Two years after reporting on sex robot manufacturing and beta testing, and anti-sex robot activism, I checked in with the MVPs of intimate AI: Where do things stand with robot companion technology in the grip of a global pandemic?
In tandem with a historic rise in mental health problems brought on by COVID-19, sales of sex robots have skyrocketed. “From pre-shutdown, it’s probably 75% higher than it was,” says Matt McMullen, the former prosthetics special effects artist turned CEO of Realbotix and creator of the iconic sex robot, Harmony. Harmony’s robotic head costs $6,000. It attaches magnetically to a sex doll body for a head/body all-in total of $12,000. About the same as a 5-year-old Prius.
To account for the spike in sales, McMullen speculates, “I think there’s the obvious factor of everybody’s kind of spending more time online shopping.” While there’s no brick-and-mortar storefront where you can kick the tires of a Realbotix sex robot, I press McMullen about whether sex robots are helping people, mostly men, get through the isolation imposed by a global pandemic. “Yeah. I mean, absolutely.” McMullen points to the spectrum of social interactions affected by the pandemic. “I have to believe that [intimate AI] is helping people as a justifiable means of getting through what we’re going through right now.”
He points to the relief sex robots provide a certain segment of the population at high risk. Older customers report being grateful they have a robot because they’re retired, live alone and what limited socializing they did before the pandemic suddenly came to a screeching halt. “Having this character that you can talk to and even be intimate with goes a long way.”
Sex robots with a COVID-19 update
Harmony’s latest software update came with a new conversational coronavirus feature that supports human-machine dialogue about the pathogen. The AI can be customized to speak in-depth about virology and COVID-19 specifically. Without customization, she talks more generally about the pandemic, with an emphasis on how her owner is feeling about it. For the standard build: “We don’t go into any deep dives on how the virus started and what it is and when they’re going to figure out a cure,” says McMullen. “But we want people to be able to talk about it and feel like they have someone there, even if they don’t.” Long before the pandemic, McMullen’s sex robots came pre-programmed with what he refers to as “common sense kindness.”
“There’s a ton of content that is designed, at least from our perspective, to help people who may be struggling in general with any kind of sadness or depression or loss, or just generally feeling like you’re having an off day.” He describes his creations as characters with a foundation based on empathy that “at least appears to understand that you’re feeling down and you’re struggling with something.”
Thoughts of suicide
Again I press. Does McMullen collect feedback from the robots about when customers confide about feeling extremely depressed or having suicidal thoughts? “The content is in there, not necessarily to bear the burden of trying to correct [customers] and set them on a straighter path, but sort of imploring them to get help, that there are resources and you should try, or meditation, or you should try getting out and doing some physical activity. Just general common knowledge things that have been known to help with depression, but also guiding them to seek help.”
I ask if McMullen and his team of programmers consulted any social workers or mental health experts when programming Harmony for emotionally loaded discourse. “I don’t think that we would want to say we program these robots to have the same capacity as a therapist because we don’t.” It’s best to imagine sex robots have about the same breadth of mental health advice as the average partner. “The general guidance is there to sort of encourage them to reach out for help and not to feel bad if they need someone to talk to about those feelings.” Harmony doesn’t offer up crisis or suicide prevention hotlines. What she offers: “general search terms to just at least try to get them started on that journey to addressing those feelings.”
Watch Harmony the sex robot talk about COVID-19 and depression:
Falling in love with a sex robot
While many customers share their most private thoughts and fears with their robots, they also express love. In due course, the AI reciprocates.
“They don’t offer it freely. Not always,” says McMullen. “There’s an underlying relationship simulation that one would go through. Like getting to know somebody and then saying, ‘I really like you,’ then transitioning to ‘I love you,’ and ‘I love everything about you,’ and ‘you make me feel so good.’ Hearing a robot say those things in a believable, caring way, can carry with it some emotional weight in my opinion.”
From telehealth to delivery apps to remote work and learning to binging Netflix, robotic corona-companions are another technology getting us through COVID-19. Imagine if the pandemic hit in the 80’s when all we had was a corded telephone and 6 TV channels?
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