While the cynical among us knew it was only a matter of time before the rise of the sexbots, the partnering of RealDoll — maker of high end sex mannequins — with Hanson Robotics has moved that eventuality one step closer to reality.
This new venture has been dubbed Realbotix by founder and CEO Matt McMullen of RealDoll. The goal is to endow the RealDoll line of sex figurines with some basic animation, transforming them from immobile mannequins to full on androids that can follow commands and verbally respond to the user. This advanced line of sex dolls will come equipped with animatronic heads, capable of blinking and opening their mouths suggestively. The dolls will reportedly also make use of a mobile app and a virtual reality headset, whereby the physical doll provides haptic feedback for interactions taking place within the virtual reality console.
While it’s far from clear if McMullen has made any pioneering advances in either robotics or AI (unless you count the alarmingly lifelike ability for his robots to stick out their tongues), he has established a kind of beachhead for the nascent field of so-called robotica. From here we are likely to see innovations trickle in from universities and other sources of AI research to augment and expand his efforts.
Of greater certainty is that McMullen’s mastery lies far more in crafting devilishly bewitching verisimilitudes than it does in artificial intelligence. The voice of his robotic women sounds like it was lifted from an ancient Atari video game and their conversational abilities would barely qualify them as entry-level chatbots. However, McMullen’s talent for molding silicon in lifelike ways is a thing of genius. And here it’s likely that his own craft will inform efforts being made in more socially acceptable forms of robotics and AI. The same facial nuances that are required to evoke sexual arousal could be applied to creating feelings of assurance when we speak to robotic doctors or housekeepers.
From a technical standpoint, the way McMullen addresses issues like the uncanny valley will also have broader application elsewhere in robotics. The uncanny valley refers to the uneasy feeling people get when viewing a human doll, puppet, or robot that is 99% lifelike but missing that je ne sais pas quoi that makes humans unmistakably human. McMullen plans to address this problem by giving the dolls certain telltale features that would identify them as sexbots rather than humans (as if the exaggerated proportions weren’t evidence enough). While it may be tempting to dismiss his work as unscientific and outside the realm of artificial intelligence proper, to do so would be to lose out on a rich new source of data and experimentation.
In his interview with The New York Times, McMullen makes a convincing case that his efforts should be treated as art, and I would add to that science. Make no mistake, he has staked for his goal one of the most difficult problems in robotics and AI, creating a machine capable of human like conversation and movement. While we may disagree with the application these efforts will be put towards, the science behind any advances he makes will be real and enduring.
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