Elizabeth Nolan Brown on Sex, Love, and Robots

Will sex robots be more like vibrators, pets, partners, or slaves?



Her joints are "a bit tight and creaky." Her head circumference is smaller than expected, and there's "a slight chemical smell again." But "Mr-Smith" is mostly proud to introduce Page to other members of the message boards at DollForum.com. And they are happy to meet her, too: "Glad to see such an awesome lady of mystery!" one responds. "Have a fantastic honeymoon," types another. "Congratulations, she is a beauty," posts a third. "When you get around to completely introducing yourself to her, you will find that her softness will blow your mind."

Page is what's known as a "love doll" or "sex doll." She is "anatomically correct"—that is, built so people can penetrate her—but she doesn't move on her own or speak. There are at least a dozen high-end doll makers globally. And though their products are mostly non-robotic at the moment, that's poised to change. Technology is drawing us ever closer to the era of realistic, affordable robots, including sex robots. 

But will these sexbots be more like vibrators, pets, partners, or slaves?, Elizabeth Nolan Brown asks. That question—and how technologists, potential customers, ethicists, and legislators will answer it—is mostly the concern of a few academics at this point. But in the not-too-distant future it will become much less hypothetical for billions of people. Emotionally intelligent robots have the potential to change not just how we relate to technology but how we relate to one another. The challenge: How can we make them part of our social/sexual fabric without letting them remake us?