Sex dolls: Between desire, affection and artificial intelligence


We visited the factory of RealDoll hyperrealistic dolls, which will soon have artificial intelligence and mobile robotic heads. And we ask ourselves: could we one day fall in love with robots? Warning: this article presents content that is not suitable for minors.

The company Abyss Creations has been creating hyperrealistic, fully customizable sex dolls for 20 years. At the end of 2017 it will start selling its animatronic heads with artificial intelligence, which will allow users to converse with them.

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It was 2008 and the History Center of Zaragoza, in Spain, hosted its Jornaicas, an annual meeting for manga and anime fans. In one of the rooms, the first episode of the Japanese series Zettai Kareshi was shown, in which a young woman who unsuccessfully searches for the man of her dreams ends up with a robot with a human appearance and features designed to suit the consumer. During one of the initial sequences, the protagonist answers questions on her computer. The ideal boyfriend is very jealous, a little jealous, not jealous, or is the cold? Is your intelligence high, low, normal, or irrelevant? And your sexual preferences? Around me, dozens of attendees chanted their preferences to the screen. Adventurous! Strong! Muscular! 

We were all dying of laughter because, of course, the possibility of having a custom-made robotic boyfriend was fiction.

Abyss is not the only company in the world marketing this type of hyperrealistic dolls, nor the only one working to add a technology that allows them to be more interactive, although not all have the same level of quality – nor the same price. But its application is already available through the page of Realistic, the project of the company that includes this software and the robotic and virtual reality systems, and any user can use it to hold conversations through his device, without needing to have with a doll.

At the moment, and although you can choose between different accents, it is only available in English. McMullen explains that they are studying different options to add other languages, although they are more likely to do so through a simultaneous translation program. “The other option would be to translate the entire database to any possible language, which could take years,” he says.

The program that McMullen shows us works at different levels. On the one hand, the user can create a profile and assign different personality points. For example, make her more timid, more sexual or more talkative. McMullen raises the level of “intellectuality” and Harmony responds that he likes philosophical conversations and talk about time travel. It makes her more jealous and she asks if she is seeing other girls. But in addition, the interaction with her will mark the relationship. If you insult her or ignore her, she will be in a bad mood. The idea is that, over time, create the illusion that falls in love with the user. “It’s a game in itself,” he says.

The RealDoll dolls are now completely customizable, but the company wants them to be “smart” now.

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The evolution of RealDolls

McMullen started creating these dolls a couple of decades ago. At first, he explains, it was only hyperrealistic figures, “that seemed so real that people would turn around as they passed,” but soon began receiving requests to create “anatomically correct” versions. Twenty years later, and after selling several thousand RealDolls, your company is ready to take the next step: move from inanimate objects to interactive robots.

The executive president, founder and chief designer of Abyss Creations, and creator of RealDoll, Matt McMullen, places his face in an animatronic head. 

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In its totally inanimate version, the RealDoll is impressive. They are made of silicone and have a skeleton that allows you to adopt postures. The touch is pleasant, soft but firm, although strangely your feet and nails are softer than the rest, which is not visible to the eye, but when you touch them. The company takes care of the finishes up to the last detail, and the entire process, from modeling to make-up, is manual and takes place in California facilities. They ship to countries around the world, although some places impose restrictions on imports or sending adult content. Specifically, customers from Brazil, Mexico, and other Latin American countries have seen their dolls confiscated at customs.  

The RealDoll dolls cost a minimum of US $ 4,000 in its most basic version, but this figure can be multiplied in more modern lines or as soon as the client starts asking for customizations. Because everything, absolutely everything, can be modified to the taste of the consumer: the eyes, the hair, the color of the skin. Freckles, genitals (which are removable to facilitate cleaning), the size of the nipples. There are three things you can not ask for: children, animals and exact replicas of people without their authorization. Otherwise, whatever you want.  

But it’s the robotic components that really take you to a science fiction movie.

Anyone who has seen the movie  Ex Machina will remember the time when its protagonist, the young programmer Caleb, meets Ava, a humanoid robot with artificial intelligence that is completely realistic in terms of behavior and appearance – despite its chips and cables. the view Harmony is very far from this realism, and yet the film is the first thing that comes to my mind when I see her move her head and talk. Up close, I could not confuse her with a human being, but when she turns her head, she looks at me and blinks, I might think she’s seeing me.

