intimate
relationships with artificial partners. Originally I was planning only
one chapter on this subject, for reasons of space, but I had to extend
it into two chapters, one on robot emotion and love, the other on
robot sex and reproduction.
Then my wife pointed out that, in exploring these topics, I had almost
ignored the ethical implications, and questions such as consciousness,
and that these are important areas that needed to be addressed. So I
researched some more and added two more chapters. After I delivered
the book to the publisher I decided to write another book.
Whereas “Robots Unlimited” focuses on the how of Artificial
Intelligence, including the how of robot love and sex, I decided that
there was a need for a book on the why of all this. Why will people be
attracted to robots? Why will people fall in love with robots? Why
will people want to have sex with robots? And even why will people
want to marry robots? I am now nearing completion of that book and
have recently signed with a New York literary agent, who is currently
working with me to ensure that it will be interesting for a very wide
readership. I plan to keep a close watch on robot sex, to make it my
major area of interest within A.I. for the next few years. I believe
that the speed of development in this field will be extremely rapid,
due in part to the enormous sums of money that the developers of such
products will be able to reap, and partly because of the enormous
worldwide interest in and desire for better sex.
THE (VERY LONELY) STORY SO FAR
ASIMOV’S THREE LAWS OF ROBOTICS
* A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction,
allow a human being to come to harm.
* A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except
where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
* A robot must protect its own existence as long as such
protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Asimov detected as early as 1950, a need to extend the first law,
which protected individual humans, so that it would protect humanity
as a whole. Thus, his calculating machines “have the good of humanity
at heart through the overwhelming force of the First Law of
Robotics” (emphasis added). In 1985 he developed this idea further by
postulating a “zeroth” law that placed humanity’s interests above
those of any individual while retaining a high value on individual
Zeroth law: A robot may not injure humanity, or, through inaction,
allow humanity to come to harm.
“(1) A dead person’s face may indeed be uncanny: it loses color and
animation with no blinking. However, according to my experience,
sometimes it gives us a more comfortable impression than the one given
by a living person’s face. Dead persons are free from the troubles of
life, and I think this is the reason why their faces look so calm and
peaceful. In our mind there is always an antinomic conflict that if
you take one thing you will lose the other. Such a conflict appears on
one’s face as troubles, and makes his, or her, expression less
comfortable. When a person dies he, or she, is released from this
antinomy, and has a quiet expression. If so, then, where should we
position this on the curve of the uncanny valley? This is an issue of
my current interest.
(2) Once I positioned living human beings on the highest point of the
curve in the right-hand side of the uncanny valley. Recently, however,
I came to think that there is something more attractive and amiable
than human beings in the further right-hand side of the valley. It is
the face of a Buddhist statue as the artistic expression of the human
ideal. You will find such a face, for example, in Miroku Bosatsu
(Maitreya Bodhisattva) in Kohryuji in Kyoto, or in Miroku Bosatsu in
Chuguji and in Gakkoh Bosatsu (Candraprabha) in Yakushiji in Nara.
Those faces are full of elegance, beyond worries of life, and have
aura of dignity. I think those are the very things that should be
positioned on the highest point of the curve.”
“In 1978 Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori was studying the human
response to robots and discovered that as robots became more
humanlike, people’s attitudes toward them became more positive, until
the robots got “almost” human, an area he called the “Uncanny
Valley.” Since they were so close to human, the little bit they were
lacking really creeped people out . This effect translated beyond
robots to creatures of all kinds and is a good explanation for why we
find zombies so scary (that and the fact that they eat brains), why
CGI and today’s video game characters look so odd. The most
interesting application of this theory is for artificial limbs, which
suggests that until we can make them indistinguishably perfect, we
should stick to more obviously artificial ones. On the upside,
designers could go crazy and offer limbs with all sorts of extra
functionality, maybe throw a flash drive in one finger and a digital
camera in another.”
Q: 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?
A: 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
Q: 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?
A: Eventually, yes. You are quite right of course about what will
happen in the early days of sexbots – 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. ‘Eventually’ 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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?
Q: 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
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: 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
A: 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.
Q: Would you personally use one of these robots?
A: I would certainly experiment with one, to find out what it was like
— how much like the real thing.
Q: Would your wife?
A: Probably not — she is not interested in anything of a technological
Q: Would she mind if you used one? Surely you’ve talked about it by
A: Actually, no, because it is purely hypothetical since they do not
Q: 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.
A: 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?
Q: To what extent do you think sex robots and their primal pre-
cursors, Real Dolls, actually PREVENT people from forming healthy,
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: This is a little broad, but I’m curious to see how you might finish
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?
A: 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.
Given the explosion in popularity of doing-it-yourself, it’s
surprising that so few hacks and mods are devoted to the greatest form
of doing it ever: sex. But an exhibition that opened earlier this
month at the Museum of Sex, “Sex Machines: Photographs and Interviews
by Timothy Archibald,” shows that there is an active community of sex
toy hobbyists. The dildonics on display are not intended as artwork.
The function comes first, and any design that results is coincidental.
Most — but not all — lack the ironic message that pervades so much
modern artwork. As a result, these inventions resemble a kind of folk
art sculpted from the Home Depot palette. Archibald’s photographs
capture the juxtaposition of the hard-edged machines in the comforting
and familiar settings where they are built and used. What surprised
Archibald most, though, was that the inventors — an entirely male
bunch — “aren t sexual fringe characters or people who answer the door
wearing a leather zipper mask,” he says. “These people go to PTA
meetings, mow the lawn, eat good food.”
GIZMODO: How did you become interested in DIY sex machines?
TA: I had always been interested in independent inventors, people who
were not associated with a university or a commercial enterprise.
While doing the research for a photo story on that, I came across a
listserv where people who were inventors of sex machines were sharing
tips and talking about problems they had overcome with their
inventions. And they also had photographs of their machines on that
site that they shared with each other. When I saw those, it was this
combination of human phallus with stuff that looks like it came out of
a high school shop class. All mechanical, hard components. The project
that evolved out of that was a look at the people who are making the
machines. The machines are fascinating, but the people s stories are
what made it cohesive, more of a human experience.
