This week, a small group of sociologists and computer scientists convened the second annual Love And Sex With Robots conference at the University of London. For Adrian Cheok, professor of pervasive computing and co-organizer of the event, it was the one of the strangest conferences he'd ever attended, strictly in terms of attendance.
"Most academic conferences don't attract any attention," Cheok said, speaking via Skype from London. "For our little gathering we had about 40 academics - faculty and professionals and graduate students. And we had about 60 journalists."
The massive media interest in the conference reflects a similarly massive interest among the general populace in the topic at hand, Cheok said. "We had press from all over Europe, from the U.S., from Japan. I think it shows that people really want this."
"This," of course, refers to our fast approaching future of companion robots and artificially intelligent, interactive sex toys. As an academic conference, the London gathering was all about the more cerebral aspects of sex machines. Among the papers presented: "Sex Robots from the Perspective of Machine Ethics" and "Exploration of Relational Factors and the Likelihood of a Sexual Robotic Experience." It's the latest in several similarly themed conferences in recent months.
But it wasn't all scholarly conjecture: The conference also included demonstrations of some emerging technology in the field. Take for instance, the Teletongue, a device from Japan sampled by several participants at the conference.
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"It's a device that measures your licking vibration then transfers that through the Internet to a partner," Cheok said. "The person on the other end has a lollipop, and that vibrates according to your partners licking and kissing. It was pretty popular."
The conference was chaired by Cheok, Kate Devlin of the University of London, and A.I. expert David Levy, founder of Intelligent Toys, Ltd. Levy, author of 2007 book "Love and Sex With Robots," raised some eyebrows with his keynote speech.
"He made a presentation predicting that, by 2050, marrying robots will be legal," Cheok said.
Over the course of the two-day conference, presenters explored various facets of the issue: How will sex robots impact the sex worker industry? The porn industry? What are the demographics of the consumer market for sex robots and interactive sex toys? Can a person truly love a robot? Can a robot love a person?
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"The consensus seems to be that we should follow Alan Turing's famous test for artificial intelligence," Cheok said. "If we can't tell the difference between whether it's a robot or a human that's loving us, then that's the answer. If we feel that they love us, then they love us. We don't need to get any more philosophical about it than that."
For Cheok, the emotional aspect of future companion bots is the really interesting stuff.
"Honestly speaking, the sex part is the easy part," Cheok said. "That's just mechanics. The love part - that's going to be the really incredible thing. Can you really get people to fall in love with a robot? We're going to need better natural language conversation, for one thing."
As to how soon that will actually happen, Cheok believes it won't be long.
"I really believe that science and science fiction have a strong correlation," he said. "When I was a kid, it was 'Star Wars' and that hologram of Princess Leia that made me want to get into virtual reality studies.
"The kids today, all their movies are about robots and A.I. – 'Ex Machina,' 'Her.' Science fiction often predicts what happens in that a lot of young people will be working on this, making this happen. I think it's coming a lot sooner than most people expect."
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