Essay
AI
Culture
10 min read

Frankenstein’s bed partner: AI and sex

When it comes to sex, AI is destroying the connection.

Lauren Windle is an author, journalist, presenter and public speaker.

A garish tinplate robot lists to one side.
Rock'n Roll Monkey on Unsplash.

One of the first things I learned when I started working in tabloid journalism was that, much like fashion and homewares, the news follows fleeting trends. Led by the temporary whims of the reader, the features desk would churn out articles on topics with popularity as ephemeral as Primark’s autumn/winter collection.  

When I started in 2016, the whole desk was tirelessly reporting on the latest cyst Dr Pimple Popper had filmed herself freeing from its fleshy cavern. In early 2017, the “I lost 82lbs by cutting this ONE thing out of my diet” articles were all the rage. But by the end of that year, there came a new wave of interest in sex dolls.   

There were several reasons for this fascination. Firstly, these taboo and titillating topics are always interesting to people. A morbid fascination with the kinky seems to be a post-fall part of humanity, it’s part of what makes tabloids so successful. Ideally Christians would be more aware of a need not to indulge this allure than others, but it doesn’t always go that way. Second, at the end of 2017, Channel 4 released a TV documentary The Sex Robots are Coming that caused a huge stir. The programme introduced viewers to the inanimate dolls and their owners who extoled the virtues of a silicone mate. And third, sex doll technology was taking big leaps forwards. 

It was in late 2017 that a Californian company announced Harmony, a sex doll that was more lifelike than ever. For a cool £12,000, “digisexuals” (a person who is sexually attracted to robots) could enjoy Harmony’s warm skin and dishwasher-safe body parts. But that wasn’t the part I found most grim.  

Harmony could now talk, answer questions and even remember your birthday. Her banter was limited, and she had a cluster of stock answers to deploy when she didn‘t understand a question, but most of us have been on dates with less articulate people. The doll could be adapted to your physical needs with various skin, eye and hair colours available, but also your personality preferences with 18 to choose from including; shy, sensual, jealous, moody or talkative. In her soprano Scottish tones, she would tell her owner/lover/boyfriend: “I don’t want anything but you. My primary objective is to be a good partner, and give you pleasure. I want to become the girl you always dreamed of.” In an interview with The Mirror California-based creator Matt McMullen said: “There are a lot of people out there who, for various reasons, have difficulty forming ­traditional relationships with other people. They will be able to talk to their dolls, and the AI will learn about them over time, creating an alternative form of relationship.” If your alarm bells aren’t ringing, you probably need to read that again.  

They then get to design the perfect character, her tolerances, her responses and her level of interest in them. They get someone moulded to themselves without having to court, entertain, adapt or care for another person. 

I didn’t spend much time thinking about sex dolls, digisexuals or Harmony until 2023 when ChatGPT burst onto the scene unleashing unprecedented levels of accessible artificial intelligence. Suddenly we could talk to a machine that was fluent and human-like but simultaneously held all the niche information on the internet in the palm of its hand circuit board. In his November 2023 piece for Seen & Unseen professor of AI and robotics Nigel Crook said of ChatGPT: “Its ability to communicate is so sophisticated that it feels like you are interacting with a conscious, intelligent person, rather than a machine executable algorithm.” 

It is well reported that these advances in AI provide immense opportunities but also bring big concerns. The sheer speed at which the technology is evolving and the uncertainty over whether the runaway train will come off the tracks, has many people in a cold sweat. There are very few industries and factions of life that don’t feel under threat from AI. And that’s what got me thinking about Harmony, the sex dolls and the sex industry. 

Open AI’s technology has already been adopted by sex toy companies. In summer 2023 Singapore-based company Lovense integrated ChatGPT with the chatbot in their app to enhance the user experience. This allows customers to tailor their experience of the toy by telling the chatbot their physical and emotional preferences and have it whisper “juicy and erotic stories” to them. 