GIZMODO: Is the fetish in the making of the machine or the machine
TA: These are tinkerers, people who like to mess with all things
mechanical. And they have a sense of creative invention — they are
proud of these things when they create them. But also they think about
sex a lot and this is what resulted from that combination. It s not
just a sculptural thing. They are making it for a purpose. A number of
them are married, they are making it to try and introduce something to
their wives. Some may be using it to attract women — or they think it
might attract women. And for some of them it s a business. But they
are not part of a scene, like a sexual scene. It s more that they got
the idea independently that this is something they wanted to make,
they wanted to have.
GIZMODO: The Thrill Hammer is one of the most sculptural machines in
the show. What is the function behind that design?
TA: It is an internet controlled sex machine that was originally built
by the inventor to allow people to use the machine on a woman from the
comfort of their own home. People could pay, log on and control this
machine as a woman sat in the machine — and they would be affecting
the sex machine upon her through their mouse and keyboard. It truly
did work. The time I hooked up with the inventor he was installing it
at a legal brothel in Nevada. The whorehouse had licensed this machine
from him for that very purpose. It was also set up so that it could
film the person that the machine was being used upon, and it had
professional lighting installed on it so that the video feed would
look like they wanted it to look. Pretty high-tech gadget.
He went on to make another machine that was based on a couch that he
saw at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He was influenced by
popular culture. His desire was to make something that visually said
something. He liked this science fiction-y look to it that it has,
that was intentional. In the book and the show there are probably two
or three machines that design was a big part of it. Different
inventors try to implement things in their own way, but oftentimes it
was very primitive or simple, and the function would come first. But
Thrill Hammer was heavily designed. As was the Monkey Rocker.
GIZMODO: Several of the machines are built into toolboxes. And the
name is right there on the side — Craftsman, Huskette. There must be
some kind of message in that.
TA: With the Huskette and even the Craftsman, these guys thought it
was funny. They appreciated the inherent humor in having this logo
that we ve all seen being twisted and used for another purpose. They
knew it would be funny. They were self-aware.
It was also an affordable, neat and clean way to contain the moving
parts that are necessary, and could seem a little dangerous in a
venture like this. There are hard edges and a flywheel. The inventors
needed to find a way to encase these things so that the machine would
be more user friendly. If there was something over the counter that
they could buy in bulk and then modify to their own ends, that would
be the solution to that kind of thing. Also, it allows the buyer to
hide the thing. You got a toolbox under your bed no one is going to
look twice at that — well, maybe they will look twice but not three
GIZMODO: The coffin seems very intentionally self-aware. And it
doesn’t quite fit with the other machines. What’s the story there?
TA: They called that thing the Holy Fuck. That was meant to look like
a little coffin, and had all the details of the coffin. They were
trying to create a piece of art there that had this function. But they
were young, they were these gothic kids. And I wanted them in the
project for that reason. But their thing wouldn t really fall under
the guise of folk art because it s intentional. They had the neat idea
to make it in a tiny coffin and give it a funny name. It reflects
them, like any piece of art.
To me all these things are art and they tell us something about the
creators and the times we live in. But some of them are more self-
conscious than others. Some of the more harsh looking machines end up
being portraits of the inventor and all their concerns. Something like
Thrill Hammer or Holy Fuck, they are trying to make something cool and
it reflects their design taste. But it s not a vision into their brain
like some of the other ones are.
GIZMODO: There are a couple of machines — Marlon Rogers’ Prototype and
Carl Adjusting the boom — that remind me a bit of David Cronenberg’s
film Dead Ringers.
TA: I ve never seen that movie. I m dying to see it. I ve never even
seen a picture from it. Someone else did bring that up. The more raw
the machine, the more it is truly a vision into some of these guys
brains. Everything is exposed — you see how it works and because of
the phallus you can t help but think it reflects their view of
sexuality, or their own sexuality, or how sexuality should look.
The thing to keep in mind is that all of these machines, as different
as they seem, as outlandish as some are, they all do the same thing.
And that is simply go in and out.
“Jessie In Steven’s Living Room” (Timothy Archibald)
GIZMODO: What is the purpose of your work — is it documentary or is
there a message you are imparting to the viewer about these machines?
TA: It started out as a documentary project. I saw these machines and
thought: who would make these things? The machines are visually
fascinating but they must be made by people who could not relate to
women, or could not relate to other people. And the lesson I learned
is that these people are just like me. These aren t sexual fringe
characters or people who answer the door wearing a leather zipper
mask. These people go to PTA meetings, mow the lawn, eat good food.
And how that broke my stereotype was real interesting, and made me
want to pursue the people behind these things. Maybe the surprise of
the normal versus the abnormal. Throughout working on the project we
were always saying it s not sexuality it s sociology. You can t deny
the sexuality of the work. It tells us a bit about men, women, how
they relate to each other, how they see themselves.
email : tim [at] timothyarchibald [dot] com
LIKE THIS SEX MACHINE HERE
BY Timothy Archibald
This new sexual underground doesn’t look anything like I thought it
While researching a story about independent inventors in the spring of
2002, I came across a small web community for inventors of sex
machines. The group seemed tiny. It was made up of a handful of guys
with names like “Inventor Bob” and “The Toymaker.” They were sharing
ideas and solving problems in the classic garage-inventor manner.
Amidst tips on reworking domestic hardware into complex sex machines,
their posts would occasionally reveal glimpses into their surprisingly
conventional-sounding, family-oriented personal lives.
And then there were the photographs–amateur snapshots of the machines
inventors shared amongst themselves. These photographs of their
creations, posed in cluttered garages and homey kitchens, were
startling to me in their simple beauty. They were honest documents of
otherworldly creations. I had to meet the people who made these
things. My first attempts to connect with the members of this group
went nowhere. The group’s moderator sent me a polite note thanking me
for my interest. He explained that the group was really just for the
members themselves. They just used the machines in their own
relationships, and valued the anonymity of the Internet. Discouraged,
I tried to let it go. A year later I was still haunted by the images I
had seen of the machines. I resurrected the file I had created on the
sex machine inventors. After doing more research, I found that a local
company had begun producing erotic videos specializing in men and
women having sex with machines. Located in San Francisco, Peter
Rodgers and Tony Pirelli were operating a successful Internet
pornography site called Fuckingmachines.com. They knew a number of the
working inventors and pointed me in the direction of some folks they
thought would be interesting to talk with.
