Inside the brain of a racy science-fiction writer.
Patrick Quinlan (PQ), who recently released his new ebook Sexbot, spoke to Future of Sex (FoS) about his work and how close his tale is to becoming real.
FoS: For Future of Sex readers, could you give a brief rundown of what Sexbot is about?
PQ: Sexbot is the story of a robotics scientist named Susan Jones. She is one of the inventors of the Sexbot, the world’s most advanced sex toy. She works for a company called Suncoast Cybernetics, and both she, and the company, are becoming very wealthy. But even as the Sexbot becomes more and more realistic, and more and more popular, she becomes disillusioned and wants to work on something else.
With the company’s blessing, she and a partner, Martin Wacker, work on a project where they try to download the awareness of chimpanzees into intelligent machines. To their surprise, it works. They have discovered a possible technique to create immortality. The company, sensing that the discovery will be worth billions of dollars, wants to rush to human trials. But Susan and Martin are troubled by the ethics of the discovery, and want to delay human trials. They want to publish their findings, get outside scientists involved, the government—perhaps the United Nations. So the company decides to kill them instead.
Wacker gets killed right away. When the company assassins break into Susan’s home, she escapes to her private lab. She has the equipment to carry out the download right in her lab. So just before she is murdered, she downloads herself into the most intelligent machine she has, which is a prototype for the ninth, and newest, generation of Sexbots.
The download is successful and Susan is inside Number Nine, the most advanced Sexbot. She is dead and alive at the same time, on the run from the company, using her feminine wiles to survive, and out to solve and avenge her own murder.
FoS: How far away do you think we are from realistic sex robots? And how long before people will be able to download human awareness into machines like computers and robots?
PQ: I think we could be very close to realistic sexbots. A lot of technologies are coming together that could make it possible.
There are sex doll products being made in the United States and Japan at this moment, like the RealDoll and the Honey Doll, that look startlingly like real people. They are also designed to feel like real people, in the sense of having flesh and orifices that seem real. But these products don’t move on their own and have no intelligence. They’re just dolls, like the old sex dolls, only a lot more lifelike.
There are also people who are at least trying to make sex robots. There’s something in the United States called True Companion which is making and marketing a sex robot called Roxxxy for just under a thousands dollars. There’s a reason why RealDolls run about $6,000, and Roxxxy goes for $995. I’ve seen videos of Roxxxy in action here and there on the Internet. She doesn’t look real. She is bizarre and disturbing to watch. Personally, I wouldn’t go near one of these things because I’d be afraid something might break off.
What seems to be missing is the will (or the financial incentive) to wed something like RealDoll to some of the advanced robotics going on now. A Japanese scientist named Hiroshi Ishiguro, and the people who work with him, have made gigantic strides in recent years in creating robots that look and move and make facial expressions very much like humans do. They call these robots geminoids, and they’re part of his ongoing project to study the interface of humanity with technology.
If you look at a RealDoll, and watch video of Ishiguro’s creations, you will see incredible possibilities.
I think the sticking point here is that it will take money to wed these technologies. Abyss Creations, the people who make RealDoll, are making a fortune. They have a consumer base that love their dolls, and a price point where they know they can sell a lot of them. There’s no incentive for them to build a sex robot that might or might not work, and which will cost their customers 10 or 20 times what they pay for a RealDoll.
Meanwhile, people like Ishiguro live on grant funding, and although he has studied emotional and physical response to robots (he did a study, for example, that found that one of his robots hugging you decreases your cortisol levels) no one is going to give him a grant to make an actual sex doll.
Then there’s the military. A lot of what they do is a secret, but I think it’s safe to say they’ve probably got robotics that are way past what even Ishiguro is doing. It wouldn’t surprise me if the CIA already has sexbots, and they’re out there as prostitutes right now, slipping LSD into the drinks of unsuspecting johns.
In terms of downloading human awareness into machines, I’d say that’s a longer-term problem. We don’t really know what human awareness is, or where it resides. I think it’s possible that it isn’t in the brain. I went to a quack doctor for a while (who was helpful to me in some ways) who is convinced that human awareness is actually in a quantum field, mostly very close to the human body, but also reaching out in all directions and touching everywhere in the universe. If true, perhaps they can develop a machine that can capture this and copy it.
I know that a Russian billionaire named Dmitry Itskov is throwing millions of dollars into something called the 2045 Initiative, which he hopes will develop exactly this kind of immortality. I think Itskov picked 2045 mostly because it seems far away enough to be reasonable, but close enough that he personally will likely still be alive at that time.
FOS: So you think the CIA could have already developed realistic and passable robots?
PQ: I was being a little tongue-in-cheek there. I was also referring to a notorious CIA program called MK-ULTRA, which was kept secret for two decades from the 1950s into the 1970s (and maybe up to the present), in which the CIA attempted to create mind control techniques, with some success. Many of the modern torture techniques used to, say, extract information from Islamic militants, are based on techniques developed during MK-ULTRA. As part of MK-ULTRA, the CIA used unwitting subjects, often children and the mentally ill being housed in institutions in the U.S. and Canada. And subjected them to physical torture, sexual abuse, sleep deprivation, constant light, constant loud noise, and the like.
