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During a Pandemic Are Sex Robots the Answer to Loneliness ?

We have been caught up in the Covid-19 pandemic for a few years. Our social habits have been torn asunder by this and reactionary  government restrictions. Because of social distancing and hasty regulatory measures we have been driven into a morass of „Lockdown loneliness“. Lyrics from James Taylor’s Don’t let me be lonely tonight ,that are playing in the background now, only increase that forlorn feeling. Something has to be done to free us from this isolation we are enduring while the disease runs its course. But what? Could a sex robot, often euphemistically called a companion robot, help restore our feelings of normalcy and connectivity?

Curbing loneliness during a pandemic is not easy. People are wary of interacting with others outside their households, and some parts of the world are enduring renewed lockdown mandates. Even the ubiquitous rise in virtual meetings via Apps, like Zoom, only brings temporary respite to our misery.  During the last few years there has been a rising trend of men in their thirties to sixties buying sex dolls or robots to help abate the pangs of lonely days, according to Ryan James, who is the director of Southern Treasures, an adult concept products retailer in Sydney, Austrailia.

Furthermore, word from the Eros Association report they have seen an increase in online retail stores opening as well as a growing customer base since the onset of the pandemic. Sex doll brothels are also popping up in metropolitan areas over the globe like mushroom fields after a rain. People like hooking up. “Essentially humans are a bonding species. We live in groups, we need groups, we need a connection with other people. We’re not a solitary species,” Jacqueline Hellyer, a clinical psychosexual therapist, remarked not long ago when she was asked to comment about loneliness.

Researchers have defined loneliness as an “unpleasant experience that occurs when a person’s network of social relationships is deficient either qualitatively or quantitatively,” so are the words in a paper by Bekhet & Zauszniewski from 2008. Deficiencies in social relationships occur when intimacy is nonexistent. We’ve all been there:  we may have had interactions with people, but those interactions didn’t give us a sense of closeness. The quality was lacking. And no social interactions, superficial or intimate, tells us volumes  about our quantitative deficiency which the pandemic has inexorably exacerbated.

In his Metamorphoses, Book X, Ovid relates that Pygmalion sculpts an ivory statue representing the ideal woman and then falls in love with his creation. When he falls in love with it, Venus answers his prayer by breathing life into it. This myth is still with us as the sex robot industry ramps up in the 21st century. Part of what is helping to fuel demand for these AI enhanced lumps of polyester is loneliness that the pandemic has incubated.

Loneliness and isolation contribute to poor mental health in people. Not only are men affected by this bane but women, too. How are we coping? One physical manifestation of this is by buying sex toys. Some of us, out of desperation or to be distracted by the long lonely days and nights, buy aphrodisiacs or vibrators, and, even sex dolls. Sellers the world over have seen increases in both clientele and revenues since the start of the pandemic.

Do me wrong – Do me right – Tell me lies, but hold me tight – Save your goodbyes for the morning light – But don’t let me be lonely tonight – I don’t want to be lonely tonight.
(lyrics from James Taylor’s Don’t let me be lonely tonight)

I don’t want to be lonely tonight. So, I think I’ll buy a sex bot. These fetishes are nothing new or a fantasy from science-fiction movies. A renowned breakthrough in merging sex and artificial intelligence was done by TrueCompanion in New Jersey. Roxxxy, her sobriquet, was launched In 2010, and at the time was considered to be the world’s first sex robot. This over-sized „Barbie doll“ for men was 1.70 meters in height and weighed 54 kilos (5 feet 7 inches, 119 pounds). With sufficient erotic promise, Roxxy was equipped with full lips, synthetic skin and other elements adaptable to the client’s personal taste. Its base price was nearly $10,000 – though, depending on the client’s requirements, this could exponentially increase as high as $75,000. The company’s website proclaimed that clients would receive a humanlike device that “knows your likes and dislikes, carries on a discussion and expresses her love to you and [can] be your loving friend. She can talk to you, listen to you and feel your touch. She can even have an orgasm.” This is almost as wonderful as having a “Jeanie” in a bottle; however, caveat emptor, the words from this android are hollow since they have no feelings associated with them. The silicone doll is just that – a doll, but one made for men by men.

The founder of TrueCompanion, Robert Hines, an AI expert, noted, “Roxxxy provides physical and sexual pleasure but also provides social interaction and engagement. It’s customizing technology to provide a perfect partner – she’s not meant to replace a real partner but is meant as a supplement.” We take supplements as a solution for various needs in our lives. Why not supplement our lonliness with an AI enhanced sex toy and just go with the flow? Forget about reservations that this might be unethical as some communities have judgmentally voiced. 

