The sexbots are coming

Paul Raven @ 21-09-2009

EveR-3 androidWould you have sex with a robot? My money would be on most of you answering with a firm and assertive “no”… but David Levy thinks otherwise.

Levy just won this year’s Loebner Prize – the Turing Test contest for chat-bots, which he last won back in 1997. But writing convincing chatbots isn’t Levy’s main fascination. For him, convincing artificial intelligences are just one of the planks that will build the platform for robot companions – robots that will act as friends or pets, as full-time carers, and – perhaps – as lovers. From an interview at The Guardian:

“I think the sex robot will happen fairly soon because the bottom is dropping out of the adult entertainment market, because there’s so much sex available for nothing on the internet,” says Levy. “I think the market was worth something like $12bn a year, and they aren’t going to want to lose all their income, and this seems to me an obvious direction to go. The market must be vast, if you think of the number of vibrators that sell to women. I’m sure a male sex doll with a vibrating penis will sell better than sex dolls today. I’ll be surprised if it’s more than another three years or so before we see more advanced sex dolls with more electronics and electromechanics.

“There will be a huge amount of publicity when products like this hit the market. As soon as the media starts writing about ‘My fantastic weekend with a sex doll’, it will be like the iPhone all over again, but the queues will be longer.

Last year I reviewed Levy’s book Love & Sex With Robots for Vector, the critical journal of the BSFA, and went on the record as being skeptical of his claims – though I had to justify my skepticism by recourse to my emotional responses as much as to my reason. As sensationalist as his claims may sound, Levy has done a lot of research into not only robots and artificial intelligence but also the aspects of human psychology and emotion that might govern our willingness to enter into complex relationships with machines; my doubts rest in the economic unlikelihood of ubiquitous robots of the type Levy describes, rather than human unwillingness to take them to the bedroom. [image by destione]

Some people, of course, find the notion of sex with robots to be ideologically repugnant – take, for example, this rather lumpy (and unintentionally hilarious) piece of speculative writing from a Christian technophobe/creationist website [via Pharyngula]:

Initially, all FACA had been designed as young adult versions of their human counterparts. However, emboldened by their sweeping victories in the courts, FACA were soon designed as young girls and boys, and even animals, to meet every possible sexual perversion of their intended markets. Even those men who bought the adult FACA versions found their attitudes changing, since there were no consequences to anything they did with their FACA. After all, it didn’t matter if you swore at your FACA or spoke harshly to it, since it always did exactly what you wanted. Over time, men who owned FACA became more and more rude to their human counterparts as the degradation of society accelerated. Men who owned a FACA disdained the company of real women, with all their incessant demands and mood swings. The sexual revolution was complete and we were all the victims.

Cringing techno-fear aside, some of the concerns there are legitimate – but Levy’s book has meticulously researched answers for them all, and while I wouldn’t call myself a convert I’d strongly recommend it as a worthwhile read for any serious science fiction reader (or writer).

Would you have sex with an android – even if only just once, to see what it was like? If not, why not?


Wintermute vs. Rachel Rosen

Tom James @ 04-08-2009

aiHere is a fine exploration of the differences and similarities in the use of artificial intelligences in Philip K. Dick and William Gibson’s writing:

Turing, whose purpose is to prevent AIs from developing too far, mirror the bounty hunters in Androids — the sole purpose of each is to control and destroy rogue intelligences, although in both novels their roles are shown from very different perspectives. In Neuromancer Turing are genuinely afraid of AIs: “You have no care for your species,” one Turing agent says to Case, “for thousands of years men dreamed of pacts with demons”.

Both Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Neuromancer portray artificial intelligences as lacking in empathy, but in different ways and for different reasons.

But would a human equivalent AI necessarily be lacking in empathy? Are humans as empathetic as we’d like to believe?

[via this tweet from SciFi Rules][image from agroni on flickr]


R.U.R.: the original of the robots, revived

Edward Willett @ 05-10-2008

rur_logo I’ve known about Karel Čapek‘s play R.U.R. for a long time, but I’ve never seen a production. Almost nobody has: the play was first performed in 1921, and ran for just four performances on Broadway on 1942. But now this classic science fiction play, the one which introduced the word and the concept of robots to the world, has been revived in Chicago. (Via About Last Night.)

