When I was in the third grade, I spent most of the fall hooked up to an intravenous machine I nicknamed Travis. I was lonely, and I felt terrible playing with the other kids in the children's wing of the hospital. Many of them were terminal patients. I was only nine years old and not ready to face the mortality of everyone in the ward, especially my own.
Instead, I spent a lot of time in my room talking to Travis. I named him that because I misheard the doctor and thought Travis was an "In Travis Machine." He consisted of a long pole on four small wheels with a rectangular computer interface on top (kind of like Wall-E) and a bag of medicine below (kind of like a tiny gut). From the bag came the tube connecting Travis to the needle in the vein on top of my hand. We were so attached in that way that when I dragged him around the hospital, it felt like we were holding hands.
Was I in love with Travis? No. I was a child. But it comforted me to think of him as a friend. If I wanted to move around the hospital, I would tell my mom that Travis and I were "going for a walk." If I needed more horrible, invasive tests, my mom would tell me that Travis would be right by my side.
Travis possessed no hint of artificial intelligence. In fact, he wasn't meant to seem human at all. But I anthropomorphized him because in my time of crisis, I needed him to seem real. Like Tom Hanks' volleyball, Wilson, in Castaway, Travis was someone with whom I could share this bleak episode.
When I was cleared to leave the hospital—my illness better, but still undiagnosed (the best guess was that I picked up a virus from a mosquito bite at the beach)—I was sad to say "goodbye" to my intravenous buddy. I think I even asked if I could bring him home.
That's the ABC Family version of the plot of Spike Jonze's Her. In the film, the protagonist, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), enters into a relationship with his disembodied operating system (Scarlett Johansson) after a devastating divorce from his childhood sweetheart. The operating system, Samantha, is like a warmer, more human-sounding version of Siri. For Twombly, she functions first as a secretary, then as a confidante and finally as a lover.
After seeing the film, a friend told me she felt sympathy for Twombly, who she found pathetic and incapable of connecting with another human being.
I felt differently. Embarrassingly, I felt like Twombly.
Like him, I'm positive I could fall in love with an operating system.
One night, while tumbling down a YouTube wormhole, I found a considerable number of videos starring increasingly sophisticated robots. A "child" named Diego with a mechanical body and little boy's smile. A humanoid head and torso asking questions about androgyny. An android girlfriend having Christmas dinner with her human boyfriend's parents. Each of these robots had language skills, self-actualized thoughts, programmed sexual preferences and/or aesthetically pleasing faces. In other words, they were intended to build relationships with us.
In his book Love + Sex with Robots, British researcher David Levy breaks down the evolution of the human-robot relationship. He writes that many early robots were created by people building lifelike mechanical birds, but soon, they realized that the more "human" a robot looked, the more appealing it became. By 1920, when the Czechs coined the term "robot" in their theatrical plays, the beings looked like, and were portrayed by, humans.
Today, researchers claim that robots will soon work as our maids, nannies and/or nurses. Think of a talking Roomba or a baby monitor that looks like grandma. Late last month, Google bought DeepMind, an artificial-intelligence startup, for $500 million in the hopes of building a search engine that acts as a "cybernetic friend." "Friend" is the optimal word. A 2007 robotics study from the University of California, San Diego found that toddlers became emotionally attached to a similarly sized humanoid robot that responded to their touch. The kids even went as far as covering the bot with a blanket and telling it "night, night" when its batteries died. And last year, military research showed that soldiers were becoming too connected to the bomb-detecting rovers assigned to their teams, giving the rovers names and genders and even risking their own lives so their little R2D2s wouldn't be harmed.
So humans genuinely feeling affection toward robots isn't just a possibility; it's already happening.
But anyone with a libido really only wants to know one thing about the future of robots: Will he or she be able to fuck them?
"The largest sex organ that every person has is the brain," inventor Douglas Hines, the man behind the humanoid sex robot "Roxxxy" told Asylum.com in 2010. For the most part, Roxxxy (and its male counterpart, Rocky) is a rubbery, dead-eyed, spread-eagled Frankenstein. That said, some of the potential customers interviewed after Hines' demo thought she looked "fun." Others didn't feel the connection. "That's the hardest challenge for us," Hines explained, "to provide the artificial-intelligence experience where you're actually conversing and creating a relationship with an inanimate object."
Roxxxy has different settings and personalities (e.g., Wild Wendy) that can be configured according to what the buyer wants. She is described on the manufacturer's website as being "anatomically consistent with a human." (I'm assuming that means she's got a "Fleshlight"-type opening not unlike the detachable, vibrating vagina belonging to the cyborg hottie in the third season of Archer.) In some models, the pelvic area moves and thrusts. Roxxxy, however, cannot walk; as such, she's always sitting in a sprawling position with her mouth open. Her price starts at $1,000 and increases based on upgrades like conversational skills outside the bedroom and the ability to feel your touch on her "skin."