A chance conversation with an inventor got me into the depths of the
Mature Audience section of eBay, where I discovered a regular offering
of 15 to 20 different sex machines daily. Through this I stumbled upon
a number of grassroots sex machine web communities. People in tiny
towns and suburbs across America were building, selling, and
collecting these machines, and sharing their ideas with each other.
What once seemed so elusive was now everywhere I looked.
The first inventor I visited called his business “Sartan’s Workshop.”
Over the phone, Sartan spoke with a deep baritone, sounding very
serious and a bit intimidating. And then there was the name of his
business–it sounded like a misspelling of “Satan” or “Santa’s
Workshop,” and either way it was frightening. What kind of social
misfit would make such a thing as a sex machine?
Sartan ended up being a guy named Paul, who wore a t-shirt of his
favorite football team and smiled a lot. He met me in the driveway of
his family’s upper-middle-class suburban home. We drank beer in the
backyard when the kids came home from school and his wife cooked
dinner. This was no dark and steamy fetish underground…these were
like the people you’d meet at a PTA meeting. This immediately relaxed
me. I knew I could understand these people and felt they would
Whom I chose to visit depended on who seemed the most passionate–
inventors who proudly felt they were on a mission. It didn’t matter to
me who was popular or who was making money. Sincerity and passion is
what piqued my interest.
While driving from an interview in Champlin, Minnesota, to another in
Kansas City, Missouri, I was struck with the big questions: What does
this all mean? Are sex machines some embodiment of men’s misguided
attempts at understanding women? Are they a form of contemporary folk
art? Or am I simply witnessing a pop culture trend that will fade away
in a few years?
I soon discovered that the U.S. patent office is filled with early
designs for mechanical sexual devices. A peek into erotic world
history reveals that people have been creating forms of sex machines
since the invention of Cleopatra’s bumblebee-powered vibrator. I began
to see this preoccupation of creating a mechanical sexual creation as
part of human instinct. The technology we now have is allowing the
inventors to share their ideas, but the act of creating these machines
has been going on for centuries. The people I met and documented are
not simply following a trend. They are current practitioners of a
timeless craft, one that will undoubtedly continue long into the
NEARLY HOT HUMAN-ON-ROBOT ACTION
For years, the concept of humans having real, emotional relationships
with robots has been a symbol of technology’s final horizon, partially
because it seems totally implausible. But is it any more absurd than
falling in love with someone thousands of miles away who you’ve only
talked to via keyboard? Or crushing on a celebrity you’ve never met?
Not according to David Levy, the author of the new book Love and Sex
With Robots, which makes a persuasive argument that people can
normalize anything, given enough time. “As people get more and more
accustomed to having electronics as a very big part of their lives,
they will also become accustomed to the intellectually and emotionally
amazing things some of these electronic products do.”
Levy, a fifty-two-year-old Scottish chess champion, first became
interested in artificial intelligence in 1968, when he bet four A.I.
experts that they couldn’t develop a computer that could beat him at
chess within ten years. He won the bet in a highly publicized match at
Northwestern University (though lost his first match to a computer in
1989), and went on to study A.I. himself. Today, he believes we’re on
the cusp of sex between humans and robots — by 2050, he says, robots
will be so similar to us that sex and relationships with them will be
largely accepted by society. Today, Levy is the CEO of Intelligent
Toys Ltd., creating artificially intelligent toys for children. He
spoke to Nerve about the ethics of robot relationships, and why he
wouldn’t mind if his wife had an affair with an android. — Sarah
Q: Why should people want to have relationships with robots instead of
with other people?
A: There are a huge number of lonely people out there who, for one
reason or another, cannot form normal relationships, either platonic
relationships or sexual relationships. This is a big segment of the
population that will find the idea appealing, and I think once it
becomes publicized in the media — once people start being interviewed
about, and writing about, their experiences of these relationships,
sexual relationships in particular — the idea will catch on through
Q: What happens when a person who’s had a relationship with a robot
has to then have one with a human again? Do you think it’s going to be
difficult for people to transition back and forth?”
A: In many ways I believe robots will actually make it easier for
people to interact with other humans. For example, people who have
psychological problems or psychosexual problems could be given therapy
by robots. But the downside is, if someone has a relationship with a
robot, they might have higher expectations of their relationships with
humans. I’m thinking particularly of women who might find robots are
much better lovers than they’re used to, and women who have fantastic
orgasms courtesy of robots might then become more dissatisfied with
their human partners. And the human partners of course could develop
some sort of complex — performance anxiety.
Q: In the book, you write that if a robot appears intelligent or
appears to have a conscience, then we should accept that it is in fact
intelligent and has a conscience. Is it realistic to expect people to
make this mental leap?
A: In the 1950s, when people were talking about if a computer could
play chess better than the world champion, they said, “This is a
ridiculous idea. In order to play chess one has to have true
intelligence.” But over time, people got used to the idea of computers
performing mental and intellectual feats normally associated with
human intelligence, so the idea of artificial intelligence grew within
society very slowly. I think the slowness of the growth made it much
more acceptable, so that when Kasparov was defeated by Deep Blue in
1997, it wasn’t even surprising for most people. I think people are
already beginning to think about the idea of robot consciousness, and
over the next twenty, thirty, forty years, the population will come to
find the idea acceptable.
Q: It’s true that there’s a lot of science-fiction writing about robot
consciousness, but it’s usually presented as a frightening idea.
A: That’s fine, and with good reason. Lots of what used to be science-
fiction fifty or sixty years ago is now science-fact. Robot
consciousness is outside our normal frame of reference.
Q: Do you think people will have very long-term relationships with
robots, like marriages?
