Techno-futurists have a sorry record when it comes to predicting technology and the future. Remember the intergalactic travel that was the centerpiece of Disney's Tomorrowland? The magnetic hover cars, cancer cures, and climate-control systems that were supposed to have been long in place by the Millenium? And only a handful of technologists imagined how big the Net would get.
But here's a futuristic vision that's a far surer and troubling bet than e-sex: sexbots.
For several years now, engineers and futurists have been writing (quietly) in academic journals and other venues about the intuitive computer-programmed robots - sexual companions that contain vibrators to provide tactile stimulation and sounds systems to provide love talk - that some researchers believe are likely to become commonplace in the next century.
A few years ago, these predictions could have been brushed off as more digital hype, but computers are obviously becoming more intelligent and intuitive, and are fast processing information as rapidly as the human brain. Inventors and futurists like Ray Kurzweil (author of The Age of Spiritual Machines), are guaranteeing that computers will equal or surpass human intelligence early in the 21st century.
So sexbots not only don't seem far-fetched, they seem likely.
The contemporary news media, odd in many ways, are never more so than when it comes to their reticence to talk openly about sex (unless it's Presidential). They talk about sex scandals and Viagra, but the ordinary experience of sexuality is almost a taboo. The Net has liberated sex from XXX-rated movie theaters and porn parlors - it's the third biggest money-maker online, after e-trading and shopping.
For better or worse, it's hard to think of a bigger killer app for computing and software than sexbots. According to a computing engineer who asked not to be quoted, prototypes of sexbots already exist in Japan.
"I guarantee you," he e-mailed me, "that within 25 years, programmable, digital sexbots will be in many, if not most, American homes and apartments."
The idea of sexbots will be horrifying to many, for whom the very idea of mechanized, roboticized human passion is beyond any Orwellian nightmare. Mary Shelley, who warned in the novel "Frankenstein" about scientists playing God, and the horrors of unthinking technology, would have flipped-out over the very idea of sexbots. Yet for some people - the lonely, the severely handicapped, the isolated - sexbots could be a great relief and release. And for others - unhappy spouses, troubled adolescents - digitalized, mechanized sexuality is an open invitation to addiction or to avoiding problems of face-to-face human contact. Robotic sex would also eliminate the emotional component of sex.
Like fertility drugs and cloning, this is the kind of technological issue in urgent need of discussion and consideration, even though history suggests it won't be thought about much at all in advance. Like the drugs that give couples the option of having seven or eight children at once, or the medical technology that prolongs life sometimes beyond reason, sexbots, will simply be here one day, and we'll be on our own when they appear.
But sexbots are a techno-prediction that has the ring of truth. Writer Joel Snell predicted in l997 (he's quoted in Richard Rhodes new book Visions of Technology) that robots providing sexual companionship were likely to see widespread use in the future.
Snell could foresee the problems. Marriages might be damaged or destroyed if spouses choose sex with sexbots over making love with their mates. Jealous lovers might destroy sexbot rivals, or sue manufacturers for emotional damage.
On the other hand, Snell pointed out, people seeking clarity about their sexual identities would have a safe, reliable way to experiment. Heterosexuals might use same-sex sexbots to experiment with homosexuality or bi-sexuality. Gay people might use other-sex sexbots to try out heterosexuality. Predators with sexual addictions might no longer prey on human beings.
Given that people become addicted to all sorts of pleasures from slot machines to e-mail, sexbot addiction might be inevitable. Users could become obsessed by their ever-faithful, willing-to-please sexbot lovers that never say no or get headaches, and rearrange their lives to accommodate their addictions. Support groups are inevitable.
Or perhaps, Snell speculates, a new category of sexuality might emerge among humans - the technovirgin, people who find it simpler, perhaps even preferable, to have sex exclusively with sexbots. This would avoid all the emotional and physical complications of having sex with people. Like wondering if it was as good for them as it was for you. Or as bad.
Intuitive and recognotion technologies are already changing computing, from search engines to recognition software to voice recognition. Sexbots would almost surely be programmed to be highly intuitive, keeping track of what worked and what didn't. They would become better sexual partners as they learned more about their human counterparts, storing everything from gasps of pleasure to frequency of orgasm in their memory banks. Every time they had sex with a human, it might get better.
Meanwhile, sexually- transmitted diseases might fall, along with teen pregnancy, abortions, pedophilia, prostitution and Viagra prescriptions. The divorce rate might plummet as well, since Sexbots could keep marital partners happy. The affair itself might become outmoded. Why take the risk when your sexbot is waiting to meet your needs?
Technology never works in predictable ways. The idea that computing machines could take over the function of human passion is as chilling as it is fascinating. But it's also almost totally unexplored. Neo-Luddites will have a field day with the advent of digital or robotic sex, as will parents, politicians, teachers, moral guardians. If local communities flip out whenever Johnny logs onto the Playboy website, and Congress twice passed blatantly unconstitutional Communications Decency Acts to regulate "decent" speech online, how might they respond to the idea of sexbots sold next to Imacs at Compusa?
Sex is a hair-trigger issue in American politics, and the idea of machines performing it round-the-clock will rock some of the most powerful elements in society. From information to MP3's and Open Source software, computing and the Internet is about freeing up ideas and information and giving individual people more control over their own lives. It's logical that this relentless empowerment would extend to experiences like sexuality.
Sexbots seem inevitable. But in a culture that refuses to think much about either technology or sex, the one thing we do know is that we won't be ready when they get here.