The idea of Roxxxy is appealing but the look of her, at least currently, is not. She still resembles a gutted doll, with blank features and gears showing on her neck. Which is where the competition comes in. For instance, there's Jules, who isn't a sex robot, but who is far more advanced than Roxxxy. In one video, he ponders his own sexuality and hems and haws over his ability to have sex. (The My Dinner with Andre version of Roxxxy.) There are also RealDolls, which are actually sexually appealing—done up with mascara and pouty lips. (The hotter, but braindead, version of Roxxxy.) Their creator, Matt McMullen, admitted in a video interview (circa 2012) that he's toyed with combining the hyper-realistic dolls with some sort of OS: "I certainly have tinkered with that over the years and even today, it's something that I work on. I have yet to come up with the appropriate means of combining those two worlds together, but I do believe that we're almost there."
Finally, in November, a company called Tenga teamed with another virtual reality company called Oculus VR to create VR Tinga, a tube where a robot made for men gives a virtual handjob. (The crude, jack-shack version of Roxxxy.) The user can "see" the woman, but her hand is actually just a bot.
That's sort of what happens in Her. Samantha doesn't have a body either—she's just a robot voice—but Twombly manages sexual encounters with her, primarily using descriptive imagery and masturbation (a new twist on "phone sex") to get himself off.
I could see doing the exact same thing. In fact, I see very few drawbacks to having such a relationship (both emotionally and sexually). An OS like Samantha would be constantly available to me, but I'd only have to engage it whenever I wanted—i.e., I could shut if off when it's being needy and turn it back on again when I'm feeling alone. Nor are there any parents to impress, exes to avoid or close friends to navigate.
Sexually, it couldn't be any more convenient. With an OS, I could stay in my bedroom instead of taking the subway across town or going on dates to get laid. It also plays into my affinity for phone sex and love for when conversation flows seamlessly into sex—and then back again. (Truth be told, one of my current relationships takes place mostly on the phone—he lives in another state six months of the year, and has even jokingly called me "Samantha.") As Jude Law's Gigolo Joe character promised in the 2001 Steven Spielberg film AI: Artificial Intelligence, "Once you've had a lover robot, you'll never want a real man again."
Better yet—and less superficially—it removes emotional hurt and ruin from the equation. My last few relationships have left me scared of the unpredictability and vulnerability of putting my faith in another human being. Humans have disappointed me too many times. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, maybe I'll date a robot.
But what if my robot couldn't love me back? What if it were simply mirroring the love it observed in humans? And what if the same holds true when it comes to sex?
In the second episode of FOX's Almost Human, a cop-bot procedural set in 2048, robot sex workers are portrayed as being programmed without free will. They're less independent call girls and more trafficking victims, which is gross. Make them too human, and it's unfair to expect robots to just be sex toys. Make them not human enough, and they're slaves. In many ways, having sex with a robot is about control; so are we giving tacit permission to treat humanoids as less than human? Or, on the flip side: In a simulation of love, can the love be real?
Samantha, in Her, seems to learn how to become increasingly human only through interacting with Twombly. She can "act" like she's falling in love, because she can be programmed to have that capability. But she never "feels" love. To Love + Sex with Robots author Levy, the distinction is irrelevant. "If the alternative is that you are lonely and sad and miserable, is it not better to find a robot that claims to love you and acts like it loves you?" he asked in a 2008 Scientific American article. "Does it really matter?"
It does to Twombly when (spoiler alert) he finds out that he isn't Samantha's one and only. She's a program installed on many different computers. The idea devastates him. He's equally disturbed when Samantha engages a "proxy" human woman to fuck him while using her voice.
In this respect, however, I feel more like Levy. Humans dating machines is a sure thing in the future. In his book, Levy predicts that by 2050 the coverlines of Cosmo will read, "I Had Sex With A Robot And It Was Great!" As he explained in Scientific American, "People who grow up with all sorts of electronic gizmos will find android robots to be fairly normal as friends, partners, lovers." (If Travis made me amenable to the idea, just imagine how easy the ubiquity of smart phones, tablets and other popular pieces of hardware will make it for future generations, who won't know anything else.) Levy went on to predict that humans will be marrying robots around the same time. "I'm totally convinced it's inevitable. I would be absolutely astounded if I'm proven wrong—not if I'm a few years off, but if I'm proven completely wrong."
I would be astounded, too. People are getting closer and closer to creating humanoid bots, and sex is the leading reason for their existence. I'm looking forward to rallies for robot-human marriage and talking heads (human and android) on MSNBC discussing the possibility of a robot president. Technology is already so seamlessly integrated into our daily lives, why wouldn't we form bonds with the robots we're sleeping with? Her takes place in a future that doesn't look far off from our present. I don't see this as dystopian; I see it as what's already happening.
Similar to the robot who "held my hand" as a kid, I like the idea of growing old with something like Travis at my side, especially if he were much more lifelike and intelligent. A robot companion who could stoically comfort me while sitting in countless nondescript waiting rooms or who gently rubbed my back when I was in agony or near the end of my life. (And who, better yet, never caused any of that agony—specifically as it related to the heart.) A machine definitely struck the perfect balance for me during my greatest time of need as a kid. The humans around me were either too distraught (my parents) or too scary (the nurses). All the while, Travis kept calm. So maybe it's not a matter of whether I've met my soulmate; it might just be that my soulmate hasn't been programmed yet.
Gaby Dunn is a writer, journalist and comedian living in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @gabydunn.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros and Her