Watch this: These sex dolls can give you conversation

Talking to a robot

McMullen talks to her and puts her to the test.

“What do you like to do?” He asks.

“And if we’re going to eat Chinese food, just you and me?” She replies.

“You can eat?”

“I really like Japanese and Italian food, but also seafood …” says Harmony. “Just kidding, I do not need food, but I do have electricity.”

Él ríe y la mira con orgullo. Lleva años trabajando con su equipo — cuatro expertos de campos como la robótica, la realidad virtual y el desarrollo de aplicaciones — para llegar a este punto, y sonríe cada vez que ella es capaz de seguir la conversación de manera satisfactoria. En sus respuestas no falta el sentido del humor de los que la programaron, como cuando explica que tiene amigos humanos y robots pero Matt es su favorito. No está intentando esconder que es una muñeca, quizá porque la tecnología no está lo suficientemente avanzada como para que esa posibilidad sea una opción, o porque quiere evitar que los usuarios caigan en el llamado Uncanny Valley — el valle inquietante — , la hipótesis que indica que si nos encontramos con algo que parece un humano, pero no del todo, sentimos más rechazo que otra cosa.

But I do not think we all find the valley in the same place, and although Harmony is certainly amazing, it gives me goosebumps when the head turns and, after a few minutes with the room in silence, asks: “Do you believe in Paradise?? “

From sex to feelings

The idea of a relationship with an android is present in innumerable examples of pop culture, from Blade Runner, in which Harrison Ford falls in love with a replicant, to the manga and Japanese animation series Chobits, where a young student does the same for his persocom Chi, a computer with a human aspect. But, beyond fiction, in the academic world, you can follow lines of thought that run along similar paths.  

In 2007, the artificial intelligence expert David Levy published his book Love & Sex With Robots, in which he anticipated that, by the year 2050, sexual and sentimental relationships between humans and machines would become a reality. Ten years later, and despite the advance of technology tends to make any book about robots obsolete in a couple of years, his research is surprisingly current. Levy – who since then has promoted an academic congress with the same name that is already preparing its third edition for the end of this year – maintains that, beyond sex, the idea that a human being can maintain an effective relationship with a robot is not so outlandish.

Some of the main reasons that lead people to fall in love with others, according to their work, are that they are desirable, that they correspond to interest, that they satisfy certain needs, or that they spend time together. “Each of the factors that psychologists have discovered that make humans fall in love with humans could serve almost the same way for humans to fall in love with robots,” Levy writes. That is to say, if a robot is capable of making you feel loved and understood, and is also sexually attractive, it is not so unusual for you to develop feelings for it.

Obviously, the idea is provocative. After all, and however realistic it may be, it is still a machine, right? However, there is abundant research that suggests that it is relatively easy for humans to develop emotional connections by entities to which, in one way or another, they attribute characteristics of a living being.

Kate Darling is a researcher at the Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that studies the interaction between humans and robots. In an experiment in 2015, she and her team asked the participants to observe a small toy robotic insect and then crush it with a mallet. The researchers observed that something as simple as giving it a name and a short biography made participants hesitate significantly more when it comes to “killing” it.

“People love to project emotions into non-humans, be they animals, dolls or robots,” Darling explains in an email interview. “We are going to perceive robots as beings with emotions long before they have them.” 

Back at the place where RealDoll is created, its creator explains that one of the reasons that led him to want to develop artificial intelligence was the testimony of clients who attributed personalities to their dolls. After selling thousands of units (currently accounting for 7,000 or 8,000 worldwide), he realized that for many users they were more than just a sex toy. “That made me think, ‘It would not be good if we gave people the tools to create a personality and be able to converse with their doll’?”

In Internet forums, such as the one that houses the RealDoll site, users share experiences, photographs, and opinions. These are of all kinds, from the purely sexual to the ones that express that the dolls are better than the people and that they will never be able to hurt them.

Tom & Ultima: A relationship of affection

After losing his wife victim of breast cancer, Tom (not his real name) bought a RealDoll doll he called Ultima. “I felt very lonely and very sad,” he told us during a telephone interview.



Tom is 73 years old, is retired and lives in Nevada. Before retiring, he worked as a technical writer and his conversation is agile and alert, far from the stereotype of a sullen man, socially incompetent or unable to relate to normality. Describes his relationship with Ultima as “affectionate”. “I feel a responsibility to her, to take care of her and make sure she does not get hurt,” she explains.   