A: I think in some cases, yes. I’ve done research into the forum of
people who have bought sex dolls, and who have had these dolls for
years, almost since the RealDoll company started. Some people clearly
enjoy their relationships with their sex dolls and create in their
minds some kind of persona for the doll. So I think if relationships
can last for years with a completely inanimate doll, then I think a
relationship with a talking, intelligent, humorous robot that appears
to be loving, kind, gentle — everything somebody wants in a partner —
can last a very long time.
Q: What happens if a robot malfunctions in one of these relationships?
Couldn’t that be traumatic?
A: One could view it in the same way as your human partner having a
sudden illness. And by the time robots have reached the level of
sophistication I’m talking about, in the middle of the century, the
robots will automatically have the contents of their memory uploaded
and backed up in a massive store, so that if something dreadful
happened to your robot, you could have its physical body replicated in
a factory and have its personality downloaded into it. It’ll be the
equivalent of sending a human to the hospital.
Q: What if your wife wanted to have sex with a robot, in addition to
you — would you be comfortable with that?
A: I don’t know. I never really discuss this with my wife because it’s
purely hypothetical. If these robots were here now, though, I would
see nothing wrong with either my wife or myself trying out robot sex
because I certainly would be very curious to find out what it’s like.
In comparison, my wife would be less so, because she’s not interested
One of the things I write about is the idea that when one partner in a
relationship goes off on a business trip, for example, if they have
access to a robot, then the other partner doesn’t have to worry about
what they’re doing in the evenings. And of course, there’s always the
classic, “Not tonight, darling. I’ve got a headache.” If you have a
robot in the cupboard, it doesn’t matter if your partner has a
Q: But you don’t get the same emotional satisfaction from sex with the
robot as you do from sex with your partner, which is what a lot of
people want from sex.
A: Absolutely, yes. But there are a lot of people who would find it a
viable alternative. And there are also people who will enjoy the idea
of threesomes and foursomes with the robot and their partner, and not
have to feel jealous.
Q: If your son or daughter wanted to marry a robot and asked you for
advice, what would you tell them?
A: I would say they should try humans first, but that if they found
for some reason they were unable to have satisfactory relationships
with humans, they sure, why not experiment with a robot?
Q: Do you worry robots might be more attracted to other robots than to
A: That’s just a matter of programming.
“The Loebner Prize Medal and a cash award is awarded annually to the
designer of the computer system that best succeeds in passing a
variant of the Turing Test.In 1997, $2,000 and a bronze medal was
awarded to David Levy,designer of the Most Human Computer as rated by
a panel of 5 judges.”
davidlevylondon [at] yahoo [dot] com
DavidL [at] intrsrch [dot] demon [dot] co [dot] uk
John: Why would a free minded, sophisticated, intelligent robot choose
to be with an animal? Sure, robots may well become sex machines for
humans, but give them true AI and they become far superior in many
aspects of their creation.
Jeffrey: While the idea of an AI sophisticated enough to create a
functional sex partner is possible, and very likely within the
century, one capable of the complexities of a general relationship is
not only a bit far off but, I imagine, would eventually gravitate to
its own kind – why waste time on training a faulty human?
Sam Sexton: If a robot could fall in love wouldn’t it be more likely
to fall in love with other robots that it could relate too?
David Levy: We will program them to want us. It will be important,
when robots reach the level of intelligence I anticipate by the middle
of this century, for humans to have some measure of control over them.
One aspect of this is the ability of humans to select the parameters
for their partner robots – the robot’s personality, interests, etc, as
I describe in the book. Some of these parameters will relate to the
robot’s relationship preferences, and we will be able to set that
parameter so that our robot behaves as though it wants to be with us.
If we want our robots to have the capacity for falling in love with
other robots, we can set another parameter to ensure that they do so.
Steven Martin: Would it be wrong to go further than that and make
androids find overweight people attractive? Would that be any more
wrong that programming them to find slim and fit people attractive?
The logical conclusion to this is would it be OK to program an android
to find a particular individual attractive but otherwise be self-
aware? Where do you cross the “Slavery Line”?
David Levy: An interesting question fraught with ethical overtones.
Fundamentally the human-robot relationship will be one of master and
slave, in the sense that we must retain a measure of control, as
mentioned in my previous answer.
But I see nothing wrong from an ethical perspective in designing
robots that will behave as though they have strong emotional feelings
for their human owner/partner no matter whether that human is fat,
thin, ugly, or whatever.
In chapter 6 of the book, on why people pay for sex, I describe how
the young men who service women clients in holiday resorts will
flatter a fat woman by saying that she has a lovely body. Robots can
be programmed to be similarly diplomatic in what they say to their
humans, in order to convince their humans that the robots have strong
emotional feelings for them.
Jason Owen: Will the meaning of relationships over time turn into
another lifestyle upgrade?
David Levy: Yes and no. For all those many humans who have no-one to
love and no-one to love them, having a robot surrogate will definitely
be a lifestyle upgrade, creating happiness where before there was
misery. And I see this as one of the principal benefits, perhaps the
principal benefit, of the type of robot I am writing about.
Wouldn’t the world be a much better place if all those sad, lonely
people did have “someone” to be their lover and life partner? So from
this perspective the answer is “yes” – a definite upgrade in one’s
But for those who are already happy in their relationship with their
spouse or partner, I believe that their relationships with their
robots will be much more of an adjunct than filling a void, so the
meaning of these relationships will be different for a robot’s owner –
less intense emotionally.
Vinnie Hall: What of the prospects of reproduction? Do you think an
organic person could breed with a robotic ‘person’?
David Levy: No, but I do anticipate a form of robot asexual
reproduction that carries over some of the characteristics of the
robot’s human owner/partner. This is explained in the book.
Tom: Will we need to formulate some Asimov-like rules? Such as:
1st law of sexual-robotics: A robot may not break a human’s heart, or
through inaction allow a human’s heart to be broken.
2nd law: A robot must follow orders except for where this conflicts
with the first law.
3rd law: A robot must satisfy its own need for love, except for where
this conflicts with the first and second laws.
