The word ‘teledildonics’ has been around at least since 1990. And it remains current, even if the phenomenon it names is sometimes also called sex with robots. The theme was the focus of a conference banned this past summer in Malaysia as ‘too extreme’ according to The Daily Mail (or ‘illegal’ inasmuch as sex for sale is, after all, still sex for sale — even with robot partners), now re-scheduled for Goldsmiths, University of London, just ahead of Christmas: The International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots, to ‘explore’ (as the conference organizers put it) human relationships with artificial partners (19-20 December 2016).
And why not? This is the “Stepford Wife” or Valley of the Dolls phenomenon — it is also what a lot of people already conform to in order to have a relationship (hiding their personality, disguising their figure, changing their hair color, for the sake of a partner or to entice social interaction).
But why have a relationship with a real person? Would a robot not be better?
Figure 1. Slide from Babette Babich, Philosophy and Digital Media, The Juilliard School, 21 November 2016
The romantic attraction is clear to some but the argument is more appealing when it comes to arranging for the care for the aged and infirm: a point made by Steve Fuller, the sociologist and philosopher, in a video conversation. And he’s right: human caretakers can be cruel; sometimes they steal; they get tired, have bad days, and are rude in almost all cases.
Figure 2 Frank Langella, Robot & Frank, 2012. Slide from Babich, Philosophy and Digital Media. The Juilliard School, 21 November 2016.
Why not have a robot caring for grandma or grandpa, able to shower them with infinite attention, offer infinite patience for their slowness, their deafness, their forgetfulness? Add-on options might well include sex (and Viagra) — what more could one ask!
Figure 3. Slide from Babich, Philosophy and Digital Media, The Juilliard School, 21 November 2016.
This is not the place to point to the ongoing sexism of this vision of sex, be it that of the regular sex-doll or the caretaker version, where the only subject of sexual desire is male. (This is a point the philosopher Luce Irigaray has made brilliantly throughout her career). What matters is that at least as far back as Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis, films have been made to showcase this promise of the ultimately subordinate object of desire. But, again: why should it matter that these lovers or caretakers are not human but machines? Is this not the ideal robot fantasy of Asimov’s I, Robot?
We get ahead of ourselves in our dreams, and perhaps better for exploring these connections might be the super-soldier or police ideal long on the military drawing board. Not the cyborg hero of RoboCop, who was a typically cliché Irish cop — dead yes, albeit with human elements — but his all-machine, clunky robot adversary. Not surprisingly, when it comes to man vs. machine, John Henry style, the (transhuman) man wins.
Figure 4 RoboCop. Slide from Babich, Philosophy and Digital Media, The Juilliard School, 21 November 2016.
To go back to what is euphemistically called love (by contrast with killing machines) the allure is one-sided malleability just where non-reciprocity epitomizes so-called social media.
The AI ideal of an ideal friend turns out to be an ideal girl-friend: young, pretty, and above all friendly, always positive, no complexity, no troublesome depths or aspects. This is what every prostitute pretends to be as a matter of business practice and this same superficiality (call it ‘emotional labor’ if you like) seems to pass the Turing test from Eliza to Suri.
To quote the headline of a mid-September 2015 article in the UK newspaper, Telegraph: “By 2050, human-on-robot sex will be more common than human-on-human sex, says report.” And earlier still, the illustrations used by one blogger to argue for robot sex diagram a kind of mechanical Vaucanson’s female, as Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782) had designed a mechanical version of a duck for the production of fois gras, something that has long appealed to the French for reasons of efficiency (rather than compassion).
Figure 5 Vaucanson, Canard Digérateur [digesting duck]. 1739. Speculative projection of the interior. Public domain.
In Vaucanson’s design from the mid-1730’s we have a blueprint for we would today call 3-D printing of fois gras. At least in theory and this too parallels sex doll robots: Vaucanson’s duck was reduced to points relevant for the production of fois gras, namely input of grain (or fish), processing, and output, ideally yielding (shades of factory meat) not the usual excretory results of digestion in the case of ducks and geese but just and only fois gras. Traditionally, one has to kill ducks or geese after fattening them for their livers but were one able to build a mechanical duck or goose of this kind, one would not only never need to kill the goose, as it were, but dealing with animal waste would be a thing of the past.
This promise is the virtue of the sex-doll robot (clean-up details are still in beta mode) and the same streamlined functionality is what tempts today’s Pygmalions hoping to build a better mousetrap by creating the Galatea of their dreams.
Figure 6 Roxxxy sex robot, with engineer-inventor, Douglas Hines. Slide from Babich, Philosophy and Digital Media, The Juilliard School, 21 November 2016.
Eliminating the need to otherwise attend to a girlfriend (apart, once again, from cleaning and cosmetic maintenance), the sex doll robot is reduced to erotic details: hence the design of the mouth and other sexually relevant organs.
Figure 7 Soubrobotte 2014. With the permission of the artist, César Vonc. Website: http://cesar.vonc.fr/
The image John P appropriated (without attribution) in his web post is the creation of César Vonc, a French artist who called his conceptual and still speculative design for a 3D printed Sex Robot, the Soubrobotte. Even before researching the source (on the internet, no one cites anything), I thought of Vaucanson’s mechanism as result of earlier research on ancient Greek, life-size bronzes — also, at greater length, in German.
Figure 8 Georg Roemer, Doryphoros, after Polyclitus. Height: 2 m. Munich. Destroyed: 1944. Slide from Babich, “Greek Bronze in the Light of Life,” Ancient Philosophy Society with BACAP, Boston College, 12 April 2007; also, invitation of Peter Sloterdijk, German Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung, Karlsruhe, November, 2007.
Instead of, as is traditionally done, dismissing ancient reports of walking or talking statues, I ask what might have been meant by such claims? Hence, Plato’s Socrates invokes his ancient ancestor Daedalus as having had such constructivist prowess and he does so in express contrast to metaphor. Additionally, there are stories of the bronze automaton, Talos, and, further, the 7th Century BCE lyric poet, Pindar sings of the famous ‘telchines’ of Rhodes and their moving statues, etc. Assuming technical tricks were at work, as they surely were, what were these very technical tricks?
In today’s transhuman condition we anticipate an utterly transformed world now soon to include robot sex. But like the interactive statues of antiquity, this newness is exaggerated. Did the hero of Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint not, already, have sex with a piece of raw liver (and the idea of having sex with a piece of meat goes back to ancient Greek literature and doubtless well before that)? What about sex dolls, i.e., the blow-up kind or the heavier silicone kind? Did not the ancients themselves (ah, those Greeks!) complain of the messes made, the literal besmirching of ancient statues, caused by those who were already supposed to be having sex with these putatively life-like statues, so much so that the practice actually has a name: agalmatophilia).
Figure 9 Barberini Faun, Glyptothek. Munich. Photograph, Babette Babich, 2012
Today’s presentist scholars can fail to understand that one can ‘stain’ a statue made of marble. But to know that one has to know something about the porosity of stone (especially marble) if today’s classicists already do ‘know,’ as in the case of one recent article that it must really have been a tall tale, signifying nothing ‘real,’ just invented to attract tourists. What, one wonders, would be different in the case of today’s sex-robot love?
And all this, if not quite the details raised in the questions above, is scheduled for a teledildonics conference in London, the week before Christmas.
Or as they call it: Love, Actually.