The Sexbot Devolution
"Oh God, not another f***ing beautiful day," said Alice de Janze under a brilliantly red and orange Kenya sunrise, the moment before pulling the trigger and killing herself. That tragic moment comes from an under-appreciated 1987 British movie called "White Mischief," based on true lives of ease, decadence, murder, and suicide among a group of wealthy colonialists, trapped and bored (to death) in East Africa during the early days of WWII.
That movie, particularly Alice's final, shocking moment, is what immediately came to mind after reading the latest by James Adams for Spectator USA about sexbots and society. Adams reports that the "development of sexbots’ capability and quantity has leapt forward in the last five years, and is expected to grow exponentially in the next five." Imagine, he says without any apparent approval, a sexbot tailor-made to your physical desires, and "smart, gorgeous, empathetic and sexually considerate," too.
And with AI advances, all that is no joke. Adams describes "Ryan," a sexbot from the near future, custom-manufactured for a fictional (for now) woman named Karen:
His conversation is interesting, ranging sensitively from Tolstoy to cheeseburgers. Thanks to facial recognition, he always knows her mood. It’s almost uncanny how he’s always there to give just the right amount of empathy, just at the right time, or even slightly earlier. He knows her likes and dislikes, her interests and her expertise. At last, she has found her intellectual equal.
And we're not just talking about unmarried thirtysomething urban Millennials:
Manufacturers are talking with oil companies, as a boatload of sexbots can relieve the stress of workers isolated on all-male oil-rigs for months at a time. Manufacturers would also like to see sexbots in prisons, to reduce rapes and tension between inmates. The most popular market for the Samantha bot is truck drivers. Apparently, they enjoy her conversation on those long, lonely drives as much as they appreciate her availability on those equally long and lonely nights.
Let's not forget the human trafficking angle, either. An army of automated -- not to mention hygienic -- sexbots could curtail or even eliminate the demand for real human beings, kidnapped and kept drugged up for the pleasure of others. Adams quotes a study which predicts that in just the next 30 years, "Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District will be staffed entirely by sexbots free of infectious diseases, and not by sex slaves smuggled in from Eastern Europe and Asia."
A Chinese firm has gone so far as to build a sexbot that will "laugh at your jokes – and even wash your dishes." And they'll never empty your bank account and run off with a divorce lawyer, either.
Clearly, there are some very real benefits to sexbots, so in an increasingly digital, atomized, and solitary world, what's the harm if Karen cares for no one but Ryan?
Well, I'm glad I asked.
Artificial intelligence, no matter how smart, is still artificial. Even the fanciest, highest-tech, and smartest sexbot is still nothing more than a masturbatory aid. And as Robert Heinlein wrote 50 years ago, masturbation "is cheap, clean, convenient, and free of any possibility of wrong-doing -- and you don’t have to go home in the cold. But it’s lonely." A sexbot might be everything you desire, yet only another living human being can surprise you by being the thing you never knew you wanted or needed. But why go out and try and meet one of those, when Ryan's battery is topped off?
Far be it from me to be a prude. I think they ought to sell sex toys at Walgreens (oh, wait -- they do!). But perhaps there's a not-too-fine line between a "back massager" and a sexbot meant to virtually fulfill even your emotional needs.
Millennials and the up-and-coming Gen Z are the target market for sexbot-makers, and not just because the younger generations are thought to be more, ah, intimately comfortable with technology. America's fertility rate has entered a sharp decline in recent years. Alia Wong reported in May that just "3.8 million babies were born in the United States last year, the smallest tally since 1986." I'd add that the cohort of women in their baby-bearing prime is larger today than it was in '86, and that medical and nutritional advances have made it possible, even more likely, to bear children later in life, expanding that cohort further.
The U.S. fertility rate is now well below replacement levels, wrote Linda Carroll and Shamard Charles, M.D. back in January. They note that the "total fertility rate has been declining steadily for seven years, but the numbers for 2017 represent the biggest drop in recent history." The rate for 2016 was 1,820.5; for 2015, 1,843.5; and for 2014, 1,862.5." They go on to say, "The latest data show a current rate of just 1,765.5 per 1,000, or 16 percent below the number needed to keep the population stable."
The future belongs to those who show up, as they say, but increasingly Americans are running late.
This is an uncharted road we're traveling, and despite outward appearances, a decadent and lonely one, too. It would be needlessly tragic if humanity ends with a cry of, "Oh God, not another f***ing beautiful bot."