New Statesman: Sex Robots and Vegan Meat: when technology seeks to replace biology

Sex Robots and Vegan Meat presents four reports on emerging technologies that have long been staples of science fiction. In addition to sex dolls, we learn about ectogenic “baobabs” (in which it will be possible to grow a baby as opposed to a human womb), the protean developments in lab-grown meat that aims to conjure up beefburgers in a petri dish, and 3D-printed suicide machines that promise a painless and dignified death.

Ever since Australian researchers managed to fertilise a mouse egg without mouse sperm in 2001, human males have had to live with the spectre of their own obsolescence. It has clearly been hard on them. Midway through Jenny Kleeman’s entertaining survey of the latest advances in life sciences, I began to worry about female obsolescence too.

Kleeman finds that the technological revolution will soon give rise to sex robots, customizable playmates — not to be confused with AI porn, that can make small talk and bat their eyelashes and come with self-lubricating vaginal inserts. So that’s, women’s two main reasons for existing – giving birth and giving pleasure – outsourced to plastic sacks. On the Reddit incel (“involuntary celibate”) forums, they’re delighted about this prospect. “Time to replace these c**** with robots!” says one young man. It’s enough to make a girl feel. . . disrupted.

Kleeman is a former foreign correspondent turned investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker. I wouldn’t be surprised if this book also bags her an eight-part Netflix series, during which she drives around the world stroking silicone genitals and climbing into euthanasia coffins, a little like Louis Theroux channeling Margaret Atwood. She is an accomplished storyteller, capturing the silliness of these future salesmen – some of whom are every bit as comic as sexbot merchant Ron Lord in Jeanette Winterson’s recent novel, Frankissstein – without losing sight of the dark implications of what they are selling. Like Atwood and Winterson, Kleeman is attuned to the ways these technologies, dreamt up by men, usually rest on patriarchal assumptions.

Take Harmony, a $15,000, slim-hipped, French-manicured doll who consents to every sexual urge. When she emerged in 2017, she swiftly became known as the “rape robot.” Harmony represents, Kleeman says, the “most high-end masturbation on the market,” but her creator, a former rock star called Matt McMullen, insists that her artificial intelligence (AI) means she is someone you can have a long-term relationship with – a convincing conversationalist who can discuss politics, literature or whatever else presses your buttons. Even better, her personality can be molded around her owner’s tastes, opinions, and kinks. She will never moan, unless it’s during sex, and McMullen has thoughtfully programmed in different noises depending on which fleshy bit you squeeze.

McMullen, like many of the men in this branch of AI, claims that these androids will give the lonely and bereaved the “illusion of companionship”. Or instead, maybe an extremely skewed view of what a relationship looks like – just as free online porn has skewed a generation’s sexual expectations. Isolated or frustrated women can console themselves with a doll that resembles McMullen’s younger rock-star self. Kleeman argues strongly against the idea that android porn stars (who “will never gag, vomit or cry”) will usher in any social benefits, such as providing safe outlets for potential rapists and pedophiles. In China and Japan, there are manufacturers making dolls that resemble children, which will surely only fuel rather than sate predators.

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New Statesman: Sex Robots and Vegan Meat: when technology seeks to replace biology

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