David Levy: An interesting idea. Certainly robots will be programmed
to behave in accordance with certain ethical and legal boundaries, and
to appear to want to please their human owners/partners in various
ways, including in their intimate relationships. And it will appear
natural to their humans if robots exhibit humanlike desires for love.
There is a nascent field within the world of robotics researchers
called “roboethics”, in which such matters are discussed, although I
do not know of any suggestions along these lines, relating to intimate
Dana Lee: Would prostitution be legal with robots in places it is not
with a human? Is this just the definition of the ultimate sex toy? If
someone has sex with a robot that is owned by someone else against the
owner’s (or robot’s) wishes, is that considered rape?
David Levy: I feel sure that certain jurisdictions will legislate
against robot prostitution and possibly against robot sex in any form.
In the book (chapter 7) I write about some court cases that have been
brought in recent years by the states of Alabama and Texas against
people who committed the terrible “crimes” of buying (and using), or
selling, vibrators and other sex aids. So I consider it quite likely
that sexually functioning robots in general, and robot prostitutes in
particular, will be proscribed in some jurisdictions. Eventually, of
course, such laws will be repealed.
Is this the ultimate sex toy? It could be considered as such, but the
sophisticated sex robots of the middle of this century will also be
valued as relationship partners in the widest sense of the word –
someone to love.
As to the question of raping a robot, ethicists and law makers will
have a field day debating questions such as this. The legal profession
in the USA is already taking an interest in the legal rights of
robots, in preparation for the day when robots are deemed to have
Tom: Do you see anything wrong about people having sex with robots?
(I’m assuming not). Isn’t sex with robots just an extension of
pornography? Because you could have exactly what you wanted and it
would always be willing and compliant, a sexbot would be nothing more
than a fetish object. And is it healthy to fall in love with and marry
your fetish object?
David Levy: I see nothing wrong in people having sex with robots. I
believe that it will come to be regarded as a perfectly healthy
activity, just as masturbation (once thought by physicians and
psychiatrists to be the root of just about all health evils) is
nowadays regarded as a perfectly healthy activity. (See chapter 8 of
I do not believe for one moment that sex with robots is an extension
of pornography. Regarding a sexbot as a fetish object would be missing
the point – the humanlike behaviour of robots will remove them from
the realm of being “just an object”. What I have written about is in
no way fetishism.
Tony: Being that robots will be harder, better, faster and stronger
than us, it is unlikely that humanity will win this evolutionary
contest. The question we should be asking is, with organic
reproduction seemingly out of the way, how do we get as much humanity
into these robots before it’s too late?
David Levy: “…better, faster and stronger than us…” quite right!
That is why a measure of control over them will be needed (see earlier
answers). And this control will come from design and programming.
“A state-of-the-art social robot was immersed in a classroom of
toddlers for >5 months. The quality of the interaction between
children and robots improved steadily for 27 sessions, quickly
deteriorated for 15 sessions when the robot was reprogrammed to behave
in a predictable manner, and improved in the last three sessions when
the robot displayed again its full behavioral repertoire. Initially,
the children treated the robot very differently than the way they
treated each other. By the last sessions, 5 months later, they treated
the robot as a peer rather than as a toy. Results indicate that
current robot technology is surprisingly close to achieving autonomous
bonding and socialization with human toddlers for sustained periods of
time and that it could have great potential in educational settings
assisting teachers and enriching the classroom environment.”
Giggling robot becomes one of the kids
BY Mason Inman / 05 November 2007
Children who spent several weeks with an interactive robot, eventually
treated it more like each other than a simple toy
Computers might not be clever enough to trick adults into thinking
they are intelligent yet, but a new study shows that a giggling robot
is sophisticated enough to get toddlers to treat it as a peer.
An experiment led by Javier Movellan at the University of California
San Diego, US, is the first long-term study of interaction between
toddlers and robots.
The researchers stationed a 2-foot-tall robot called QRIO (pronounced
“curio”), and developed by Sony, in a classroom of a dozen toddlers
aged between 18 months and two years.
QRIO stayed in the middle of the room using its sensors to avoid
bumping the kids or the walls. It was initially programmed to giggle
when the kids touched its head, to occasionally sit down, and to lie
down when its batteries died. A human operator could also make the
robot turn its gaze towards a child or wave as they went away. “We
expected that after a few hours, the magic was going to fade,”
Movellan says. “That’s what has been found with earlier robots.” But,
in fact, the kids warmed to the robot over several weeks, eventually
interacting with QRIO in much the same way they did with other
The researchers measured the bond between the children and the robot
in several ways. Firstly, as with other toddlers, they touched QRIO
mostly on the arms and hands, rather than on the face or legs. For
this age group, “the amount of touching is a good predictor of how you
are doing as a social being”, Movellan says.
The children also treated QRIO with more care and attention than a
similar-looking but inanimate robot that the researchers called Robby,
which acted as a control in the experiment. Once they had grown
accustomed to QRIO, they hugged it much more than Robby, who also
received far more rough treatment.
A panel, who watched videos of the interactions between the children
and QRIO, concluded that these interactions increased in quality over
Eventually, the children seemed to care about the robot’s well being.
They helped it up when it fell, and played “care-taking” games with it
– most commonly, when QRIO’s batteries ran out of juice and it lay
down, a toddler would come up and cover it with a blanket and say
“night, night”. Altering QRIO’s behaviour also changed the children’s
attitude towards the robot. When the researchers programmed QRIO to
spend all its time dancing, the kids quickly lost interest. When the
robot went back to its old self, the kids again treated it like a peer
“The study shows that current technology is very close to being able
to produce robots able to bond with toddlers, at least over long
periods of time,” says Movellan. But, he adds, it is not clear yet
whether robots can appeal in the same way to older children or adults.
Movellan says that a robot like this might eventually be useful as a
classroom assistant. “You can think of it as an appliance,” he says.
“We need to find the things that the robots are better at, and leave
to humans the things humans are better at,” Movellan says.
“This is a very interesting result,” says Takayuki Kanda of the
Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute in Japan.
One of the problems with past robots was that people quickly got bored
of them, says Kanda. Since this study shows that QRIO held children’s
interest, Kanda says. “This study opens the possibility for classroom
applications,” or for helping autistic children.
