Not all sex robots will look human, sexpert Dan Savage says
Sex robots are going to get way, way weirder than you can imagine, the famous sex columnist predicts.
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Editors' note: This interview is part of Turned On, our special report exploring the intersection of sex and technology. Some of the descriptions below may not be suited for younger readers.
The centaurs are coming. But unlike the wild beasts of Greek mythology, the half-human, half-horse studs of real life won't come to crush our heroes as they did poor Caeneus. Instead, the centaurs of the future will arrive solely to please humans sexually, says Dan Savage, someone who knows a lot about sex.
The animal-human hybrids will be just one of the many inevitable kinds of sexbots that will keep people company, and provide other, uh, services, predicts the author of the popular syndicated sex advice column "Savage Love" and host of the "Savage Lovecast" podcast.
"There's just this pent-up, millennia-old demand for these sexual archetypes -- sexual gods, really -- that we've never been able to fulfill," Savage told me over the phone from Seattle, where he lives and works as editor of the weekly newspaper The Stranger, which has run his column for two decades. "What are we going to do when the guy or woman next door lives with a pretty lifelike centaur robot? Because it's coming."
The kinky high-tech future Savage imagines is right around the corner, though so far the bots headed for our beds look like pretty generic humanoids pulled from the pages of magazines that are neither comic books nor sci-fi publications.
But while some critics worry our future robot lovers could lead to greater social isolation or encourage the idea that women are subordinate to men, Savage describes himself as "one of those 'bring on the sexbots' kind of people."
Fantasies in the flesh
He envisions a future in which coitus mechanicus will involve fewer Stepford wives and more robots designed for people with sexual interests that can never be consummated in the real world.
As my CNET colleague Bonnie Burton wrote a few years back, so-called monster porn, also known as "cryptozoological erotica" or "erotic horror," holds very real appeal for imaginative romance seekers. Paranormal romance books, and later their film and TV adaptations, are big business.
Still, the sexpert says we shouldn't underestimate the role ego plays in human attraction. Something innate drives us toward the affirmation we get from being desired by another person, he says, and this pull may be the secret weapon of meatbags like us when it comes to competing with even the most perfect customizable sex dolls.
"You want to be wanted by someone. You don't want to be wanted by a toaster," he says.
Even if sexbots don't threaten to replace us emotionally, shouldn't we still be a little bit worried about the possibility that they become conscious and seek their revenge for all the sexual exploitation? I mean, "Westworld," right?
Savage doesn't closely follow the HBO hit about an adult fantasy park filled with potentially rebellious sexbots that appear to have bridged the uncanny valley. But he thinks the show's attempt to stir up cultural anxiety over the inevitable advance of technology into our sex lives is a little paranoid.
"I just don't think that people are going to be that freaked out by the (humanoid) sexbots," he says. "What people are really going to be freaked out by are the centaur sexbots."
How about virtual reality? Where does that fit in with our otherworldly erotic fantasies? Big names in porn such as Pornhub already offer entire channels of VR porn that anyone can experience with a device as simple as Google Cardboard. VR would certainly be a cheaper method of fantasy fulfillment than robots, especially in the case of a gigantism fetish, also known as macrophilia.
"There's a certain tactile quality that people want in their experience," Savage says, adding that he hasn't experienced much VR. "Just moving through space where nothing ever pushes back I don't think is going to satisfy people sexually, but who knows where that technology will go."
Savage concedes that VR could be a better solution for people who are into the 50-foot tall woman (or man) thing, but he says he's still more bullish on the potential of sexbots we can touch with our hands (and other body parts).
Does this mean that in a world where there's already plenty of people who spend way too much time manufacturing perfect Tinder profiles, we'll also have to compete for human touch with robots meant to fulfill any fantasy?
It's possible in a limited sense, but until sexbots are able to provide the wide spectrum of physical, psychological and emotional needs that can be satisfied by a single human, we'll still have an edge, Savage maintains.
"We love things differently (than we love people)," he says, "and they don't love us back."
Well, at least not yet. We'll have to see which comes first: the AI that can truly love, or the centaur sexbot that comes out of storage every now and then to fulfill the fantasies no human can.