1. On demand companionship and sex positive chatbots
The adaptable, malleable and entirely programmable on demand companionship that is being engineered by developers and companies, such as Microsoft, has been decades in the making. At The Chatbot, we’ve explored many aspects of how these programmes are changing, and assimilating into, our lives – in commerce, education, medicine, wellbeing programs, and in creative industries. Our sex lives are by no means off limits, because adult chatbots are only a close descendant of the age friendly online prototype companions that tech companies have been testing on society for years. And if Futurama and its loveable rogue Bender has taught us anything, it’s that the art of getting it on knows no boundaries, flesh or otherwise. Similar to chatbots for banking and customer service, sex chatbots (or adult chatbots, to encompasss the entire spectrum) are niche, with a narrow purpose and use value.
The idea of combining the familiar concept of companionship with concepts such as pleasure, arousal, and flirting has led to a few sincere efforts to create an authentic, erotic experience for users – the beginnings of what may become a entrepreneur driven, technological race for high quality, on demand and delivered-to-your-metaphorical-doorstep sexual stimulation. Slutbot is a prime example. Slutbot is an adult chatbot designed to help you become suave at sexting. Designed by Juicebox and available on iOS in the US and Canada, this chatbot is advertised as a sex positive, confident sex communicator, and in some ways a sex educator. This is how Slutbot is defined on Juicebox’s website:
“Slutbot is a free virtual coach that shows you how to talk dirty over text (also known as sexting). Created in collaboration with sex educators and erotic fiction writers, Slutbot is a safe space to practice dirty talk and provide sexting examples as inspiration. Slutbot is meant for all genders and has different sexting styles. If you’re just getting started with sexting, try the Slow & Gentle style. If you are looking for a more erotic experience, try the Hot & Sexy option.”
There are two other trope defying features of Slutbot. Slutbot is portrayed visually as a genderless robot (or maybe it does have a gender, who am I to assume), but at least it is neither overtly male or female. Or sexualised according to a body type. Second, Slutbot has been programmed to respond assertively to derogatory language, which is a small, but significant step, in normalising the equally important concept of consent in sexual communication. It shows promise, and it also teaches us a lesson about building sex chatbots: bring in the experts, bring in the sex educatiors, the sex experts, and the erotic writers. Because, as we know from one of my previous articles, taking best practice from erotica can go a long way to ensuring that your chatbot lives up to user expectations.
2.Enhanced long distance pleasure
Sextech’s pleasure seeking persona can be found in the field of haptic sex, a field more commonly known by mainstream media as teledildonics. Haptic sex is the contemporary term for remote sex, whereby technology mediates sexual touch sent over data networks. Where innovation meets pleasure is in the methods by which sextech is leveraging haptic technology for human users. Just to backtrack a bit; haptic technology is technology that can allow users to experience the sensation of touch through vibrations, and some everyday examples include barcode scanners, and wearable devices. It’s tech that we know, being used in new ways to enhance our intimate lives, whatever distance might lie between them. We’ll ease ourselves into this topic with something PG: mobile kissing devices.
Kissenger is a ‘kiss messenger’, a device that facilitates the experience of long distance kissing through haptic technology. The concept was originally created by Dr Hooman Samani, Director of AIART Lab (Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Technology Laboratory) and Associate Professor at National Taipei University, Taiwan. Through his research into the field of Lovotics – a term coined by Samani to describe the research of exploring human love in human-to-robot relationships – Kissenger V.1 was developed as a pair of hand held robots with artificial mouths.
“Kiss Me [the former name of Kissenger] is a mobile device consisting of artificial lips with highly sensitive sensors and actuators to control the lip shape. This bio-directional real-time system replicates the physical li pressure, position, shape, and movement of both users’ lips on the partner’s device” – Kissenger Kiss Messenger Concept video
In 2016, Samani’s concept was adopted by Emma Yann Zhang, a computer PhD student at City University London. Retaining the Kissenger name, she redesigned the robots into a slimmer shape, so that the artificial lips could easily slip onto the user’s smartphone, similar to a phone cover. Kissenger is about mimicking the properties of a real kiss, in order to allow people to communicate affection across long distances. Both Samani and Zhang have emphasized the ethical considerations of the device which have yet to be ironed out. But there are positives to this tech. Consider the ways in which the Kissenger device can be used: a parent can send a kiss to their child, couples can improve their long-distance relationships. Of course, the ethical considerations include the inevitable ‘sexing up’ of kissing technology and its ultimate use in the market.
Already, the Kissenger device and and app, which can include video face time, has been described as “a gadget for lovers” and not family friendly. The Sun UK has labelled it as “weird and gross” (while also getting the story behind the tech completely wrong). Media narratives are far removed from the original intention of Samani’s concept: to improve long-distance relationships, for everyone, not just lovers. Still, Kissenger is one of the more accessible and handy innovations being developed.
Tip controlled vibrators and sex devices for the cam industry are also rising stars in haptic sex. Cam industry sextech is a process of bringing the pleasure of cam models and viewers closer together across long distances, and Lovense is a company that is innovating within this space.