Another technique they used was they would have prostitutes slip LSD into the drinks of their clients. This was long before LSD was in use by the wider public. No one knew what it was, and no one had experience with it. So the idea was to get some random schmuck who was visiting a prostitute, give him a drug that would make him hallucinate (and since he had never taken it before and indeed, had never even heard of such a thing, the most likely thing for him to believe was that he was going insane), and then watch to see what he did.
That said, I have no idea if the CIA has robot sex dolls. I know that the military robots the United States government has released information about are pretty much terrifying. If you get a chance, YouTube the military robots from a company called Boston Dynamics. These robots are being developed under contract with the Pentagon. I have a friend who was walking in Cambridge one day (just across the Charles River from Boston), and came across some Boston Dynamics staff out testing one of their robots. She had nightmares about it, on and off, for months.
These are the non-classified, non-secret robots that we are allowed to know about. Which means that as advanced as the technology seems to us, the scientists have already moved far ahead of it.
The robots that are TOP SECRET? They could be walking among us right now, and we’d never know.
FOS: What technology is out there, or yet to be invented, that would create what you’d call a very realistic sexbot?
PQ: Some of the technologies are ones I mentioned. Sex dolls that look and feel real. Advanced robotics that mimic the way humans move and their facial expressions. I think if you put these two things together right now, you’d have a pretty realistic sexbot.
One thing I didn’t mention earlier is that the Japanese sex doll, the Honey Doll, comes with a built in MP3 player. It makes sounds while you have sex with it. It even says things, and you can even add new sounds for it to make and things for it to say. According to one translator, one of the standard phrases it comes with is the Japanese phrase for “No, please!” I guess that’s for people who want to imagine they’re raping the doll.
In any case, realistic voice technology like that is widely available, and could be added to any sexbot.
For me, I think what would bring the whole thing to a high level of realism is brains. Science is making huge strides in artificial intelligence right now. They’ve got computers that can beat the best chess masters in the world. They’ve got machines that can mimic the way humans see, and they’re beginning to develop machines that can, in a rudimentary way, mimic the way humans make decisions.
I think you want a sexbot that’s smart. One that can come to a party with you, chat somewhat intelligently with your friends, and maybe drive you home if you’ve had a few too many. Then give you mind-blowing sex all night. And in the morning, when you’re remembering (and starting to lament) what a drunken jerk you were at the party, she can console you and get you some ibuprofen and a glass of water, and tell you how wonderful you are, no matter what those other people might think.
FOS: Your answers give rise to some ethical questions, including creating a sexbot for people with rape fantasies. Is programming a sexbot for non-consensual acts that are illegal in the human world a good thing?
PQ: Tricky one.
I have known numerous police officers over the years. In general, they tend to believe that serial rapists and child molesters are impossible to rehabilitate or cure. People like this will never stop their behavior until they’re arrested. When they get out of prison, it’s only a matter of time until they begin to get up to their old tricks. This is what the police believe, and they live on the front lines of dealing with this behavior.
Most cops I’ve known, in private, will quietly advocate killing repeat sexual offenders. “Bang! Problem solved. I’d kill one every morning if they needed volunteers.” A cop once said that to me.
But that’s not going to happen.
Some time ago, when I was a journalist, I was familiar with the case of a violent serial rapist who was imprisoned for 20 years. He was sentenced to 20 years, and he did every minute of that time because the prison officials were convinced that he was not rehabilitated, had no interest in being rehabilitated, and would offend again as soon as he could.
After 20 years, they had to let him go. He was not on parole, he did not have to check in with any parole or probation officer, he did not have to remain in the state. He had served all of his time. His debt to society was fully paid. All he had to do was register with the local municipality when he moved into a town. But this is hard to enforce or keep track of. And people use fake names all the time. The Department of Corrections had some hope they could monitor his whereabouts, but after about six months, he disappeared.
Currently, you can’t castrate someone like this—he has civil rights. And it wouldn’t matter anyway. If you castrated him, chemically or otherwise, he’d just find some other way to carry out his violent acts. If somehow, there were a way that a man like this could instead rape robots, even robots that appear to be children, and as a result wouldn’t rape actual humans, I think that would be preferable.
In fact, if you gave him a robot, the robot could upload data about his sexual behavior. Over time you could generate aggregate data about people like this, map some patterns, and perhaps have advance warning when he was about to start offending again.
Of course, if the sexbots eventually became self-aware, then I suppose that would raise new ethical questions about using them as rape dolls. But we’re quite a ways from that scenario.
Here’s an easier one. A lot of otherwise normal women have fantasies about being raped, but would never want to be raped in real life. And a lot of otherwise normal men, who would never hurt a fly, have fantasies about carrying out rapes (or being raped, for that matter). If people like this could use robots to play around with these fantasies, I don’t see any obvious harm in that.
Sexbot is currently available as an ebook from Kindle, Nook, and iTunes. It’s set for release as a paperback in North American fall 2014.
Image source: Patrick Quinlan