Sex With Robots and Other Devices explores what happens when AI meets shagging

Published in New Statesman on May 11, 2018

Imagine a world where your partner could arrive in an Amazon package. So goes the tagline for Sex With Robots and Other Devices, a new play about to open at London’s Kings Head Theatre.

Playwright Nessah Muthy started developing the piece in 2014 – but it feels eerily topical right now, as if the world of one-click partner-purchase might almost be upon us. Because stories about sex robots seem to pop up almost daily in the brave new world of 2018.

There’s the news that Moscow has opened its first sexbot brothel, hoping to attract British football fans visiting for the world cup. With new attention on self-described incels – “involuntarily celibate” men – following the Toronto van attack, provocative columnists have been quick to cry that raging males should be pacified with artificial women. Elsewhere, academics have attracted huge attention for suggesting robots could aid unhappy marriages.

Actually, Muthy thinks we’re still far from the world of her play – where sex robots walk and talk and, well, writhe and moan, like humans. The current tech is hardly tempting for the average consumer, frankly: watching videos of the RealDolls made by market leaders Realbotix feels more like falling deep into the uncanny valley rather than some erotic fantasy. The busty, silicon-skinned sell dolls have terrifyingly plausible eyes, but the movement of those pillowy lips is gibberingly gross, the artificial intelligence “conversation” comically basic. As for the three useable orifices… let’s just not go there.

But it was dramatically rich for Muthy to imagine a future where our sex tech genuinely looks and feels like us. “The robots in my play are very advanced, and I think we’re a long way from that – but we should still be questioning it,” she says.

And when artificial intelligence meets actual shagging, there’s no shortage of knotty ethical dilemmas. Her play is an anthology of eight short scenes where robots get tangled up in human relationships, as much as their bedclothes.

One robot, seemingly half of a functioning relationship, destabilises it by asking their partner “what is rape?” An older couple use a sex robot to navigate issues of consent after one partner begins to suffer dementia. Another couple have an exact copy of one of them made, as an aid for their dysfunctional sex life.

The play is about exploring “where the line is”, Muthy says: “There’s no ‘this is the way we should treat robots’. It was about finding what were the most interesting – what were the hardest – questions to ask.”

“I was really interested in questions around consent,” she continues. “A lot of my work comes down to control and identity, and that was probably why I was drawn to this because those two things are in flux.”

The issue of at what point our artificial creations become sentient, acquiring a degree of humanity and therefore human rights, is one as old as science fiction, explored in everything from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Blade Runner to Humans.

But focusing on robots’ right not to be used by another for sexual pleasure makes the material particularly potent in the present moment. Is a robot capable of “enthusiastic consent”? Can a robot be raped?

Conversely, the play also considers the questions thrown up by the recent coverage of incels: do humans have a right to intimacy, to sex, to not be lonely? Should we embrace the potential of lifelike machines, however creepy they might seem, in order to reduce real-life harm – helping prevent rape or abuse, saving sexually incompatible relationships or just preventing long-term loneliness?

“It’s tricky because there will be benefits,” argues Muthy. “There’s a monologue at the end about if a robot can take the hit for humanity, is that a good thing?”

But it’s hard to feel any sense of cheering progress when you look at the current implausible, pornified versions of the female form avilable. “They look like Barbies!” Muthy agrees. Surely, there’s a real risk that men being given the right to do whatever they want on passive simulacra of idealised women contributes to the objectification and dehumanisation of real women in real life.

“There are people who have massive campaigns, totally against it, who think it’s going to destroy humanity,” Muthy acknowledges. “But I’m cautiously optimistic. You can end up with a Black Mirror attitude to technology – we wanted to put a bit more hope in there, and joy.”

She points out there are also women developing sex tech that’s rather more imaginative. Indeed, one could argue that since the invention of the vibrator in the Victorian era, women have been very enthusiastically using sex robots to take control of their own pleasure.

“With every piece of new technology there are fantastic benefits and there are also terrifying consequences, but we still use them,” she concludes. “After all the stuff with Facebook, I’m still on Facebook. We have to navigate our way between the two.”

Sex With Robots and Other Devices is at Kings Head Theatre, London, 15 May – 2 June

Where next?