Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots by Kate Devlin
I confess that when I opened up Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots (2018) by Kate Devlin, I wasn’t expecting a tour of classical literature: stories about Laodamia, who had “commissioned a bronze likeness of her [dead] husband — an artificial lover that she took to her bed.” Or the Spartan king Nabis, who had a “lifelike robot designed and dressed up to look like his dead wife, Apega.” But as Devlin cautions us, “This is not a book that’s just about sex. Or robots … It’s about intimacy and technology … history and archaeology, love and biology.” Though that’s not to say sex and robots don’t appear. They do.
But before we get to the sex robot “Harmony” and an exploration of teledildonics (use your root words, people), Devlin works her way through that classical literature as well as various historical artifacts, such as ancient phalluses that may have had a “dedicated purpose” beyond ritual, or the Greek olisbokollix, a “hard-baked breadstick … literally a bread dildo.” From there it’s a jump forward to the first electromechanical vibrator in the late 1800s and then a tour of its development into the cornucopia of devices now available. Sex tech, Devlin informs us, is a 30-billion-dollar industry (not including online porn) that includes both hardware and software all while it moves into new technology such as virtual reality.
From there Devlin dips into today’s sex dolls (mostly female forms, she notes, though she’ll delve into that more fully later), and then she cycles once more back to ancient times, detailing Greek and Chinese automata. While these ancient examples were rough and primitive, by the seventeenth century, “automata were becoming more sophisticated and more impressive,” including a full-size flute player that could play twelve songs. Some decades later the Mechanical Turk seemed to put all prior examples to shame, although the mechanical chess player turned out to be a complete hoax (though it took, Devlin informs us, nearly a hundred years for the full extent of how it worked to become public). The automata were the precursors to the robots, which is Devlin’s next topic, starting with Capek’s R.U.R and bringing us up to modern times, with a discussion not just of the mechanics but also the ethics of robots (here she brings in Asimov’s famed Three Laws), before then delving into machine learning and AI.
We’re getting nearer to the book’s subtitle, with a foray into companion robots for the elderly and the lonely, discussion of the “uncanny valley,” and anthropomorphism. And then, about halfway through Turned On, Devlin takes a tour of a RealDoll factory, where she meets the aforementioned Harmony: “a RealDoll body with a face that speaks and moves … [and] breasts that are unfeasibly balloon-like above a narrow waist.” The tour leads to some surprises for Devlin. For instance, she “came here expecting to be riled by the hyper-sexualized, pornified shapes of the artificial women, and yet … all I see is artistry and expertise. I’m conflicted.” And in a superb detail that is hard to imagine in any other work, she describes looking to her side to see “production manager Mike, busy at work shaping the vulva and vagina … Next to him is a tray of eye-wateringly large penises in various states of completion … I stop to take pictures. I have the best holiday snaps.” That wry sense of humor runs throughout the book, making it all the more charming and engaging.
After a few more stops with other inventors/sex “robots” (in quotes because, as Devlin had warned us at the start, there really aren’t any such fully working inventions yet), she moves into what is a fascinating discussion, more philosophical than technical, of love and intimacy between humans and the inanimate. Some of the intriguing questions she brings up are the effect/ethics/possible benefits and pitfalls of sex robots on pedophiles, sex trafficking, prostitution, rape, human relationships, body image, and more. As we’ve just entered into this phase (really, the “pre-phase”), Devlin offers more questions than answers, which might be frustrating to some readers but made perfect sense to me. She leaves the reader to think, which is what good non-fiction should aim at. Toward the end, she muses on what she sees as the best type of sex robot — which is surprisingly non-humanoid:
Why not pick the features that could bring the greatest pleasure? A velvet or silk body, sensors and mixed genitalia, tentacles instead of arms? … increasingly embodied forms providing robotic, multi-sensory experiences … reduc[ing] some of the more compelling fears.
The first half of Turned On is filled with fascinating details of the development of cultural views and mechanics. The book does bog down a little in the middle, but not for long, and the second half shifts gear in welcome manner from informative tour to boundary-pushing questions of ethics, philosophy, and human intimacy. And while the prose is mostly just effective, the voice is engaging and charmingly wry. Recommended.
A friend of the bookstore directed me to a clickbait article yesterday about four robotic brothels. Apparently there are already two open in Italy and France (although more likely, it’s just that their business licences have been approved), with Vancouver, BC, and Houston, Texas USA as the next two target cities. Interesting how well it dovetails with your review.
Intriguing book and now I want to read it, just for the “I have the best holiday snaps!” line.
Tonally, Devlin’s subject and approach to same sound like Mary Roach, whose work I like a lot — so even though I wouldn’t normally pick up this kind of book (being too afraid of how the subject matter would be handled) I will make a point of keeping an eye out for this. Thanks, Bill!
That’s not a bad comparison, though I’d give the nod to Roach for style. But she’s so damn good that’s hardly a criticism.
Oh, and Marion, she does talk about the robot brothels in the book as well