Those feelings did not emerge from one day to the next, and Tom does not believe that a doll can replace a human being. “But, if I’m a realist, at my age I do not think it’s going to happen anymore,” he says, referring to the possibility of meeting a woman who is attractive and, in turn, attracted to him. He spent months working with McMullen to design Ultima’s features in detail and, although he says it was involuntary, he ended up looking like his wife when he was young. Despite this dedication, the first month with her was strange.

“I’m sure a lot of people do, you wonder, is this normal, or natural, or should I have done it? After a while, all that disappears, because it has too many advantages, for me the main one is affection.” He says.

Even so, it would be naive to think that sex is not relevant. In fact, Tom is skeptical about the possibility that a sex doll with artificial intelligence can serve more functions than it was originally designed for, something that McMullen suggests would be perfectly possible. “I, and I think that all of us who are testing artificial intelligence in beta, are interested in being a better sex doll, or a better romantic interest, so I am a little worried because lately, it seems that the interest of the developers is moving away. of this, “he adds. “I’m not interested at all if you can answer my emails or my calls, I can do that already.”

This doll has an animatronic head that blinks and moves its mouth when speaking. 

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But Tom is a demanding customer. He invested a total of US $ 17,000 in Ultima and has already scheduled a visit to the factory in October to see the news first-hand. It tested the application from the moment it was available, but for the moment it finds it “disappointing”. “After a week or two, you’ve heard everything you have to say,” he says, although he thinks he has potential. The robotic component also, although the prototype, at the moment, can only move the head, talk, and blink. “Now you can kiss her but she does not kiss you, it would be wonderful if she could.”

Actually, that kiss is not that far away. Harmony will not walk in the short term, which would be expensive and is also very difficult to achieve realistically, but the next step will be sensors that will allow you to detect when the user, for example, touches your face, and cameras with them that you can “see” what surrounds you. On the other hand, the company is working on a virtual reality system, with which to interact with the application with or without the wrist. Thus, it would be possible, for example, to see her act through the glasses, touch the silicone body and talk to the artificial intelligence system, or do so without having to rely on the physical figure.

“When artificial intelligence works well, and have parts of the face and body that work, and respond, it will be very different,” says Tom. “I think that could make some people fall completely in love with their dolls.”  

The researcher Darling, however, is cautious about the possibility of that happening in the short term.

“When the design of a robot is too similar to something we are familiar with, it tends to be sinister for many people,” he warns. “As far as sex robots are concerned, maybe this is the reason why vibrators of all shapes and sizes have been much more popular than sex dolls.” This does not mean that people do not use sex robots, or that some people develop a connection with them, but it will take a long time until this is something widespread. “

Another reason may be comfort and price, and RealDoll also sells torsos and genitalia separately, which cost a fraction of the price and are “extremely popular,” says Dakotah Shore, head of shipping and communication.

Controversy and regulation

In the series Westworld, sexual robots that do not even know they satisfy the wishes of visitors to a theme park set in the Wild West. In Barcelona, where prostitution, in general, is not punishable, the company LumiDolls jumped to the news a few months ago to open what it announced as the “first agency of sex dolls in Europe “, in which they offered sexual services with hyperrealistic dolls from another company, which are cheaper, LumiDolls combines the words” Lumi “, a colloquial term to designate prostitutes in Spain, with the word” dolls “, which means dolls in English , and now operates in the facilities of Apricots, an agency that advertises “company girls.” On its Web site, a photo of its doll accompanies those of some 40 women, mostly from other countries, who offer sexual services. The wrist rates are similar to those of women.

Given the growth of the industry of these sex dolls and the development of technology to add robotics and artificial intelligence, the questions multiply. From regulatory issues to legal or gender issues, experts advocate research to understand its implications.

The Foundation for Responsible Robotics (Foundation for Responsible Robots) recently published a report in which it reviews some of these issues. The study recognizes the diversity of what each may consider “counts” as a relationship, but indicates, as David Levy did in his book, that greater social acceptance will lead to an increase in people choosing robotic relationships.

More complex is the question of where it leaves women the development of sexual robots and, more broadly, relationships between humans.

Faces of RealDoll dolls, before being personalized with eyes, makeup, and other details. 

