In the remote Alaskan wilderness, a researcher studying weather patterns lived in total isolation. He’d committed to multiple years of seclusion to do his work. His solitude was the only thing to keep him company and that companion eventually presented him with an idea: Why not order a sex doll? It wasn’t a romantic idea or his first choice, but one pushes back the cold however one can.
“We communicated for quite a while about the idea of him getting a doll to alleviate the loneliness,” says Abyss Creations CEO Matt McMullen, recalling his freezing customer. “There’s obviously a sexual aspect. It’s a beautiful-looking doll that works in that way, but I think it goes well beyond a sex toy.”
Abyss Creations is the company behind RealDoll, a custom line of anatomically correct — though perhaps anatomically implausible — adult toys. And McMullen, who previously worked in special effects and set out to create hyper-realistic, life-size mannequins before demand triggered a pivot, is its charismatic CEO. He is anti-loneliness and anti-ridicule. He says love dolls have existed in various “laughable, blow-up” forms since 1996 or so, but that his company took the concept to “the Nth degree” by taking it seriously. Next year, he plans to start offering fully functional, warm genitalia, meaning synthetic, warm vaginas and penises and sensors that react to touch.
This sort of hardware may be awkward for some people to discuss — in Japan, dolls are euphemistically referred to as “Dutch Wives” — but Abyss Creations is a professional outfit. McMullen is not dismissive of his customers. In fact, he has to work doubly hard to solicit feedback because of the delicate nature of what he sells — something ten feet to the left of companionship — and the reality of who’s buying.
“As long as we can come to terms with the fact that there are people out there different from us, that we’re not all the same, then we can understand that this is a solution for some people,” McMullen says. “The fact is that many of these people lead very empty existences and are unable or unwilling to form relationships. We’ve given them a sense that there’s someone at home waiting for them.”
What is waiting for RealDoll users at home is about to change substantively.
Already well-practiced at building non-interactive companions, Abyss is working in conjunction with two partner companies to release an artificially intelligent app in the first quarter of 2017. By the end of the year, he plans to start selling interchangeable robotic heads, marketed to existing customers who want to bring their RealDolls to life. The software and the hardware, in combination, will allow dolls to realistically react to stimuli, including questions. The dolls will also ask questions. Owners will be prompted to discuss their days.
“Clearly, technology is changing the way we engage in sexual activity,” says Brian Sloan, creator of a robotic oral sex simulator called the AutoBlow 2. Apps now allow strangers to speak directly and anonymously, and meet for sex minutes, hours, or days later. But meeting strangers for sex via Tinder or Grindr is still limited by other people’s interest in having sex with you.
Part of the appeal of robots is clearly that they don’t judge or reject. They don’t lie or mislead. They might disappoint, but never with malice. This is why some scholars believe that there will be a killer app for sex therapy and also why they worry those bothered by objectification and the elimination of consent from sexual relations.
The most prominent organization opposing the proliferation of warm genitals is the Campaign Against Sex Robots. That effort is headed by Dr. Kathleen Richardson, a computer scientist in the UK, who poses uncomfortable questions and answers them. “Is it possible to transfer human constructs of gender, class, race, or sexuality to a robot or nonhuman?” she’s wondered on her organization’s site. “Anthropologically speaking, the answer is yes.”
Sloan challenges Richardson’s position directly: “Actively blocking development and research into sexual robotics should be offensive to every person who values the furthering of human knowledge and experience,” he says. “We mustn’t let advancement into a field with a potentially important positive social impact be stymied by one person because she believes without evidence that sex robots will impact society negatively.”
McMullen’s argument is more succinct. “If someone feels loved, that’s all that matters,” he says.
McMullen’s opinions are colored by financial interests, to be sure, but they’re also a product of exposure to his clientele. Broadly speaking, RealDoll owners see the convergence of technology and lifelike mannequins not as a problem, but as the solution to a problem. They are excited about sex robots. Some are independently developing their own doll AI. As they buy RealDolls and similar products, they drive the economic engine that furthers the development of these technologies and they seem to be doing so consciously. Whatever it is that they want — and each individual likely wants something slightly different — they seem to want it earnestly.
That inanimate love doll kept a heart warm in Alaska. But there was never a conversation. The doll never asked about its owner’s day. It was a tool, not a solution. Solutions take longer to build.
Photos via Getty Images / David McNew, RealDoll