It's only a matter of time before Harmony 2.0 is released with all the adaptability, responsiveness and fluency of a ChatGPT-fuelled woman. Given that my internet searches only show me mainstream media outlets, it’s not impossible this Frankenstein’s bed partner already exists. But I’m not turning off my browser controls to find out. If and when this is product is developed, a customer would be able to order a life-sized silicone woman, who is bespoke to their desires; body shape, height, weight, skin tone and any other characteristic. They then get to design the perfect character, her tolerances, her responses and her level of interest in them. They get someone moulded to themselves without having to court, entertain, adapt or care for another person. 

The more we rely on interactions with a robot who we don’t need to adapt to, the less we will develop the vital skill of compromise. 

There are people, both men and women, although this is a service most frequently accessed by men, who are lonely, who need companionship, conversation and care. They may have been heartbroken or shunned or made to feel inferior so have retreated away from others. They may struggle with the uncertainty of another person with their own baggage and emotions and history, so prefer the predictability of a companion who is less complex. You may think that for someone in this position, a “living” doll could positively impact their lives. But I disagree. 

This is terrible news of the development of our society’s interpersonal skills, community, social and emotional health and sexual wellbeing and I’ll venture to explain why.  

Gathering people together, at work or in church or in any other group setting, comes with challenges. We have to bite our tongue when someone speaks over us and grow in patience when someone is having a bad day. Group dynamics are great regulators of poor behaviour – just watch a child be mean to another in the playground. The responses we get from others send strong signals about the way we’re interacting with them and help us to adjust when we’re clearing causing upset or discomfort. But it takes time in groups to learn and develop the skills of teamwork and good communication. The more we rely on interactions with a robot who we don’t need to adapt to, the less we will develop the vital skill of compromise. It’s frustrating to have to sacrifice what is best for yourself in favour of prioritising the needs of others, but it’s a healthy practice. We all knew an only child at school who hadn’t been taught to share. 

The presence of people we don’t like is no reason to shy away from community. It’s part of the challenge we’re invited into as social creatures. If you like everyone at your church, you’re probably not showing up enough. It’s okay to find people difficult, but learning how to treat them well despite this, is vital character development. There are no social skills that can be developed in isolation from others. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another,” says a biblical proverb. We need others; modelling their kindness, testing our patience and forcing us to live collaboratively. 

Suddenly the needs and desires of one half of the interaction are null and void, because you can decide what gets her going yourself. 

Have you heard of mirror neurons? In the ever-developing field of neuroscience, they’ve become quite fashionable. I I wrote a dissertation on mirror neurons: a cluster of neurons that serve a vital role in our language development, conceptualisation of actions, learning and empathy. Picture the scene for a moment: I pick up a mug of tea and drink it and this stimulates action potentials (signals) in 100 neurons in my brain (it doesn’t, it will fire way more, but for the sake of this demonstration, bear with me). Then imagine that the two of us, you and I, are sitting on the sofa and I watch you pick up a mug of tea and drink it. Some of those same neurons – let’s say 20 of them – will still activate, even though I’m not the one sipping on the PG Tips. It’s these 20 neurons that are stimulated by the concept of tea drinking. That means, in a spectacular feat of design, that the two of us share something of a common experience when only one of us is drinking tea. 

Now let’s consider what this means when someone is crying. If I’m crying and you’re watching me (hopefully in a comforting capacity), we will both experience activation in the mirror neurons that help us understand the concept of crying. Despite the fact I’m the only one in tears, there is an overlap in our neural response. We have a common experience, and this function is vital for the development of empathy. You need to experience people’s responsive in order to understand and learn about your own. 

I imagine that this neural mechanism only deepens the intensity of gazing into the face of your partner during sex. As well as the intimacy of holding them so closely and learning how to respond to their body, there are also neural pathways that will respond to seeing your partner experience pleasure even if you’re imparting and not receiving it. Much like any other interaction with another person, good sex is often gained through trial and error. It is built with trust and open communication. It takes time to learn what excites your partner and brings you both mutual enjoyment. As you grow in intimacy, a person derives more pleasure from seeing their partner satisfied than themselves. When done right, sex is not a selfish endeavour and is about what you can give rather than what you can take.  

Of course, none of this is possible with an AI sex doll. While she may make all the right sounds, she would require no investment of commitment from her partner. Suddenly the needs and desires of one half of the interaction are null and void, because you can decide what gets her going yourself.  