Professor Nancy S. Jecker thinks that affording access to sex robots is part of reasonable efforts to support basic human capabilities in older adults and a,“dignity-based argument for affording older people access to sex robots“. A professor of bioethics and humanities at the University of Washington School of Medicine, in Seatle, she is a staunch supporter of using sex robots in these social conditions brought about by the pandemic.

Companion robots intended to provide sexual services and company, as Prof. Jecker recently stated, are a logical and effective solution for a period of forced isolation such as the one we are experiencing now. Besides being easily sanitized, they offer novel ways to simulate social interaction and can help relieve the severe loneliness of those caught up in isolation. For normally healthy and active adults, they are useful more during a pandemic than during normal social intercourse without an accompanying pestilence.. 

With her expertise in bioethics, Prof. Jecker, is aware many people probably think the idea of intimate relations with sex robots as vulgar, “but the reality is that for many …[the upshot of it all] is to be completely alone.” It’s a fact that loneliness induces people to try to forge new relationships with others. “Social robots with advanced communication capabilities can help those people, and sex is only one aspect of that help, which as I see it is a far more effective and safe solution than medications.” 

Do me wrong – Do me right – Tell me lies, but hold me tight – Save your goodbyes for the morning light – But don’t let me be lonely tonight – I don’t want to be lonely tonight.

Unlike other objects used to enhance sexual activity, sex robots simulate being with another human being and are concomitant to forming human-robot relationships. They may cost more than the cheap and common accessories that are available in every sex store or can be ordered via the internet easily and kept in a bedside table drawer or spare closet, but the results are still sexual satisfaction – abeyance form loneliness.

Indubitably, during an epidemic like this, social robots can be the basis for a social relationship that will embody a substitute for family and friends.  And since the companion robot is, after all, just a machine, you can turn it off and put it away, unlike family or friends.It is almost similar to owning a complicated toy like a miniature railroad set. You stay fascinated and engaged with your possession and you build your fantasy relationship with it.

Southern Treasures have realized an increase in sales regarding their AI sex robots, that are capable of having basic conversations. These companion bots are more advanced than the regular adult-sized dolls which James says are usually used for comfort and sex. Facial animation still isn’t quite humanlike, but the illusion of having a real person present can be easily created by the client’s desire for companionship. Fantasy fills in the missing pieces.

 “The robot has sort of the ability to have a basic conversation with those that can’t socialize or get out or see loved ones,” James said. All of this should be taken in context, however, because human conversation is a relatively open-ended and unpredictable activity. A concern of some sexual health experts is that sex dolls may reflect negatively on us as a society. An unsettling thought is to one day be able to attend Sex bot conventions and take your companion bot with you.

Jacqueline Hellyer believes the sex doll industry is a development from a larger societal issue: not appreciating the human touch and connection. “It’s just as necessary”, she says, ”to survival as oxygen, water, and food — it is ‘an intrinsic need’.”  She further commented, “I sometimes liken it to the fast-food industry. That whole industry has been built up to satisfy a need, but it’s not actually fulfilling the need, it’s actually making it worse.” 

The sellers of these adult concept products are also not concerned about lonely people developing emotions toward a robot. “Social robots are designed to foster this. The capability to express a range of human emotions is one of the central things that humans can do and be and that social robots can support,”  according to a statement from Prof. Jecker.  Simulating social discourse, the bot  helps foster the illusion that having a relationship with an AI activated silicon-based android is normal and dignified. Being caught in the vortex of loneliness produced by conditions only a pandemic can deploy, it is easy to ignore that talking to a machine can be considered a little schizophrenic. We have to suspend our belief or warp reality about us to accept the premise of this human-robot relationship we are trying to create.            

Will buying or leasing an AI-driven human sized companion bot answer your loneliness crisis during a pandemic? It might, but I’m not convinced. In a normal human–human relationship where intimacy rules, both partners are responsible for each other and there are unprogrammed natural actions/reactions that happen. In a human-robot relationship, there is a lot of maintenance that needs to be done to set the stage for intimacy. A little like setting up an H-O gauge railroad set. In the back of your conscious thought, no matter how deep you develop the illusion, you know that this companion isn’t a person. What it says or does comes from an imperfect simulation meant to satisfy some need you have. It’s not an answer in my opinion. You’ll still be lonely afterwards whether you turn it off or not.

Do me wrong – Do me right – Tell me lies, but hold me tight – Save your goodbyes for the morning light – But don’t let me be lonely tonight – I don’t want to be lonely tonight.
(lyrics from you know who:  Don’t let me be lonely tonight)