Will Sex Robots Cure The ‘Incel’ Phenomenon?

Illustrations by Eamonn Freel

Published March 14, 2019

British computer scientist, and author, Kate Devlin addresses our curiosities (and fears) about the ongoing relationship between touch and tech.


LUZ: Why are people scared of sex robots?

DEVLIN: I think there’s a lot of fear that has to do with a general reluctance to talk about sex combined with a fear of robots. We judge sex toys still, even though that’s starting to change. We worry about being replaced by robots all the time, and there’s nothing more threatening than the idea of having your partner replace you with a robot. Even if that does happen, it would be centuries into the future. I think that, as humans, it’s in our very bodies to seek out other humans. I don’t think we’re going to get the same thing from a robotic companion, no matter how good it is, because it’s not going to be the same as a human relationship. It will be some other form of relationship, but it won’t replace a human one.

LUZ: Why do so many sex robots not look like humans?

DEVLIN: Because we are generally very bad at making human-looking robots. Mechanically and engineering-wise, it’s a really difficult task. In addition to that, humans are so attuned to picking up on things that look human but aren’t human. We’ve got this “uncanny valley” effect that says that the closer something looks to human but isn’t human, the more likely we are to get freaked out by it. So I feel that instead of investing all this energy into making something look as realistically human as possible, we should invent something abstract onto which we project our feelings of humanness. For example, I always talk about a sex sleeping bag that wraps you up and hugs you, and maybe vibrates. The technology for this already exists. Heart rate, skin responses, muscle movement, sweat — all of this information can be taken from a smart fabric, fed into a computer program that takes your biofeedback, and fed back to you.

LUZ: Will technology ever overcome the uncanny valley?

DEVLIN: We’re nearly there with CGI. And I think there’s a sense of wonder, but at the same time a revulsion. Something about it just doesn’t sit right. You’re thrilled by it, and at the same time, you’re scared of it. But the uncanny valley might not be a universal phenomenon. It might be cultural. Those of a particular generation or a particular country might notice it, but children who have grown up with robots might not notice it as much. That said, some people think that we’ll never be able to close that gap, because the more advanced the robots become, the more adept we become at noticing their flaws.

LUZ: Will sex robots ever become sentient?

DEVLIN: Right now, we don’t have any sentient robots, or robots who are self-aware. We have AI in robots that can do very specific tasks and learn from those tasks, but none that can think for themselves, and we don’t know if we’ll ever have robots that are sentient or conscious. Some people think that it’s inevitable. Some people think it can never happen. And we might not even notice that a robot is sentient, in the same way that we had thought animals weren’t sentient for centuries.

LUZ: Will sex robots eradicate the phenomenon of “incels,” the groups of involuntarily celibate heterosexual men who have created growing online communities centered on misogyny?

DEVLIN: I definitely don’t think robots are going to solve that. I think that you will always have people like that. The dark side of connecting on the internet is that while some people are going to find other likeminded people to be happy with, others are going to find other likeminded people to be angry with. I did a dive into some incel forums, and it’s pretty grim. There are a lot of people saying, “If we had a robot that was a woman, but it was a robot and completely controlled, then that would be fine.” So, first, it’s clearly evident that what they want to do is control women. And, second, I don’t think anyone can engineer out misogyny in that way. They’re just going to go on hating people.

LUZ: Is there a therapeutic application for sex robots?

DEVLIN: Products by Hot Octopuss, which makes the Pulse “guybrator,” have been used on paraplegic men. It’s basically a hands-free masturbation device that also works for erectile dysfunction and allows people to orgasm even if they don’t get an erection. I think the more we make sex technology accessible for everyone, the better it can be all-around. There was talk about using sex toys to help people who’ve been through sexual abuse, for example, to get them back in touch with their bodies and try to remove any negative memories. I think there are certainly psychological benefits to them, and physically we can provide pleasure for people who might have difficulty otherwise.

LUZ: What sex technology do we need to keep our eye out for in the near future?

DEVLIN: I think we’re going to see more sex toys that are connected to the internet, as well as AI companions that we can talk dirty to if we want.

**INCEL, a term for the INvoluntarily CELibate, has become a banner on certain internet forums for predominantly young, heterosexual men to propagate misogynistic and reactionary value systems.


 Luz is the editor-in-chief of PC Erotic magazine. Devlin’s Turned on: Science, Sex, and Robots is out now.