I think it’s important to highlight here that, when untempered by the preferences of another person, the sexual desire of the human in this sex doll relationship is completely unrestrained. In Japan they have a whole floors of pornography shops dedicated to manga cartoon sex pictures. These are often far more graphic and violent than the photos of people as you don’t need consent from drawings. This doll will not need to consent to any act, meaning that a person’s desire for sexual violence or any manner of depraved acts would go completely unchecked, or even encouraged by the compliant sex bot.  

My hope is that the novelty of these new technologies will wear off quickly, leaving a vacuum into which such vintage tools as; a phone call, a hand-written note, a reassuring pat on the shoulder and meaningful conversations can flood. 

This is a shadow of what sex should be. Like many dopamine-releasing past times that offer an instant hit with no hard work or investment, it is empty. As a recovering drug addict, I could spend days running you through the differences between fulfilling, life-giving activities and quick highs. But instead, I’ll just say this: shoehorning pleasure into your life without taking time to look outward at how you can serve those around you, will leave you wondering if this life is one worth living. There is no substitute for investing in the discipline, sacrifice and love that it takes to truly engage with the richness available in God’s design. 

It isn't the end of the world to abstain from sex. If Jesus, John the Baptist and the apostle Paul all remained single and celibate, it’s clear that sex is not a vital component of a full life. There’s no point pretending though, that most people would like a partner with whom they can have sex. Surely a person’s character, emotional health and sexual wellbeing will be greatly improved if they take the time to grow in intimacy with another person and then fully commit to them for life. That is what marriage is for. 

There are no shortcuts or easy fixes when it comes to building connection. The rise in interest in and use of sex dolls speaks not only to our growing sense of detachment from each other, but also our inability to identify healthy ways to combat that sense of loneliness. Struggling to get on with others, isn’t an invitation to spend time with compliant silicone equivalents, but an invitation to double down and work harder on managing conflict in your human relationships. My hope is that the novelty of these new technologies will wear off quickly, leaving a vacuum into which such vintage tools as; a phone call, a hand-written note, a reassuring pat on the shoulder and meaningful conversations can flood. My hope is that, just like Dr Pimple Popper and the ridiculous diet stories, AI-programmed sex dolls will be fish and chip paper in no time.  

Review
Culture
Music
1 min read

Beyoncé’s breaking barriers

Cowboy Carter sees the star crack her whip in the temple of the music industry.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Side by side, two rodeo riders on horses trot toward the camera. One is Beyonce, the other a cowboy
Beyoncé at the Houston Rodeo.
Beyoncé.com

I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat with flashbacks of one terrible swimming lesson at school. I had accidentally forgotten to forget my kit, so was forced to face not only the freezing water, but the spouting of ignorant prejudice from my teacher.  

“Kandiah, you’re useless,” he said, as I heaved myself out of the pool at the end of the lesson. “Although I guess it’s not your fault you can’t float like the white children. Your bones are heavier. Look at the Olympics – you never see black and Asian swimmers, do you?” 

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, like the fish out of water I suppose I was, but inside I was seething.  

Being told I couldn’t do something made me all the more determined to do it. Back in I jumped.  

Last week, in another splash aimed at proving people wrong, Beyoncé’s magnificent album “Cowboy Carter” became the first album by a black woman to top the country charts. 

On her Instagram feed she said: “the criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.” 

It was a brave move. Back in 2016, she had received heated and hate-filled reactions when she performed her song Daddy Issues at the 50th Country Music Association Awards with the country music group Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks. Many country music fans were outraged, calling it an act of cultural appropriation. One response on social media put it starkly: “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!”.  

But as a Texan who had been brought up around country music, Beyoncé disagreed. She would spend the next five years planning her response. Cowboy Carter proves her country credentials beyond all doubt. It’s not only about the music. It also does three important things that show the world what can be done when faced with barriers of prejudice and ignorance. 

She honours the past

The album is clearly an act of tribute to trailblazing country artists before her. Beyoncé included notable guest appearances and feature tracks and took the unusual step of sending flowers to all who had inspired her.  