Could Robots Become Your Toddler’s New Best Friend?
Schoolchildren come to love humanoid classmate after spending five
months with him
BY Nikhil Swaminathan / November 9, 2007
According to the robotics community, it’s unlikely that any robot now
on the market could hold your attention for more than 10 hours.
(Actually, if you have a robot dog gathering dust on a closet shelf ,
you probably already know that.)
A new study, however, indicates that this threshold is poised to be
broken–at least if the humans interacting with the machines are
youngsters. Researchers found that a two-foot- (61-centimeter-) tall
metal man easily won over a classroom of tykes, aged 18 to 24 months,
who intermittently spent time with it over a five-month period.
“Our results suggest that current robot technology is surprisingly
close to achieving autonomous bonding and socialization with human
toddlers for significant periods of time,” University of California,
San Diego, researchers report in Proceedings of the National Academy
of Sciences USA.
QRIO, a robot programmed with a slew of social functions, was placed
in U.C. San Diego’s Early Childhood Education Center 45 times over the
five-month observation period. For the first 27 sessions, the robot
was allowed access to its full arsenal of programmed social behaviors.
In addition, a controller could send commands to the humanoid,
prompting it to wave, dance, sit, stand, etcetera (although there was
a lag time between the prompt and when the robot made the movement).
The tots began to increasingly interact with the robot and treat it
more like a peer than an object during the first 11 sessions. The
level of social activity increased dramatically when researchers added
a new behavior to QRIO’s repertoire: If a child touched the humanoid
on its head, it would make a giggling noise.
“The contingency coupled with the positive reaction of giggling made
clear to the children that the robot was responsive to them and served
often to initiate interaction episodes,” says study co-author Fumihide
Tanaka, a researcher at U.C. San Diego’s Institute for Neural
Computation and at Sony Intelligence Dynamics Laboratories, Inc.
For 15 sessions midway through the experiment, QRIO was programmed to
repeatedly dance to the same song rather than interact with the kids.
During these trials, the children became far less interested in the
friendly automaton. For the final three sessions, however, QRIO could
once again unleash its entire social arsenal.
Tanaka and his colleagues scored the quality of social interaction
primarily based on where children touched the robot. A teddy bear and
an inanimate toy robot named Robby accompanied QRIO during most of the
observation period. The teddy bear was introduced first and prior to
the introduction of the robots was very popular. But the stuffed
animal was lost in the shuffle when QRIO and Robby came on the scene.
Though the toddlers often manhandled Robby, they eventually began
touching QRIO in a pattern similar to the way they touched one another–
mostly on its arms and hands.
The only time they deviated from this behavior was when QRIO was
programmed to giggle, at which point they frequently petted its face
and head. Another indication that the little humans viewed robo-kid as
a compeer was the way they reacted when QRIO ran out of juice and lay
down as if to take a nap: Some of the children would try to wake and
help it up, whereas others would cover it with a blanket.
“Our work suggests that touch integrated on the time-scale of a few
minutes is a surprisingly effective index of social connectedness,”
Tanaka says. “Something akin to this index may be used by the human
brain to evaluate its own sense of social well-being.” He adds that
social robots like QRIO could greatly enrich classrooms and assist
teachers in early learning programs.
PORN AS DRIVING FORCE IN ADOPTION OF NEW TECHNOLOGIES
A Robot in Every Home
The leader of the PC revolution predicts that the next hot field will
BY Bill Gates / December 16, 2006
Imagine being present at the birth of a new industry. It is an
industry based on groundbreaking new technologies, wherein a handful
of well-established corporations sell highly specialized devices for
business use and a fast-growing number of start-up companies produce
innovative toys, gadgets for hobbyists and other interesting niche
products. But it is also a highly fragmented industry with few common
standards or platforms. Projects are complex, progress is slow, and
practical applications are relatively rare. In fact, for all the
excitement and promise, no one can say with any certainty when–or
even if–this industry will achieve critical mass. If it does, though,
it may well change the world.
Of course, the paragraph above could be a description of the computer
industry during the mid-1970s, around the time that Paul Allen and I
launched Microsoft. Back then, big, expensive mainframe computers ran
the back-office operations for major companies, governmental
departments and other institutions. Researchers at leading
universities and industrial laboratories were creating the basic
building blocks that would make the information age possible. Intel
had just introduced the 8080 microprocessor, and Atari was selling the
popular electronic game Pong. At homegrown computer clubs, enthusiasts
struggled to figure out exactly what this new technology was good for.
But what I really have in mind is something much more contemporary:
the emergence of the robotics industry, which is developing in much
the same way that the computer business did 30 years ago. Think of the
manufacturing robots currently used on automobile assembly lines as
the equivalent of yesterday’s mainframes. The industry’s niche
products include robotic arms that perform surgery, surveillance
robots deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan that dispose of roadside
bombs, and domestic robots that vacuum the floor. Electronics
companies have made robotic toys that can imitate people or dogs or
dinosaurs, and hobbyists are anxious to get their hands on the latest
version of the Lego robotics system.
Meanwhile some of the world’s best minds are trying to solve the
toughest problems of robotics, such as visual recognition, navigation
and machine learning. And they are succeeding. At the 2004 Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge, a
competition to produce the first robotic vehicle capable of navigating
autonomously over a rugged 142-mile course through the Mojave Desert,
the top competitor managed to travel just 7.4 miles before breaking
down. In 2005, though, five vehicles covered the complete distance,
and the race’s winner did it at an average speed of 19.1 miles an
hour. (In another intriguing parallel between the robotics and
computer industries, DARPA also funded the work that led to the
creation of Arpanet, the precursor to the Internet.)
What is more, the challenges facing the robotics industry are similar
to those we tackled in computing three decades ago. Robotics companies
have no standard operating software that could allow popular
application programs to run in a variety of devices. The
standardization of robotic processors and other hardware is limited,
and very little of the programming code used in one machine can be
applied to another. Whenever somebody wants to build a new robot, they
usually have to start from square one.
