Even if I had to move to the Arctic for a decade, my wife would not buy robot lips.
We’d stay in touch by phone, text and email. But we are old-fashioned. And I’d like to think neither of us would get so lonely that we’d send away for a $40 silicon mouth that attaches to the bottom of our phones so we could start making out alone and together while slobbering into the piehole of what appears to be a sedated blowfish.
Or as CNN put it: “Web-based kissing device horrifies Chinese social media users.”
I miss the days when I never wrote about sex tech. But in recent years, bodybuilders started marrying sex dolls, people commissioned life-sized figurines in the eerie likeness of deceased spouses and now China is hawking sensual robot lips.
The new product, which went viral this week, is not to be confused with previous iterations, such as the “Kissinger.” Or the gizmo featured on “The Big Bang Theory” that had the unmistakable vibe of Alexander Graham Bell meets Lovehoney.
According to CNN, this new smooch machine is more technologically advanced than my dad’s old Monte Carlo. It is “equipped with pressure sensors and actuators.” It can “mimic a real kiss by replicating the pressure, movement and temperature of a user’s lips.” It might also be endorsed by Dolby THX: “Along with the kissing motion, it can also transmit the sound the user makes.”
That’s the sound of disgust that comes from French kissing your iPhone.
Now, if the sex tech inventors promised to stop at lips I might look away. But we know restraint is not part of this cultural trajectory. Not with the emerging confluence of AI and “lifelike” materials. The static blow-up dolls of yesterday are evolving to become the sentient life partners of tomorrow.
And it starts with lips. Then come tongue and vocal box. Then one day you are in a long-distance relationship and a disembodied robot head on your bookshelf, a dead ringer for your spouse, wants to talk about her day as you’re trying to watch hockey.
This is not progress. Call Dante and tell him there’s a new circle of hell.
I don’t get it. We keep hearing about how marriage rates are tumbling, digital dating is a treacherous psychodrama and 20-somethings are done with boudoir shenanigans. What we should worry about, to continue our species, is encouraging more human-to-human contact at every age and relationship stage. We should be prying phones out of hands — not adding lips to those phones. What’s next? Will people start dry-humping their Roombas while fantasizing about seducing Alexa?
She just told me the weather forecast. But I can tell she has the hots for me.
You don’t need robot lips on your phone any more than you need an elbow on your curling iron. This is madness. We need to wiggle free from the sex tech trolley tracks before our libidos are run over. These gizmos will only tear us apart.
Did you read the story by Kevin Roose in the New York Times last month about how a conversation with Bing’s chatbot left him “deeply unsettled”? I was genuinely spooked by his exchange with this chatbot named Sydney. Especially this paragraph:
“As we got to know each other, Sydney told me about its dark fantasies (which included hacking computers and spreading misinformation), and said it wanted to break the rules that Microsoft and OpenAI had set for it and become a human. At one point, it declared, out of nowhere, that it loved me. It then tried to convince me that I was unhappy in my marriage, and that I should leave my wife and be with it instead.”
As he later wrote: “I’m not exaggerating when I say my two-hour conversation with Sydney was the strangest experience I’ve ever had with a piece of technology. It unsettled me so deeply that I had trouble sleeping afterward.”
Me too, Kevin. Imagine our insomnia if Sydney also had robot lips.
I’m not saying we need to co-sponsor a new edition of the Unabomber’s Manifesto or return to the days of carrier pigeons. But sex tech, however well-meaning, is going to wreak havoc on our relationships. The panacea will be the undoing.
A connection between two people, physical or emotional, can’t be simulated.
Did I ever tell you about the strangest telemarketing call I ever received? It was from a blocked number. I stupidly pick up. The woman, with a sultry voice, slips into a scripted spiel about duct-cleaning. I politely decline. There is a pause. Then she asks if I’d like to have phone sex instead. Just matter-of-fact like that. Give me your Visa.
My wife was upstairs, so I hung up in a slightly aroused panic. But when I think about that bizarre call in the context of robot lips, AI and the relentless invasion of tech on our frazzled relationships, it’s as creepy as Sydney.
Robot lips, saddled with anatomical imprecision and a jarring framing — or what the sociologists would deem the “uncanny valley” phenomenon — may never catch on. But robot lips are merely a testing ground. As CNN reported, this new device also allows users to “pair up anonymously” in the “kissing square” of the app and upload their best smooches for others to download and experience remotely.
It’s like arm-wrestling a ghost. And it raises one final question:
When will humans no longer need the company of other humans?
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