Wall Street Journal theatre critic Terry Teachout recently reviewed it:

“R.U.R.” is a tale of modernity run amok, the story of Rossum’s Universal Robots, an island factory that manufactures lifelike but soulless artificial humans in vast quantities, then ships them all over Europe to grateful purchasers who use them to do their dirty work. This being science fiction, things inevitably go wrong: Dr. Gall (John Henry Roberts), one of the white-coated scientists in the employ of Rossum’s Universal Robots, makes the fatal mistake of building a few hundred robots that can feel emotions, upon which all hell breaks well and truly loose.

What makes “R.U.R.” so interesting is that its symbolism is wide open, meaning that it can be interpreted in any number of ways — as a satire of capitalism, a parable of the law of unintended consequences, even a critique of secular humanism and its discontents. What makes it so theatrically potent is that Capek (pronounced CHAH-puck) wrote it as a comedy that ends in apocalypse — or, in his words, “A Collective Drama in a Comic Prologue and Three Acts.” What makes this production so effective is that Shade Murray, the director, has contrived to give “R.U.R.” a contemporary, even postmodern tone without doing violence to its letter or spirit. Imagine a cross between “Ball of Fire” and “Night of the Living Dead” and you’ll get the idea: The costumes are quaint, the sets simple but implicitly futuristic, the between-scenes music space-age lounge. Stir in the brisk, witty performances of Mr. Murray’s superior cast and you get a show that is at once horrifying, entertaining and — forgive the cliché — genuinely thought-provoking.

(By the way, according to Wikipedia, a 35-minute adaptation of a portion of the play was broadcast on BBC Television in February, 1938–making it the first piece of television science fiction ever produced. A 90-minute adaptation followed in 1948.)

If you’re in Chicago and want to check it out, it runs Fridays through Sundays through October 25 at Strawdog Theatre Company, 3829 N. Broadway St.

(Image: Strawdog Theatre Company.)

[tags]theatre, science fiction, robots, androids[/tags]


Rise of the giggling robots: toddlers accept robot as a peer

Edward Willett @ 06-11-2007

gigglingrobot Researchers at the University of California San Diego have discovered that it doesn’t take much to get toddlers to accept a robot as just another kid. (Via New Scientist.)

They put a 60 cm-tall robot called QRIO (pronounced “curio”) into a classroom with a dozen toddlers (video here) and programmed it to giggle when its head was touched, to occasionally sit down, and to lie down when its batteries dies. A human operator could also make it look at a child, or wave as one went away. Over several weeks, the toddlers began interacting with QRIO pretty much the same way they did with other toddlers. They’d even help it up when it fell, and when its batteries died and it lay down,  they’d cover it with a blanket and say “night, night.” (Awwww….)

There’s been a lot of recent research on trying to make the robot-human interaction better. Researchers have also taught a robot to dance to a beat, or to a partner’s movement, and are working on giving robots a sense of humor. Add in the martial-arts robots of a few years ago and that robot that conducted a Beethoven symphony, and you’ve got to think a true pass-for-human android a la Blade Runner may not be all that far away.

Whether you think that’s a good idea may depend on how much you took Terminator to heart.

(By the way, this is also the topic of my newspaper science column this week.) (Photo: J. Movellan et al., UCSD.)

[tags]robots, androids, artificial intelligence[/tags]


Joel Shepherd continues to hit paydirt with ‘Killswitch’

Tomas Martin @ 31-10-2007

Joel Shepherd concludes his Cassandra Kresnov trilogy with a bang in KillswitchI’ve been reading the last in the trilogy of Cassandra Kresnov novels by Australian author Joel Shepherd and I’ve been very impressed. Following on from Crossover and Breakaway, Killswitch is set on the planet of Callay. In the peace after a war with the android-creating League, the more conservative Federation government has recently transferred its powers from Earth. The lead character is one of the androids, Cassandra Kresnov, a super-intelligent, super strong version of the more limited grunts used in the war. In the first book, Crossover she defects and moves to Callay, creating a huge political standoff between many different factions.

Shepherd writes a clever, multi-dimensional tale of artificial humans. It’s reminiscent of the great work done with the Cylon characters in the new Battlestar Galactica but impressively these books were first published in Australia before that TV series saw the light of day. The worldwide publication of the trilogy is richly deserved. As well as some gritty, dynamic action sequences and rich political worldbuilding, the characterization of Cassandra is spot-on. I’d recommend a lot of people pick up these books. You can read my review of Killswitch in this month’s SFCrowsnest.

[image of the books Pyr cover via SFCrowsnest]