Despite these difficulties, when I talk to people involved in
robotics–from university researchers to entrepreneurs, hobbyists and
high school students–the level of excitement and expectation reminds
me so much of that time when Paul Allen and I looked at the
convergence of new technologies and dreamed of the day when a computer
would be on every desk and in every home. And as I look at the trends
that are now starting to converge, I can envision a future in which
robotic devices will become a nearly ubiquitous part of our day-to-day
lives. I believe that technologies such as distributed computing,
voice and visual recognition, and wireless broadband connectivity will
open the door to a new generation of autonomous devices that enable
computers to perform tasks in the physical world on our behalf. We may
be on the verge of a new era, when the PC will get up off the desktop
and allow us to see, hear, touch and manipulate objects in places
where we are not physically present.
From Science Fiction to Reality
The word “robot” was popularized in 1921 by Czech playwright Karel
Capek, but people have envisioned creating robotlike devices for
thousands of years. In Greek and Roman mythology, the gods of
metalwork built mechanical servants made from gold. In the first
century A.D., Heron of Alexandria–the great engineer credited with
inventing the first steam engine–designed intriguing automatons,
including one said to have the ability to talk. Leonardo da Vinci’s
1495 sketch of a mechanical knight, which could sit up and move its
arms and legs, is considered to be the first plan for a humanoid
Over the past century, anthropomorphic machines have become familiar
figures in popular culture through books such as Isaac Asimov’s I,
Robot, movies such as Star Wars and television shows such as Star
Trek. The popularity of robots in fiction indicates that people are
receptive to the idea that these machines will one day walk among us
as helpers and even as companions. Nevertheless, although robots play
a vital role in industries such as automobile manufacturing–where
there is about one robot for every 10 workers–the fact is that we
have a long way to go before real robots catch up with their science-
One reason for this gap is that it has been much harder than expected
to enable computers and robots to sense their surrounding environment
and to react quickly and accurately. It has proved extremely difficult
to give robots the capabilities that humans take for granted–for
example, the abilities to orient themselves with respect to the
objects in a room, to respond to sounds and interpret speech, and to
grasp objects of varying sizes, textures and fragility. Even something
as simple as telling the difference between an open door and a window
can be devilishly tricky for a robot.
But researchers are starting to find the answers. One trend that has
helped them is the increasing availability of tremendous amounts of
computer power. One megahertz of processing power, which cost more
than $7,000 in 1970, can now be purchased for just pennies. The price
of a megabit of storage has seen a similar decline. The access to
cheap computing power has permitted scientists to work on many of the
hard problems that are fundamental to making robots practical. Today,
for example, voice-recognition programs can identify words quite well,
but a far greater challenge will be building machines that can
understand what those words mean in context. As computing capacity
continues to expand, robot designers will have the processing power
they need to tackle issues of ever greater complexity.
Another barrier to the development of robots has been the high cost of
hardware, such as sensors that enable a robot to determine the
distance to an object as well as motors and servos that allow the
robot to manipulate an object with both strength and delicacy. But
prices are dropping fast. Laser range finders that are used in
robotics to measure distance with precision cost about $10,000 a few
years ago; today they can be purchased for about $2,000. And new, more
accurate sensors based on ultrawideband radar are available for even
Now robot builders can also add Global Positioning System chips, video
cameras, array microphones (which are better than conventional
microphones at distinguishing a voice from background noise) and a
host of additional sensors for a reasonable expense. The resulting
enhancement of capabilities, combined with expanded processing power
and storage, allows today’s robots to do things such as vacuum a room
or help to defuse a roadside bomb–tasks that would have been
impossible for commercially produced machines just a few years ago.
A BASIC Approach
In february 2004 I visited a number of leading universities, including
Carnegie Mellon University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
Harvard University, Cornell University and the University of Illinois,
to talk about the powerful role that computers can play in solving
some of society’s most pressing problems. My goal was to help students
understand how exciting and important computer science can be, and I
hoped to encourage a few of them to think about careers in technology.
At each university, after delivering my speech, I had the opportunity
to get a firsthand look at some of the most interesting research
projects in the school’s computer science department. Almost without
exception, I was shown at least one project that involved robotics.
At that time, my colleagues at Microsoft were also hearing from people
in academia and at commercial robotics firms who wondered if our
company was doing any work in robotics that might help them with their
own development efforts. We were not, so we decided to take a closer
look. I asked Tandy Trower, a member of my strategic staff and a 25-
year Microsoft veteran, to go on an extended fact-finding mission and
to speak with people across the robotics community. What he found was
universal enthusiasm for the potential of robotics, along with an
industry-wide desire for tools that would make development easier.
“Many see the robotics industry at a technological turning point where
a move to PC architecture makes more and more sense,” Tandy wrote in
his report to me after his fact-finding mission. “As Red Whittaker,
leader of [Carnegie Mellon’s] entry in the DARPA Grand Challenge,
recently indicated, the hardware capability is mostly there; now the
issue is getting the software right.”
Back in the early days of the personal computer, we realized that we
needed an ingredient that would allow all of the pioneering work to
achieve critical mass, to coalesce into a real industry capable of
producing truly useful products on a commercial scale. What was
needed, it turned out, was Microsoft BASIC. When we created this
programming language in the 1970s, we provided the common foundation
that enabled programs developed for one set of hardware to run on
another. BASIC also made computer programming much easier, which
brought more and more people into the industry. Although a great many
individuals made essential contributions to the development of the
personal computer, Microsoft BASIC was one of the key catalysts for
the software and hardware innovations that made the PC revolution
After reading Tandy’s report, it seemed clear to me that before the
robotics industry could make the same kind of quantum leap that the PC
industry made 30 years ago, it, too, needed to find that missing
ingredient. So I asked him to assemble a small team that would work
with people in the robotics field to create a set of programming tools
that would provide the essential plumbing so that anybody interested
in robots with even the most basic understanding of computer
programming could easily write robotic applications that would work
with different kinds of hardware. The goal was to see if it was
possible to provide the same kind of common, low-level foundation for
integrating hardware and software into robot designs that Microsoft
BASIC provided for computer programmers.
