An engineer working on “Smart” sex dolls — that can talk, play music and turn on dishwashers — in the Chinese city of Dalian

Love in a remotely-controlled climate

If we outsource our decisions to machines, we will be less capable of navigating our own feelings

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The problem with the future is that it’s never quite as interesting or as different as we imagine (or, in some cases, hope) it might be. Human beings still feel old-fashioned emotions like jealousy, lust and disappointment. No matter how much we might like to pretend otherwise, we will still inhabit ageing and often painful fleshy bodies that feel miserable without touch and which long for doughnuts, even when too many doughnuts have already been consumed.

If you’re an anthropologist–futurologist like Roanne van Voorst, curious to find out about what the future of sex might be like, it makes sense that you’d begin your enquiries at the bleeding edge of the new things that people pretend they like. After all, she tells us, experts have claimed that, by 2050, ten per cent of young people will not only have had sex with a robot but will want to live with one.

Perhaps these “experts” are secretly robots pretending to be scientists — who knows? — but this is an extremely depressing claim, regardless of whether the next quarter-century will really see young people get it on with some sort of mechanical sex-slave.

Six in a Bed: The Future of Love — From Sex Dolls and Avatars to Polyamory, Roanne van Voorst (Polity, £25)

Whilst Van Voorst is intrigued by sex dolls, virtual dating, the hiring of friends, taking DNA tests to discover partner compatibility, necking sex drugs to induce horniness, paying for sex, loving multiple people at once and so on, and tries at least some of these things out herself, she thankfully doesn’t go “all in”. The human condition remains unchanged.

She writes: “Without love we lose our life force, fail to thrive, fail to grow.” Loneliness is a massive, and growing, problem for richer countries, where fewer people have children and are more likely to live and die alone. Van Voorst notes that almost half of residents in Amsterdam and Rotterdam live alone and are not in a relationship.

So the market for love-lack-plugging entities, whether virtual pals or partner-sharing, is clearly a growing one, and who wouldn’t want to make money from human misery? Dating apps, whilst promising endless, debilitating choice, are designed for you not to find a partner, because then you never leave the app.

Is polyamory, whereby “several simultaneous, open, loving relationships are maintained”, a solution to all the loneliness? I’m not sure why a human timeshare would be a better solution than mutually picking someone you randomly meet and making a go of it with them, but perhaps I’m missing something.

Van Voorst hangs out with some polyamorous groups (“polycules”) and in one case meets a “friendship baby”, a consequence of one such arrangement where six adults live together. One wonders whether the baby is so keen on polyamory, but no matter: Van Voorst is told that jealousy, whilst unfortunately ineradicable, nevertheless tells you something about your own insecurity rather than about your partner.

Besides, human beings have always been polyamorous, or at least non-monogamous, she claims, so why not make it into a perky, rationalist, transparent, spreadsheet sort of thing? If I tell you that I want to have sex with your friend, that’s okay, you shouldn’t feel sad about it; in fact, it’s good.

The author seems almost cross with herself that she feels little affinity with polyamory: “How can it be that I feel so comfortable with monogamy, whilst a slow but steadily growing group of people does not feel the same way and claims that polyamory is the way of the future?”

A Polyamorous trio pose for a picture at Pueyrredon Park, in Buenos Aires

But the phenomenon in its contemporary form raises a general and troubling question: what model of the self is presupposed in polyamory, or for a person who wants to have sex with a doll (not to say these are the same people!)? Or for someone who makes relationships in virtual reality but struggles to speak to others in the real world?

Van Voorst seems to take it as read that it’s a good thing for desire to be expressed in these ways, or at least better expressed than repressed, since these phenomena will only grow in the future. Therefore we should understand before we judge. But we can see immediate problems with any model of the self that begins with desire, rather than, say, duty or relationality.

We may not want to use a sex robot, but might we want to judge a society that says it’s okay to do so? Sex may be understood increasingly as onanistic, but pornography and the sexualisation of inanimate objects, not to mention a world in which people pay for friendship and sex, tells us something much larger about our culture. And it’s not a happy story.

Van Voorst’s artificial interactions were ultimately “docile, predictable, controllable”, and in the end she feels more sympathy for her inept robot vacuum cleaner than she does for Nick the sex doll, who has an enormous cock but has screws through his hands and habitually falls over. Van Voorst, one has to say, exhibits a certain naivety regarding the differences between male and female sexual desire: she ends up speaking a monologue to Nick in the sex doll brothel who (not very surprisingly) is more often used by gay men than heterosexual women.

Van Voorst ultimately sounds a cautious note that none of these great technological or chemical inventions can really replace the surprising (and we might even say, endearingly annoying) aspects of human interaction. She cares more about love at the end of her research than at the beginning. The afterword depicts a lovely morning with her father in a forest where they are told about how tree roots are connected, but that these attachments are often severed in the city.

Without human interaction, or its replacement by images, disembodied voices and screens, we will not develop; we will get no feedback on our behaviour. If we outsource our decisions to machines, particularly about love, we will be reneging on a central feature of our humanity itself.

We will become more machine-like and less capable of navigating the world, let alone our own feelings. Technology will not reduce loneliness at all but serve only to draw attention, when we are not distracted by it, to our isolation. Re-socialisation through church, reading groups and an embrace of the random unmediated encounter seems by far the better option. Let us not become the tool of our tools.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover