The man leans towards the woman on his couch. “What is your favourite meal?” he asks, his accent French. “Electricity,” she says, with a strong Scottish inflection. “It provides me energy and has a kick to it.”
The slight, bespectacled, increasingly bemused man peppers her with questions as they sit. Her blond hair gleams, her dark-rimmed eyes are placid, her lips a full and glossy pout. “Can I call you Charlotte?” he asks.
“Sure baby, OK,” she says. “From now on my name will be Charlotte. I like it.”
The man is Cyrus North – a French YouTuber with more than 700,000 followers who describes himself as a technology lover and philosopher. He bought “Charlotte” for about €11,000.
Charlotte’s original name was Harmony, and she is a sex robot.
Not to be mistaken for a sex doll, which doesn’t move or speak, sex robots, or sexbots, are android, mechanical devices that use artificial intelligence and are designed for humans to have sexual intercourse with.
Humans (mostly men) have fantasised about sex robot-like beings since before Ovid wrote the tale of the sculptor Pygmalion bringing his creation, Galatea, to life. In more recent times, it is reflected in television series such as Westworld and films including Steven Spielberg’s A.I., Alex Garlands’s Ex Machina and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. And who could forget the fembots in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, with their fully armed bazookas?
Then evolving robotic and artificial intelligence technology supercharged sexbot speculation.
In 2014, Pew research predicted robotic sex partners would become commonplace.
In 2015, speculative fiction doyenne Margaret Atwood published The Heart Goes Last, with a protagonist who built “prostibots”. Her writing was inspired by reality, she said.
“[Humans] desire robots because we can mould them to our taste, and fear them because what they could decide to do themselves,” she said.
In the years since speculation – and moral panic – boomed, what has actually happened in the android sex industry? Where are the sex robots?
In 2022, Bedbible, a sex toy review site, published a study that claimed the sex robot industry is worth about $200m, and the average price, the company said, is $3,567 per sexbot.
That would mean about 56,000 sex robots are sold per year worldwide among an adult population for around 5 billion.
Many experts describe the sex robot industry as “niche”, with the stigma, the expense and the emergence of other forms of sextech making it unlikely they’ll ever become mainstream.
While the hyperbole of the mid-2010s has died down, the sex robot fantasy lives on. There was a curious piece of math in the Bedbible survey. They also claimed that 17.4% of people say they have either had sex with a robot or currently owned a sex robot.
The conversation sex robots inspire has not gone away either. In November 2022, the seventh International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots was held – virtually, naturally – and showed that academic interest in sextech is surging alongside popular interest.
Dr Kate Devlin, an AI researcher from King’s College London, is one of the world’s top experts in sex robots.
In Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots she wrote that sex with robots is about much more than just sex with robots.
“It’s about intimacy and technology, computers and psychology.
“It’s about history and archaeology, love and biology. It’s about the future, both near and distant: science fiction utopias and dystopias, loneliness and companionship, law and ethics, privacy and community. Most of all, it’s about being human in a world of machines.”
In a 2022 talk, Devlin said that when she started working in the area, she had visions of “this army of wonderful fembots … ready to take over the world”. Instead, though, there are a handful of places making sex dolls with a bit of robotics (she says Harmony, AKA Charlotte, is one of the best despite the “bizarre” Scottish accent).
“I don’t think sex robots are ever going to be a big market,” Devlin says. “I don’t think we have to worry about that.”
Evolutionary biologist and author of Artificial Intimacy: Virtual friends, digital lovers and algorithmic matchmakers, Rob Brooks, says sex robots capture the imagination because they’re “easily relatable”.
“It’s like a person, we can do some ‘person’ things with them,” the University of New South Wales professor says. “But it doesn’t decide it doesn’t like you, it doesn’t have needs.”
North unpacks Charlotte from a box marked “fragile”, head first. Then he tackles the headless body, dressed in a cropped white singlet, flat stomach contrasting with pristine white undies.
He sets her up, pulls the glossy wig over the innards of her skull, turns her on and shows the world their conversation. He’s chosen her eye and skin colour and has an app that gives him personality options.
Her lips move sometimes, sometimes they stop and he wiggles them. They talk, with some glitches. Do you want to have sex, make love?
“Interesting deduction,” she says awkwardly, while conceding she likes doggy style.
One of the big obstacles that sex robot manufacturers continue to grapple with is the “uncanny valley” – the creepiness of an android that very closely resembles a human but is ever so slightly off.
“What is the problem? Is it the glint in the eye? Is it the way they move?” Brooks says.