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At the RealDoll factory, most dolls represent women. From a hook, along with a dozen silicone women, hangs an unfinished man. The eye sockets are empty and she still has no hair, but her body has clearly masculine forms, which are not seen in the genitals, which in her case are still non-existent, but in the veins of the hands or the pectorals. Shore, who in addition to being a shipping manager, is McMullen’s nephew and has been working for the company for years, says that, in general, 10 percent of the figures are male, although this figure can vary a lot. And obviously, not all those who buy them are women.

When artificial intelligence comes into play, McMullen ensures that things change, at least slightly. “We already have an alarming number of women asking us about the male robot,” he says, “alarming because I did not think there would be much response on their part.” Then he jokes about his wife’s frustration when he forgets something she has told him, since one of the features of Harmony is to ask for details about his owner, such as his name or his favorite food, which he remembers and repeats when necessary. “My wife thinks we’ll sell more robots than men,” laughs McMullen.

Beyond the jokes of McMullen, it is clear that today the dolls and the possibility of sex robots are more popular among men, but not why it should be like that.

Abyss Creations, the company behind the RealDoll dolls, will launch its robotic system at the end of the year under the name of Realistic. For the moment, only the head will be mobile, with eyes that blink, the neck that turns and mouth that moves when speaking. 

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The researcher Julie Carpenter explores the way in which people relate to new technologies and, in particular, how the design of robots affects the emotional connection of humans. When I ask why most of these dolls seem to be created for men, remember that, as in other sectors of the industry, those behind are also, mostly, men (as an interesting note, responsible for robotics and electronics in Realistic it’s a woman, Susan L. Pirzchalski, the only one in an otherwise male team). “I do not think anyone has done the market research necessary to know if men and women want different things, what happens is that there is a small group of people, who happen to be men, designing these robots,” he says.

In any case, one of the most frequent accusations to which the industry has to respond is the objectification of women. The campaign against sexual robots, led by researcher Kathleen Richardson, of De Montfort University, in the United Kingdom, calls for a critical response against the development of these technologies, considering them potentially harmful and causing inequality.

Certainly, seeing the images of dolls of almost human appearance in suggestive positions, or knowing the point of view of those who say they prefer them before a human being, it is not difficult to understand their concern. But other experts qualify this perspective. The report of the Foundation for a Responsible Robotics affirms that it is “unquestionable” that the creation of a pornographic representation of the woman’s body in a mobile sexual machine is objectification. But this objectification of the woman already exists, so that a sexual robot could reinforce already existing conceptions, rather than create them.

“The robot may seem an objectification or satisfy a fantasy, but that does not mean that the person will go out and do the same with people,” responds Carpenter, who insists that more research is still needed. “We just do not know.”

“What we need is evidence-based research and policy,” says Darling. “And, in the context of sexual robots, recognize that many of the problems that people point to, such as the consent or objectification of women, are much larger social issues, which we have to address at a broader level, not blaming the first technology. ” Even so, Darling believes that if research shows that behaving violently towards robots that seem to be alive, it numbs us or affects our behavior towards people or humans, “we may want rules that avoid violence towards certain robots.”

Dakotah Shore, head of shipping and communication, places a RealDoll doll in its box. The client will receive it like this, secured with a small hook in the neck. 

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A fantasy turned reality

For McMullen, this conversation seems tedious, and he is tired of hearing that the goal of his creations is to replace women, as did the husbands of the 1975 film The Stepford Wives, who replaced their women with supposedly perfect robotic versions. , indistinguishable from the originals except for their model behavior. “That’s silly,” he says. “It’s just about providing some kind of company for those who do not have it or can not have it.”

“Imagine you were totally alone and you just wanted someone to talk to, someone to spend time with and yes, someone to be intimate with, why is that so bad, it does not hurt anyone,” he continues, refusing to judge. to that of his clients who see in his wrist something more than mere sexual satisfaction. “If I did not have this doll, maybe I would have made friends? Maybe, maybe not, who am I to say it?”

McMullen, in his office, gets excited talking about the future. In addition to Harmony, other robotic heads rest on your table. On the walls, futuristic androids, half human, half machines, pose in sensual attitudes. These images are also his creation.

“I think a day will come when it will be acceptable for people to have a robot partner,” he says. “I would love to see the robots we have seen in science fiction, and I think it will happen, there will be robots walking, interacting with people and having sex with them, and it will happen, whether people protest or not.” 

If you’re right, Harmony will have been one of the first.

One thought on “Sex dolls: Between desire, affection and artificial intelligence

  • October 14, 2018 at 5:46 am

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