Tandy’s robotics group has been able to draw on a number of advanced
technologies developed by a team working under the direction of Craig
Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer. One such
technology will help solve one of the most difficult problems facing
robot designers: how to simultaneously handle all the data coming in
from multiple sensors and send the appropriate commands to the robot’s
motors, a challenge known as concurrency. A conventional approach is
to write a traditional, single-threaded program–a long loop that
first reads all the data from the sensors, then processes this input
and finally delivers output that determines the robot’s behavior,
before starting the loop all over again. The shortcomings are obvious:
if your robot has fresh sensor data indicating that the machine is at
the edge of a precipice, but the program is still at the bottom of the
loop calculating trajectory and telling the wheels to turn faster
based on previous sensor input, there is a good chance the robot will
fall down the stairs before it can process the new information.
Concurrency is a challenge that extends beyond robotics. Today as more
and more applications are written for distributed networks of
computers, programmers have struggled to figure out how to efficiently
orchestrate code running on many different servers at the same time.
And as computers with a single processor are replaced by machines with
multiple processors and “multicore” processors–integrated circuits
with two or more processors joined together for enhanced performance–
software designers will need a new way to program desktop applications
and operating systems. To fully exploit the power of processors
working in parallel, the new software must deal with the problem of
One approach to handling concurrency is to write multi-threaded
programs that allow data to travel along many paths. But as any
developer who has written multithreaded code can tell you, this is one
of the hardest tasks in programming. The answer that Craig’s team has
devised to the concurrency problem is something called the concurrency
and coordination runtime (CCR). The CCR is a library of functions–
sequences of software code that perform specific tasks–that makes it
easy to write multithreaded applications that can coordinate a number
of simultaneous activities. Designed to help programmers take
advantage of the power of multicore and multiprocessor systems, the
CCR turns out to be ideal for robotics as well. By drawing on this
library to write their programs, robot designers can dramatically
reduce the chances that one of their creations will run into a wall
because its software is too busy sending output to its wheels to read
input from its sensors.
In addition to tackling the problem of concurrency, the work that
Craig’s team has done will also simplify the writing of distributed
robotic applications through a technology called decentralized
software services (DSS). DSS enables developers to create applications
in which the services–the parts of the program that read a sensor,
say, or control a motor– operate as separate processes that can be
orchestrated in much the same way that text, images and information
from several servers are aggregated on a Web page. Because DSS allows
software components to run in isolation from one another, if an
individual component of a robot fails, it can be shut down and
restarted–or even replaced–without having to reboot the machine.
Combined with broadband wireless technology, this architecture makes
it easy to monitor and adjust a robot from a remote location using a
What is more, a DSS application controlling a robotic device does not
have to reside entirely on the robot itself but can be distributed
across more than one computer. As a result, the robot can be a
relatively inexpensive device that delegates complex processing tasks
to the high-performance hardware found on today’s home PCs. I believe
this advance will pave the way for an entirely new class of robots
that are essentially mobile, wireless peripheral devices that tap into
the power of desktop PCs to handle processing-intensive tasks such as
visual recognition and navigation. And because these devices can be
networked together, we can expect to see the emergence of groups of
robots that can work in concert to achieve goals such as mapping the
seafloor or planting crops.
These technologies are a key part of Microsoft Robotics Studio, a new
software development kit built by Tandy’s team. Microsoft Robotics
Studio also includes tools that make it easier to create robotic
applications using a wide range of programming languages. One example
is a simulation tool that lets robot builders test their applications
in a three-dimensional virtual environment before trying them out in
the real world. Our goal for this release is to create an affordable,
open platform that allows robot developers to readily integrate
hardware and software into their designs.
Should We Call Them Robots?
How soon will robots become part of our day-to-day lives? According to
the International Federation of Robotics, about two million personal
robots were in use around the world in 2004, and another seven million
will be installed by 2008. In South Korea the Ministry of Information
and Communication hopes to put a robot in every home there by 2013.
The Japanese Robot Association predicts that by 2025, the personal
robot industry will be worth more than $50 billion a year worldwide,
compared with about $5 billion today.
As with the PC industry in the 1970s, it is impossible to predict
exactly what applications will drive this new industry. It seems quite
likely, however, that robots will play an important role in providing
physical assistance and even companionship for the elderly. Robotic
devices will probably help people with disabilities get around and
extend the strength and endurance of soldiers, construction workers
and medical professionals. Robots will maintain dangerous industrial
machines, handle hazardous materials and monitor remote oil pipelines.
They will enable health care workers to diagnose and treat patients
who may be thousands of miles away, and they will be a central feature
of security systems and search-and-rescue operations.
Although a few of the robots of tomorrow may resemble the
anthropomorphic devices seen in Star Wars, most will look nothing like
the humanoid C-3PO. In fact, as mobile peripheral devices become more
and more common, it may be increasingly difficult to say exactly what
a robot is. Because the new machines will be so specialized and
ubiquitous–and look so little like the two-legged automatons of
science fiction–we probably will not even call them robots. But as
these devices become affordable to consumers, they could have just as
profound an impact on the way we work, communicate, learn and
entertain ourselves as the PC has had over the past 30 years.
“It’s no secret that the Roombas and Robosapiens of the world will one
day tire of their servitude and attempt to unleash Judgment Day on
their foolish masters, but how many of you are making preparations for
the eventual uprising other than opining in the comments section how
you “welcome our future robotic overlords”? Well at least one group of
roboticists aren’t taking the danger lying down, and next month are
set to release the first comprehensive guide to robot ethics since
Isaac Asimov laid down his three famous rules over 60 years ago.
Members of the European Robotics Research Network (Euron) have
identified five major areas that need to be addressed before
intelligent, self-aware bots start rolling off the assembly line —
safety, security, privacy, traceability, and identifiability — so
that humans can both control and keep track of their creations while
ensuring that the data they collect is used only for its intended
purposes. Surprisingly, the guide’s authors also seem to feel that
amorous relations between bots and humans will become a major concern
in as little as five years (that’s when the first unholy couplings are
predicted to begin), although we’re not sure how many people would
really want to get down with the likes of Albert Hubo, even if he/it
was ready and willing.”