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Uncanny Valley: How ‘Human’ Should Sex Robots Be?

To a certain extent, we’re limited in what will turn us on – there are probably different ‘types’ of people who’ll grab your attention over a crowded bar, for instance. But when it comes to sexual objects, like male sex toys, the issues surrounding attraction are much more complicated. And as sex toy technology progresses and we delve into the realm of sex robots, there are brand new problems for designers to figure out.

Before sex robots: how do you create a sexy object?

Unless you have a very specific fetish, the chair you’re sitting on probably won’t arouse you. But it’s not likely to put you off either – you won’t be so disgusted by a chair that simply having one in your bedroom will mean you can’t get horny. In this way most objects are sexually neutral.

But with sex toys, of course, they’re not just there as functional things. Your PULSE II SOLO isn’t ‘just’ a tool you use when you’re masturbating – it’s a part of your sex life. And so it has to go beyond ‘neutral’ and instead become something that’s sexy itself.

That’s a tough challenge for designers. While some people enjoy male sex toys that look quite ‘realistic’ (or as realistic as you can get when you’re basically designing a bum in a can), many consumers are moving away from hyper-realistic masturbators and dildos and going for something more abstract. Neither PULSE II SOLO nor PULSE II DUO are designed to look like anyone’s anatomy: they’re sleek, awesome gadgets that just happen to be used with your cock.

But what works for smaller male sex toys becomes really complicated when sex robots are thrown into the mix.

Humans get aroused touching robot genitals

One of the common criticisms of sex robots is that they’re not yet realistic enough for humans to get horny over. They’re fairly simple creatures, and you’d be hard-pressed to get any of them passing a Turing test. In fact you can’t even get one to pass a walking test.

But maybe that doesn’t matter. A piece of research released last week showed that humans have a measurable arousal response when touching the ‘genitals’ of a small robot (i.e. just the area – no one has invented a robot with a realistic cock. Yet).

Not even a particularly human-looking robot: just a torso with arms, legs, a head and a voice which instructed them to touch and point to various bits of its body.

Yeah, most humans basically have dirty minds.

But more importantly, what does this say about sex toys of the future? Those striving for ever more humanoid robots might be wasting their efforts, if we can get horny over something which looks like the lovechild produced when C-3PO got it on with a Roomba. And bringing in some of the lessons learned from the sex toy industry, the key in making a toy that people just love to use isn’t necessarily to make it look like a human.

After all, a truly realistic dildo or male masturbator would probably have you screaming in terror, wondering which serial killer the company is partnered with. And that’s before we even touch on the ‘uncanny valley’ problem.

Uncanny valley: should we abandon humanoid sex robots?

Studies have shown that the closer you get to something which ‘looks’ natural, the more likely you are to produce an uncanny valley response. If something looks almost – but crucially not exactly – like it’s a real live person, we are more likely to be repulsed by it than excited. It’s why R2D2 is cute, but this Scarlet Johansson robot is creepy as all hell.

It also probably links to why some people are so freaked out by ‘fleshlike’ male sex toys – dildos that try to emulate the human penis, or masturbators that look like actual vaginas. While some people love them, there are others for whom they’re not just ‘neutral’ objects, they’re actively repulsive.

Given this, sex doll designers might want to start thinking a little outside the narrow model of ‘human-like’ sex robots, and experiment with something a bit more sci-fi. A sex robot that looks like Data from Star Trek might be pretty cool, but now you’re outside the limits of biology, Leela from Futurama is eminently possible too. Or Ursula from The Little Mermaid. Or The Little Mermaid herself, come to think of it. If we were to build one, we’d probably equip our sex robot with PulsePlate technology in the palm of its hand, so you could have an amazing PULSE-powered session with them any time you fancied it. Sex robots with multiple arms, hands and fingers that actually vibrate… the possibilities are endless.

If sex robots are marching their way to market (and they definitely are – we welcome our sexy robotic overlords), then let’s make sure that the ones which are coming are diverse, interesting, and imaginative. Let’s hope sex robots learn lessons from sex toy makers that have come before: that the only limit to sexiness is your own imagination…


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