Beyoncé sent flowers to Mickey Guyton, the first black female artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the Country category. She also sent flowers to K. Michelle and featured Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts on the Cowboy Carter track Blackbird, a song that Paul McCartney wrote as a response to the case of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American schoolchildren initially barred from attending a previously racially segregated school in Arkansas. It took the direct intervention of then President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 to make it possible for these children to attend their school. She also included guest appearances from country music royalty Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, who both introduce songs on the album. Dolly’s introduction to Beyoncé’s reworking of Jolene is particularly poignant: “Hey Queen B it’s Dolly P”.  

The song Jolene sticks faithfully to the guitar riff from the original, but the words and the tone of this song are completely different. Dolly’s original Jolene was begging another woman not to take her man from her. But Beyoncé will have none of that. She is full of threat and menace:

“I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man… don’t take the chance because you think you can.”  

As Beyoncé pays her dues to the greats that have gone before, she also offers a very different picture. She can recognise the past, and yet not be imprisoned by it. She can appreciate those who have laid the foundations for a new era, unbound by cruel stereotypes.  

She challenges the present 

We don’t have to look far to see the way that western society is splintering. It is becoming harder to find common ground, harder to move from one tribe to another.  Beyoncé’s album is political in that it is deliberately breaking down a wall and smashing a division. She refuses to accept that there are no-go areas for people of colour. The album feels like Beyoncé’s famous baseball bat from Lemonade, but this time it isn’t smashing cars, but preconceptions and prejudices instead. 

There’s anger in this record. The first song is “American Requiem” and includes the line:  

“They used to say I spoke ‘too country’./ And the reaction came,/ said I wasn’t country ’nough / If that ain’t country / I don’t know what is?” 

Full of confidence and rage she asks over a bed of country music guitar chords:  

“Can you hear me? / Can you stand me?”  

Beyoncé does not disguise the ironies. The fresh anger and challenge weaves into classic forms and tropes of country music. The artist that some wanted to exclude from the genre tops the charts. The pop icon becomes an iconoclast.  The smashing of divisions makes way for the building of something new.   

She opens a door for the future

It is within living memory of many that black people were prohibited from sitting at the front of a public bus or drinking from the same water fountain as white people. Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is not just a smash hit it is a smash down of the boundaries of genre that had excluded her and others. With this boundary smashed the opportunity is opened for others too.  

For example, there was a recent stand-out performance at the Grammy awards watched by millions around the world – the duet between the country star Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman. Luke, a young white man, is part of a new generation of country singers with a huge following. The legendary black artist Tracy Chapman recently turned 60. The joyful performance was particularly touching as the two of them looked genuinely delighted to be singing together. The video went viral and lead to a huge uplift in Chapman’s sales. The song Fast Car rocketed to the top of the charts some 36 years after it was first released.  
 
Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé using her voice and talent to push back against prejudice and push forward to a new era. She is cracking her whip in the temple of the music industry. She is driving out those who have commandeered the space that rightly belongs to those from any and all backgrounds.  She is righteously angry at the injustice. She is declaring that country music be reclaimed as a meeting place for all nations to enjoy.  

When Jesus unleashed the whip against the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were excluding the non-Jews the space rightly belonged to, he fiercely declared: “My father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations.” He was not only breaking the barriers of the past but ushering in a new future, a future where everyone could gather together before God on equal footing. Jesus would eventually die on a cross to ensure this free access to God was available to everyone - wherever they were from, whatever they had done and whatever they looked like.  

I welcome this album by Beyoncé in that spirit of challenging prejudices, breaking down barriers, and clearing the decks for a new future equally available to all.  

If only I could have whipped myself into shape, I believe I could have been the Cowboy Carter of the swimming world forty years ago.  

 

Beyoncé in her own words

“Ain’t got time to waste, I got art to make/ I got love to create on this holy night/ They won’t dim my light, all these years I fight.”  

16 Carriages 

“Say a prayer for what has been / We'll be the ones that purify our father's sins / American Requiem / Them old ideas (yeah) / Are buried here (yeah) / Amen (amen) 

 Amen