“When I started out,” says David Levy, international chess champion and expert in artificial intelligence, “I didn’t know anything about artificial vaginas. It is quite extraordinary how much interest there is in that subject.”
Levy’s book, Love and Sex with Robots, is perhaps the fullest exploration of the future of humans and robots, especially their interaction in the bedroom. It explores the details of internet-linked devices that transmit real physical contact.
And Levy is no fantasist. He is the only person to win the Loebner prize – an annual competition to determine which chat software is the most realistic – in two separate decades, first in 1997 and again in 2009.
It was while researching his 2003 book, Robots Unlimited, that he first became interested in the subject. Specifically, he read a quote from a 1984 book by Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. An interviewee, ‘Anthony’, told Turkle that he had tried having girlfriends but preferred his relationship with his computer.
“That quotation hit me like a brick wall,” says Levy. “I thought – if a smart guy could think like that in 1984, I wonder how much the concept of human-computer emotional relationships has developed since then.”
A great deal is the answer. Adrian David Cheok, Professor of Pervasive Computing at London’s City University, has been refining a device called a Kissinger: a set of pressure-sensitive artificial lips that can transmit a kiss from a real mouth to a similar device owned by a partner who might be thousands of miles away.
The Kissinger system has been in development for about eight years, with the latest model designed to plug into a smartphone. By kissing the screen, the movements of a person’s lips can be mirrored in the other machine and that kiss will be given to whoever has his or her mouth against a corresponding machine.
Several companies have shown an interest in the device and Cheok expects to see it hit the market in mid-2015.
Eventually, Cheok believes, “almost every physical thing, every being, every body, will be connected to the internet in some way.’’
The future, he says, will involve the subconscious part of the brain. We already have intimate data on the internet, but we still don’t feel that we can really know somebody online. There’s something missing between the experience of making a Skype call and meeting someone. And this is where transmitting the other senses is so important.”
Levy, 69, and Cheok, 42, have teamed up to work on a new “chat agent” – software that can understand and respond to natural human language and speech. The project, named I-Friend, will be based on artificial intelligence software that won Levy and his team the Loebner prize for a second time in 2009.
“It will be one of the most realistic artificial chat agents when the project is finished,” says Cheok.
Levy is keen to stress the versatility of the software they’re developing. The I-Friend, he says, can be configured for any embodiment and persona that the market requires.“It could, for example, be an upmarket toy such as a furry animal or a creature from another planet; or a web avatar that repeatedly turns the conversation to discuss a company and its products; or a mobile app such as a virtual girlfriend or boyfriend.”
Cheok adds: “In the first instance, it could probably replace all the phone sex for which people for some reason pay very high rates.” Ultimately, however, the aim would be for it to be “used in robots for artificial love and sex chat”.
And this is where the artificial vaginas come in.
“I believe it is going to be perfectly normal that people will be friends with robots, and that people will have sex with robots,” says Cheok. “All media will touch humanity.”
There is already a market for realistic-looking life-sized dolls made from a durable high elastometer silicone material. Female dolls either have fixed or removable vaginas and cost anything from $5,000-$8,000. But they don’t do anything. They are unresponsive.
In time, Levy predicts, it will be quite normal for people to buy robots as companions and lovers. “I believe that loving sex robots will be a great boon to society,” he says. “There are millions of people out there who, for one reason or another, cannot establish good relationships.”
And when does he think this might come about? “I think we’re talking about the middle of the century, if you are referring to a robot that many people would find appealing as a companion, lover, or possible spouse.”
Levy, a former Chess Master who represented Scotland, developed his interest in computing while studying at St Andrews university and later as a computer science postgraduate at the University of Glasgow, where he taught his students to program. During this time, he began looking into the programming of chess, which ultimately led to an interest in human-computer conversation.
He and Cheok’s “I-Friends” will have a sophisticated module which will endow the software with emotions, personality and moods. They aim to tailor the software to any required persona, for example a girlfriend or boyfriend who will be able to take part in continual and varied sexually-charged conversations.
I-Friends is a range of conversational software companions based on Artificial Intelligence. Its working name is “Do-Much-More”. Levy and Cheok currently are trying to commercialise this chatbot [a program designed to simulate intelligent conversation] by adding significantly to its conversational capabilities.
It will serve as a software core that can be configured for anything the market requires. It could, for example, discuss a company and its products; or a mobile app such as a virtual girlfriend or boyfriend; or a server based application with which cell phone users can interact via SMS messaging.The same core software can be used as the basis for any desired character, simply by changing the data that defines the persona.
“The very first chatbot was the famous ELIZA program written at MIT in the 1960s, named after Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion,’’ says Levy. “ELIZA did very little but caused a stir at the time and is well documented in the Artificial Intelligence literature. Our first chatbot program had the name Do-A-Lot because it did more than ELIZA. Our second generation chatbot does even more, and was therefore given the working name Do-Much-More.’’
Levy says consumers eventually will be able to experience “appropriately designed artificial genitalia’’ that feel and behave like the real thing.
“There will be body warmth, synthesised speech, moving limbs. The first sex robots will be primitive in quality but with time more sophisticated ones will be available.’’
Do-Much-More delivers a significant leap in performance relative to the original Do-A-Lot software. That leap has been achieved by retaining the original strengths of Do-A-Lot, enhancing its power by extending its system of “variables” (word types) and its morphology (for example by the inclusion of phrasal verbs), and increasing the sophistication of its response generation system through the use of two important lexical resources that have been developed within the Computational Linguistics community in the academic world: WordNet and ConceptNet.
WordNet is a semantic lexicon for the English language. It groups English words into sets of synonyms called synsets, provides short, general definitions, and records the various semantic relations between these synonym sets.
The purpose is twofold: to produce a combination of a dictionary and thesaurus that is more intuitively usable, and to support automatic text analysis and artificial intelligence applications. The database and software tools have been released under a formal license and can be downloaded and used freely.
ConceptNet is knowledge-based, created as part of the Open Mind Common Sense project, which is an artificial intelligence scheme based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. The goal is to build what’s known as a large “common sense knowledge base’’ developed from the contributions of many thousands of people across the web.
“We employ WordNet to provide Do-Much-More with certain useful linguistic data about words, helping us to generate responses that generally appear to be natural in terms of word association,’’ says Levy. “And we employ ConceptNet to provide Do-Much-More with real-world commonsense information so that Do-Much-More sometimes appears not only to understand what the user is saying but also to know something about the subject.’’
Cheok likens this development to the early days of mobile telephones.
“There were these businessmen with these bricks and you thought it so geeky and who’d ever want to use that?’’ he says. “Initially, some technologies are a niche market. But once enough people use it you have a kind of bandwagon effect. Now, sure you can choose not to have a mobile phone, but because everyone else has got one, it’s become the new social norm. So I think a lot of these technologies will become like that – including robotics and mixed reality and all these things that people initially might find a little bit scary.’’
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that David Levy was the only person to win the Loebner prize twice. He is in fact the only person to win it in two separate decades. It also included a mispelling of Sherry Turkle's surname, which has been corrected.