Lovense is a Hong-Kong based sex toy company which specialises in enhancing remote pleasure for users. One of the many toys on its shelf is the Lush vibrator, a bluetooth enabled device which has proved popular with cam models on sites like Chaturbate and MyFreeCams. In 2016, co-founders Eddy Olivares and Dan Liu were granted the right to a patent that covers the use of tip-controlled vibrators in live cam shows, just six years after the founding of the company. Today, browse any popular cam website and you’ll see the growing popularity of Lush.
3. Blockchain and alternative modes of growth
Now, we can explore the disruptive side of sextech innovations, and how they have found harmony with blockchain technology. Blockchain in itself is a disruptive system, because it challenges centralised ideology which as we all know is a core element of our financial religion. Banks and financial payment systems, such as PayPal, are the gatekeepers for entrepreneurs and aspiring business owners who are looking to fund a new venture. Unfortunately, the sympathies of these gatekeepers are domain specific, and don’t apply so readily to those who operate in the adult industry. For example, as of 2014 PayPal will not process any payments that are linked to adult content (this ban extends from sextech companies, to sexual services, to non-pornographic sex journalism). Moral barriers to access have motivated adult industry professionals to engineer new solutions. And they have found a kindred spirit with the Blockchain industry, itself also viewed surreptitiously by mainstream media moguls and state bodies.
Among those who are engineering new solutions is Leah Callon-Butler, co-founder and engagement director of intimite.io. Intimate is a cryptocurrency token for payments within the adult industry, and it is directly challenging the moral barriers that try to undermine innovation in the adult industry, while also providing a solution to the centralised, unmasked transactions of credit cards. Transactions are processed safely, with privacy, and the reputation tracking element of Intimate ensures that users can learn to trust the service. This kind of transformative social disruption is an integral part of sextech’s identity.
4. Challenging the status quo
This is happening in several ways: the dominant founder story of male tech strat ups is being retold; conversations about sex are (slowly) being re-normalised and reconfigured through new narratives around consent, everyday sex, and accessible, mutual pleasure. Social norms can be painstakingly slow to change. Still, there is a push within sextech to think differently, to design differently, and to look beyond our human limitations. Assuming skyward innovation continues, the industry standard blueprints of human pleasure may end up becoming second chair to the state-of-the-art disembodied orgasms of the future. Because if penis shaped things in vagina shaped things is the holy grail of one of the greatest technological paradigms of human kind, then we either don’t deserve the technology, or we need new developers. Fortunately, the latter is on hand in the form of sextech entrepreneurs and start ups.
Women founders are taking centre stage. High flyers include Cindy Gallop, founder of Make Love Not Porn and advocate for inclusivity and disruption in the tech sphere; Stephanie Alys, Co-founder and Chief Pleasure Officer (CPO) of MysteryVibe; Nisreen Hasib, Director of Operations at Unbound, and her colleague Julia Lopez, Senior Product Engineer (here’s a wonderful directory of women in sextech). In the 2019 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) Report, of the 48 economies surveyed by GEM in 2018 just six showed roughly equal TEA rates (Total Early-Stage Entrepreneurial Activity) between men and women, illustrating the disparities that exist within entrepreneurial ventures across the globe.Visibility is important, and traditionally marginalised perspectives within business and tech are becoming less marginal, more empowered, and are taking seats at the board room table.
Data. Yes, there’s loads of it in sextech. And it’s not simply phone numbers, credit card details, names or addresses that we’re dealing with. It’s our bodies and behaviors. Let’s return to the Lush vibrator, which has skyrocketed in popularity on cam websites. Earlier this year the company behind Lovense, Hytto Ltd, landed in hot water in a class action lawsuit, when it was ruled by a US judge that it’s secret monitoring of user’s personal data was unlawful and that the company’s activities do fall under US jurisdiction due to the large numbers of US customers. It began in 2018, when a customer sued Lovense after discovering that details of her experience with the toy were being monitored. Personal data, such as the frequency of vibrations and the time of use, while also attaching the data to her email address. Like any tech used by humans, there are data leaks and breaches. The idea that we can be categorised according to our preferred frequencies of stimulation is both interesting, and a total mood killer.
Another caveat comes from the world of sex chatbots. From what I can gather trawling through the internet, and from testing the freely available chatbots online, there are none that have gotten it right. And I mean none – Slutbot sounds great, but it’s only available in the US and Canada. It’s a maturity issue: a combination of a stunted technology that at this point in time lacks independent emotional intelligence, and quite possibly a lack of understanding on the part of creators as to what makes a good, authentic sex chatbot experience. In order to create it, we need to examine the micro details of a single sexual encounter, a single fetish, and in its micro parts examine the power dynamics, the points of stimulation, and the characteristic nuances that make that particular kind of pleasure pleasurable. Publishing ‘submissive sexbots’ that fall into horrible gendered stereotypes and boring linguistic tropes does not do sex justice. It’s sloppy. Before we start making sex chatbots, first we need to understand, deeply, how we as humans are programmed as sexual beings. We still have a lot of work to do yet.
A journalist and researcher based in Dublin, Yvonne contributes insights and musings on the relationships between sex, gender, and artificial intelligence. She believes that the disruptive ethos of sextech is a viable alternative to the limiting narrative that dominates the design of the sex industry today. Currently a workaholic in denial, Yvonne also researches the music industry, gender, and mass media on her website.
Check Yvonne’s latest work on: https://lazerguidedreporter.com/