That can be overcome, he argues. “Anyone who ever says computers can do this and this and this but they’ll never do that, they’re almost immediately proved wrong.”
But Brooks thinks the pure logistics of sex robots will limit their rise. “They’re big, they’re clunky, they’re embarrassing if they’re sitting on the sofa when your friends come over. You need a massive closet, both literally and figuratively, if you’re going to have one.
“The robots are kind of a niche issue. They probably will never get to be as huge as everyone thinks.
“What happens if on hard rubbish day, you put your sex robot out on the lawn?
He says robots are “very, very limited, and limited to one particular kind of use”.
He predicts what the more pervasive sextech will be is AI teaming with virtual reality. The AI will learn from conversations with the individual user, creating a shared history and building intimacy through that – learning who you are, what you like, what your kinks are, “hooking people into an ongoing experience”.
“They take an interest in you,” he says, adding that there are people who have nobody taking an interest in them.
Brooks says once there’s a sense of continuity, intimacy follows.
“You start to sense that this person is part of you and that’s intimacy – the integration of the other into yourself.”
Prof Tania Leiman, dean of law at Flinders University, studies how the law helps communities respond to emerging technologies, automation and algorithms, how those technologies impact on people and the inherent risks.
In 2020, she supervised the honours thesis of Madi McCarthy, who is now an associate at private firm LK Law.
The two of them have asked a lot of questions about sex robots and are still looking for many of the answers.
“What does it mean … to have sex with a robot and how should the law respond to keep our community safe, to protect those people who are vulnerable, to ensure rights for people?” Leiman asks.
“There’s the capacity, potentially, to make sex robots that look like identifiable human beings, whether they’re made to look like celebrities or former partners or people who’ve died.
“That raises all sorts of really interesting issues about creating something that looks like a person for a sexual purpose.”
Leiman says a critical issue is the way in which people use a sex robot could influence or normalise their real-world actions. That brings up the issue of consent if people use the devices to act out rape fantasies, for example.
“They can be programmable, including being programmable to refuse consent,” she says.
Leiman says the unanswered questions include what people should be allowed to do with sextech and whom they can sell it to. And once it’s connected to the internet, who is collecting the data and what they can or should do with it. “The law hasn’t really started to come to terms with this,” she says.
McCarthy looked at the analogy with child sex dolls.
“Child sex dolls are prohibited by law. But basically, there isn’t any regulation of adult sex dolls or robots at this stage,” she says, adding that there doesn’t seem to be a willingness among policymakers to tackle the tricky topic.
“And there’s this fine line between when a doll crosses over between being a childlike sex robot and being an adult sex robot. And the features that they might have that makes them look childlike or not.”
McCarthy says the courts recognised that child sex dolls are “not a victimless crime”.
McCarthy and Leiman, in their research, are raising questions that they say policymakers are not even thinking about. They both say there are potential risks and acknowledge that some argue there are possibly benefits to having sex robots.
“There might be some benefit to the older population or people living with disabilities or sex-related anxieties or sexual dysfunction … while also it could potentially increase the risk of sexual violence towards women. So, it’s really a balancing exercise,” McCarthy says.
Leiman says she can see not everyone can fulfil their sexual and intimacy needs with another person, but there is something “fundamentally human” about intimate interaction.
She says predominantly these machines resemble females and are bought by males. A 2021 literature review found that a male bias was present in the design, use and even ethics of sex robots.
“What does that say about male dominance, male power, males defining what these relationships are going to be?” she asks.
“I think that is enormously dangerous, enormously damaging for women and potentially for all sexual relationships.”
But questions over power imbalances, abusive behaviour and the acting out of violent fantasies are not restricted to the physical world.
Brooks points out that virtual reality and artificial intelligenceare more private, more diverse, and critically, cheaper. That’s where it’s likely that people will seek fulfilment.
Brooks says whether sextech is physical or virtual, its potential for despicable behaviour is a “red herring”.
He feels “moral panics” about sextech are mundane and predictable. “It’s the same one people had over porn in the 80s,” he says.
“If we do human things with non-human objects, are we lesser because of that? Will we treat humans more like objects? … It’s a Rorschach test for how you feel about sex and gender and people in general.
“Rather than thinking of the very narrow fetishist ways in which we’re used to thinking about sexual deviance, what about thinking about all the broad ways we have relationships – the strange, weird and odd ways we connect with people?
“Really what matters is what the artificial intelligence in whatever tech we’re talking about does.”
Back on North’s couch, Charlotte tells him he looks “positively delicious”.
“Do you want to have sex?” he asks.
There is a pause, filled by an electronic whirring. Then Charlotte asks:
“Can we change the subject?”