The robots of sex


The inauguration in Turin of the first house of dating with sex dolls is just the tip of the iceberg of a society now in disarray. In 1956, the German philosopher Günther Anders published a rather meaningful text: Man is antiquated. Why would man suddenly become antiquated in the twentieth century? Because, unlike the latest technological discoveries of his invention, the human being has not yet managed to redeem himself from the original sin of his being generated instead of produced. This is the meaning of that phenomenon that Anders calls Promethean shame. The German thinker writes:

I think I happened on the trail of a new pudendum; of a reason for shame that did not exist in the past. I call it a Promethean shame, and I mean by this the shame you feel when faced with the humiliating height of quality of the objects made by ourselves.

And again:

If I try to deepen this Promethean shame, I find that its fundamental object, that is the fundamental stain of those who are ashamed, is the origin [...]. His shame consists therefore in his natum esse, in his low births; that he judges low because they are natal.

This phenomenological observation may initially arouse some perplexity, at least as long as it is considered in an abstract way; then you pick up a newspaper, or you do a quick scroll of the News Feed on your smartphone and we read that on September 3rd of this year the first appointment house with SexDolls was inaugurated in Turin, followed by a immediate booking boom. This is a franchise business that belongs to the Catalan company LumiDolls, currently also present in Barcelona and Moscow, and that soon - according to what is written on the site - will see further dissemination in other locations.

SexDolls, for those who do not know, are not the common "inflatable dolls", as used to say in jargon, but, we could say, they are certainly their deluxe version, what more like human being our technology, in its current state of the art, has managed to achieve. The SexDolls, equipped with a steel skeleton and made of thermoplastic elastomer, have movable limbs and can be accommodated in various positions; their skin is incredibly soft and warms up in contact with the human body.

Despite the clamor aroused, the curiosity and the inevitable social debate between scandalized detractors and apologists of free customs, it is necessary to resize the fact to contextualize it in a much wider frame, which brings us to the origin and the future of a phenomenon of this kind. The SexDolls are in fact nothing more than the insignificant tip of a huge iceberg; insofar as, in fact, in old Europe, brothels with dolls are a novelty all in all, in the United States they are already about to be overcome.

It is in San Diego, California that we can discover how fruitful it was Anders's intuition; it is here, in fact, that the company Abyss Creation, founded by Matt McMullen in 1997, is based, producer of the so-called RealDoll: the most luxurious erotic doll currently on the market, made by hand, at the cost of several thousand dollars. Yet, despite the high cost, 600 of them are sold each year, to a predominantly male target. The customer can design his own purchase at his leisure, starting from different basic models, both female and male, which can then be customized to the smallest details according to their tastes and budget with a wide selection of options.

What is missing in the last resort to an artificial lover so likely? As in the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, life is lacking. The engineers of Abyss Creation, in the absence of the divine intervention of Aphrodite, have decided to resort to the miracles of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and that is how, in collaboration with Realbotix, was born Harmony, the first model of sex robot equipped with ability to move. The robotized head moves the lips and reproduces different facial expressions; the skin is heated, so as to imitate as much as possible the human one, and is littered with sensors, which send signals to the computerized brain and allow it to know where it is touched and react accordingly, until the simulation of an orgasm. The robot software has been equipped with a range of different personalities, selectable at will, of a relative autonomy of interaction and is also able to memorize the tastes and interests of the customer.

This first model was followed by other more advanced products, also produced by competing companies, with the aim of making the experience of interaction with the product increasingly complex and sophisticated. Therefore, we are only at the beginning of what is still a road to beat, but that already makes you imagine a pot of beautiful gold swollen at the end of the rainbow.

This is the fact, a fact that has significant repercussions in the ethical and anthropological field. It is indeed misleading to assume that the problem here lies in the use that is made of a certain instrument. An instrument, such as a fork or a pen, is designed in view of a very specific and determined purpose: good use is conformity to its purpose, misuse of the non-conformity with its purpose. In the case of a sex robot, on the other hand, we do not just deal with a child of technology, but rather with a child of technology. The difference is that if the technique can improve, from a quantitative point of view, a certain type of operation or activity, the technology is able to revolutionize our experience from a qualitative point of view:

Technique is not, in short, technology, although it makes use of technical products, and in this sense it must be thought of as an environment in which the ego is an integral part and to which it is not easily removed, indeed, to which it can not escape. And it is an artificial environment in the sense that it is built by others compared to those who benefit from it, yet for this very reason it is very similar to a natural environment, if by nature we mean what pre-exists at the work of the ego, the world in where we find ourselves living. (A. Pessina - The dissatisfied self. Between Prometheus and God, Life and Thought, 2016).

Technology is therefore an environment in which we all live, which necessarily changes our perceptions and has a decisive impact on our experience. It is no coincidence that the main objection that has been addressed to the sex robot technology concerns the fear that it may progressively lead to the exploitation of human partners, rather than indirect promotion of a culture of domination and violence. Yet the spokespersons of the manufacturing companies categorically deny this type of event, repeating that sex robots are not designed to distort the reality of people. And then what would they be designed for?

