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Can a robot mend a lonely heart?

From CNET Magazine: AI-equipped sex toys could either make human contact unnecessary or help the socially awkward learn intimacy.

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Nukeno doesn't use his real name on DollForum.com.

That's not much of a surprise, since the online message board is all about the ins and outs of erotic dolls, as in the kind men have sex with. Some regulars use the site to trade tips on gel butt implants. Others complain about the pubic hair of one doll or the breasts of another.

Nukeno, however, uses it to tell the crowd what makes him happy: Nele and Kiko, his two dolls.

"Perhaps I have been alone for too long," writes the self-described 34-year-old from Germany. "Perhaps I have found in my dolls what I was looking for in vain among humans for an even longer time. Being a quiet man myself, my two silent companions and I [are] getting along quite well."

For most people, erotic dolls represent a hidden world populated by men incapable of interacting with members of the opposite sex. It feels almost sordid -- especially for a society that doesn't blink an eye at violence but is unnerved by sex.

Today's erotic dolls are passive, making them the sex toy equivalent of the flip phone. But thanks to virtual reality and hardware that plugs into phones, the latest sex toys can redefine the meaning of "long-distance relationships" while others can take humans almost completely out of the sexual equation. Now, a few doll makers and researchers would like to add artificial intelligence to the mix, creating erotic dolls that would do a lot more than just lie around. When that happens, it could isolate Nukeno and others like him even more -- or it could help them learn real, person-to-person intimacy.

"[Artificial intelligence] could open the hearts of men and women," says Justine Cassell, an AI expert and associate dean at Carnegie Mellon. "[That] might offer transitional stages between being entirely closed down and being able to feel emotion."

Robot love

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Released in 1927, Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" was one of the earliest films to explore the idea of robots as love objects.

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Nukeno might soon be able to find erotic dolls that greet him when he walks in the door, ask him how his day went, learn who his friends are and a lot more. When he does, he can thank Matt McMullen of Abyss Creations.

Over the past 20 years, McMullen has built RealDolls -- think super-sexualized silicone playthings so lifelike that customers pay up to $10,000 for them -- into the gold standard of the erotic doll industry. Fans call him Leonardo da Vagina.

Now McMullen, 47, is working to bring his dolls to life using artificial intelligence to give them the ability to listen, remember and talk like a real person.

The goal is to "create that illusion that this [doll] actually cares about who you are," McMullen says. "In a nutshell, it's going to appeal to people who, for one reason or another, don't have a real relationship that gives them something to look forward to when they get home."

McMullen calls this next-generation doll a Realbotix, a verbal blend of RealDoll and robot. And his efforts point to a future where robots will play an intimate role in the lives of the elderly, the lonely and the broken-hearted, say both computer and social scientists.

"People will fall in love with them, people will want to marry them, people will have sex with them," says David Levy, an AI expert and the author of "Love + Sex with Robots."

Levy even predicts marriages between humans and robots will be common by 2050. He's also working to make human-bot relations a thing. He's twice won the Loebner Prize, awarded for AI software that sounds the most like a real person having a conversation.

Now his company, Intelligent Toys, is working on AI software that can flirt convincingly with humans.

Do you love me?

Who'd want to have a relationship with a bot anyway?

"There are many people out there who, at certain times don't have anyone to talk to, or they don't have anyone to laugh [with] or to love them," says Levy, who sees his program being especially valuable to the elderly.

"They're living alone. They don't have anybody they can chat with," he says. "Switch on the computer and have a chat."

In fact, the elderly are already getting help with Paro, a therapeutic robot that looks like a baby harp seal. With five sensors that detect light, touch, sound, temperature and posture, Paro can connect with people like a real animal. And like a real animal, Paro has been found to reduce patients' stress and help them socialize with other patients. It's been used in Japanese nursing homes and for treating dementia patients in England.

So what happens when sexbots can interact with humans like, you know, real humans?

Bryant Paul, a researcher at the Kinsey Institute of Indiana University, worries that people will have a hard time measuring up against their digital competition. "If you make the AI good enough and the pleasure function is high enough, what's the allure of going into the real dating pool?" he asks. "Why bother with the aggravation?"

Danielle Knafo, a professor of clinical psychology at Long Island University, knows that's a real possibility.

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Mark Mann

Knafo has been researching the allure of erotic dolls since the mid-2000s, when a twice-divorced 48-year-old patient told her he was in love with one. Since then, she's interviewed 15 doll owners before publishing her study, "Guys and Dolls: Relational Life in the Technological Era."

Her findings give her hope about the ways smart, sexy robots will affect human intimacy.

For some men, the dolls are a "transition," she says -- a way to get "comfortable with the female body and then build confidence enough to approach a real woman."

For others, "it offers a certain kind of man who cannot approach women or be with women...an option," she says. "This is the way they can have that kind of relationship in their life. Everybody needs love.

"Everybody needs connection. Why live without it?" 

This story appears in the summer 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.

Max Taves (@maxtaves) is a technology writer living in San Francisco.

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