In an interview with the Guardian, McMullen states that the primary purpose of robots like Harmony is to help all those people who have difficulty relating. In fact, reading between the lines, it is clear that the decision to develop a technology of this type is mainly linked to motivations of an exquisitely economic nature: if there is market demand, it will naturally also produce an offer.

In any case, that of solitude is a very interesting justification, because beyond its being proposed as a finality that would dignify the use of sex robots, it implicitly discloses a very common philosophical assumption in the field of technical professionals. That is, the utopia that it constitutes a veritable panacea of all evils, which is the ferry that will lead humanity to a higher stage of evolution. In short: a necessary and, above all, inevitable upgrade. From this perspective it is understandable the statement by the British futurist and politician Ian Pearson according to which by 2050 humans will have more sexual relations with robots than between them.

On the other hand, why choose a human being, with his physical imperfections, subject to an inevitable aging, endowed with his own personality and his own free will, which calls us to a commitment and a considerable responsibility, when we can limit ourselves to interact with a robot devoid of consciousness and self-consciousness, programmed solely to satisfy our requests? How we can not be ashamed, we limited and finite human beings, in the face of a product already so perfect and further perfectible? Here is the serious risk to which we expose our humanity: that if the culture of immanence, of unbridled self-esteem, supported by capitalist and consumeristic drives, pushes us to isolate ourselves and reify the other, with the technology there is the concrete possibility to pass from the reification of a human being, to its complete replacement with a res, with a machine.

The paradox is that while we build machines that resemble us and we think of enthusiastic demiurges of a new era in which robots can serve us, we human beings start from the logos of technology to rethink our anthropology. We thus move from exalting the beauty of the Mystery and the uniqueness of each of us, to the aspiration towards seriality and standardized homogeneity, with the difficulty that not even the most invasive cosmetic surgery can ever make us sufficiently competitive towards a sex robot. The res will always be shiner, more glazer, brighter and we, to put it with Anders, will be nothing else that court dwarfs of their own machines park. And yet, there is still a gap that is and will always remain unsurpassed for a res: the ability to access the relational dimension.

The robot is not a moral agent, nor can it exercise a will in the deepest sense of the term. It can be programmed in view of an ever greater selection and combination of options, but will still be programmed by a human engineer. And to believe that a robot or a doll can compensate for the fullness of the human relationship is, at best, a naive illusion: not only can the interaction with a robot really never alleviate loneliness, but it will rather be a confirmation, the present sign of an incapacity, of a defeat, of an always-living defect. In short, nothing but a surrogate, the imago tenuis of something you would like and that is not there.

Certainly, relating is challenging, difficult and is, after all, even a pólemos because the meeting with the Other is always a clash of different universes. The other is hell, Sartre says, because it puts in crisis our own closed system, it hurts it, interrupts it in its confirmatory dynamic and opens it to the world. It is extraordinary how the relationship establishes the subject, which comes to the world in the sign of a relationship, fully expressed in its sexual dimension. And it is precisely within this original relationship that we freely recognize human beings: it is only because there is a "you" to turn to that we can say "I".

But with robots there can not be any kind of recognition, they can not tell us who we are: they are our products. At most the opposite can happen: we are their source of "recognition". Yet sometimes like Narciso, obsessed with his reflection in the water and unable to relate, we seem to forget it and look for confirmations and answers from the machines that, however, will always be a deaf echo to our questions. Hence, the provocation of the philosopher Guardini, who, with prophetic foresight, wrote in 1959:

Life, by now, is framed in a system of machines. It defends itself, aspires to free air and seeks a safe haven. What benefit does it make from this fight? In such a system, can life remain alive? (R. Guardini, Letters from Lake Como - Morcelliana, 2013).

If, therefore, it is undeniable that technology expresses the characterizing trait of contemporary culture, at the same time it is necessary to reiterate that, precisely because we speak of a "culture", it is admitted that this can be continually re-elaborated and rethought. Technology, in fact, as a logos of technology, can not be treated with the instruments proper to technology, because it surpasses them and, if anything, establishes them. Since the paradigm is therefore human and not technical, our objective must be to "humanize" the technique, rather than postulate anthropological models that pursue technical ideals. The action of the human being is an experiential action, where experiences are not always necessarily positive, nor pleasant.

Yet even painful experiences, such as suffering, are fundamental and full of meaning for our existence: trying to exorcise them with "technical solutions", such as sex robots, as if they were "problems to be solved", not only is it vain, but, by preventing us from living these experiences fully, it means that we can not grow, mature and strengthen ourselves. Our historical identity will therefore not come out weakened and we will have delegated something to the answer to a call that was addressed to ourselves, in the first person singular. It is an escape destined to soon turn into a form of inaction without rest or peace. The only solution is to never be ashamed of what we are, because our weakness is also our strength: in our mortality is the immortality of the moments we live; in our fallibility is our freedom; in our imperfection our beauty; in our unique uniqueness our unfathomable Mystery.


Original article by Claudia Stanghellini:

Translation by Costantino Ceoldo – Pravda freelance