Aug 31, 2012 · 9 minutes

A couple of months ago, a Chinese news program called "Xi’an Up Close” aired a two-minute story in which a young reporter recounted the discovery of a mysterious fungi-like object that some villagers had found during the construction of a well. One of the villagers, who in the video can be seen handling the squishy object and assessing its length with a tape measure, speculated that it was a special type of mushroom usually found deep underground, according to a translation provided by the Shanghaiist.

“On this side, you can see what looks like a pair of lips," the reporter explained. "And on that side, there is a tiny hole which extends all the way back to this side. The object looks very shiny, and it feels really fleshy and meaty too.”

As many of the show’s Sunday viewers quickly realized, however, this was not a mushroom at all. In fact, it was a grade-A specimen of one of the finest pieces of rubbery sex technology available today: the Fleshlight.

The Fleshlight has become a phenomenon among males in the US, and is one of the world’s best selling sex toys. Among a certain demographic – largely college students and young professionals – they have become so widespread as to inspire nonchalance. A friend once told me that one of her roommates sterilized his “piece” in the apartment’s communal dishwasher.

As far as masturbation toys go, the Fleshlight’s concept is pretty simple: it’s a sleeve that provides a feel-real facsimile of a vagina, or other orifices. It’s the size and shape of a flashlight – hence the name – and there is even a special range of products that are molded from the private parts of popular porn stars.

Considering what’s to come in the adventurous world of sexual machinery, however, the Fleshlight is decidedly low-tech. While a handheld penis sleeve that reproduces all the comforts of a birth canal might sound impressive, it is mere foreplay to a future in which programs and products will respond to our every sexual, and perhaps even emotional, need.

We as a species are marching towards a sexual future in which technology will increasingly take the place of human touch (even your own). If you think porn is pervasive now, wait until it is beamed from your smartphone as a fully immersive, three-dimensional, holographic sex show. That stuff is well on the way. Pop star and girlfriend-beating asshole Chris Brown, evidently struggling to find compliant humans for the task, has already shown us how by appearing in a music video in which he gets freaky with a sexy digital projection. It’s only a matter of time, surely, until we can have our very own Fake Tupacs in our bedroom, or wherever it is we are supposed to put reanimated rappers. And it’s all gonna make YouPorn look like a quaint antique.

But the robots are where it’s at. Imagine a time when you'll roll out a hot robot from your bedroom closet, boot it up, and enjoy a lovely day or night of faux sexual intimacy. It's programmed to know what you like and just at the moment you like it. Maybe it'll talk dirty to you and compliment you on your own equipment, and shiver when you touch it. Perhaps it’ll even stick around for a post-coital cigarette. If you’re really lucky, it might wash the sheets.

Others have envisioned a future of robot brothels, in which customers can select from a range of body shapes, ethnicities, ages, languages, and personality types, safe in the knowledge that the service provider is free of disease and isn’t an exploited worker from a developing country.

In an upcoming article for German culture magazine The European, the author of a groundbreaking book on the origins of human sexuality outlines his vision for the future of sex. Among his predictions, Christopher Ryan says robots in particular will have a large part to play in satisfying our needs.

“Sex robots will become as common and acceptable as dildos and vibrators are today,” writes Ryan, who in 2010 published “Sex at Dawn”, a New York Times bestseller described by sex advice columnist Dan Savage as the “single most important book about human sexuailty since Alfred Kinsey unleashed ‘Sexual Behavior in the Human Male’ on the American public in 1948”. The upshot of a more mechanical, roboticized sexual future, says Ryan, is that “sex will increasingly be seen as simply a matter of provoking orgasm in the most efficient, reliable ways possible.”

Dan Barry, a former astronaut and now the head of artificial intelligence and robotics at Singularity University, is also long on robot sex. “Robot sex is going to be big, it really is,” he told a Singularity University seminar for executives in March. The crowd laughed. “This is funny, right?” Barry continued. “But it’s not funny, if you’re 75 years old, and you just lost your partner, and you are lonely, and you’re by yourself. You still have sexual drive, and you have no outlet for that.”

There is evidence to support the idea that robots can actually do a good job of providing companionship. A 2008 study by researchers at Saint Louis University found that robot “pets” were just as effective as real dogs at alleviating loneliness among nursing home residents. “For those people who can’t have a living pet but who would like to have a pet, robotics could address the issue of companionship,” William Banks, a professor of geriatric medicine at Saint Louis University, told Science Daily. No doubt researchers will soon be testing be for similar effects among robots that service other needs.

Certainly, humans have a long and proud history of turning to technology to enhance their sex lives. In the 1880s, the future King Edward VII – then the Prince of Wales – had his own custom-made sex chair, which allowed the obese royal to support his immense weight while enjoying the comforts of two women at once. One of the first vibrators, called "the Manipulator", was invented in 1869 and was powered by steam.

And it’s not just technology working in service of desire. Indeed, technology has, in turn, benefited from man’s proclivity to find ever-more inventive ways to get off. As historian and author Tony Perrottet notes, pornography was key to the explosion of the book publishing industry in the 18th century, because printers could use it to subsidize the meager incomes they earned from more erudite tracts, such as those produced by Voltaire. A couple of centuries later, porn did the same thing for home video and then the Internet.

“As soon as any new technology comes in, then pornography leaps on it,” says Perrottet, who expounds on historical sex tech in more detail in his book “The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe”. “It’s certainly a symbiotic relationship.”

But what of the social consequences of a brave new world of robosex? If more people are turning to artificial means for sexual satisfaction, sex is likely to be even more recreational than it already is. In some senses robot sex might be safer, not only because it would curtail the spread of diseases and infections, but also because it could offer an outlet for potentially harmful sexual urges. Some studies, which support that line of thinking, show a correlation between access to Internet porn and a reduction in sexual violence. If Internet porn’s one-way traffic can help alleviate sexual misbehavior, it may be that a regular dose of one-on-one robot love can do even more to dissuade rapists, pedophlies, flashers, and whoever else is scheming to wreak havoc with their genitals.

“It could have a fairly dramatic effect on human sexuality, if it actually gets to a point where the tech is so good it could basically supplant the need for sexual contact in the real world,” says psychologist Jesse Bering, former director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Belfast’s Queen’s University. Bering, who is also the author of a new book called “Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?”, expresses concern that in such a scenario we might lose a part of what it means to be human. “Having sex feeds into deeper sorts of social and emotional commitments with other people, and we could become socially stunted as a consequence of [rampant robosex].”

“What makes human sexuality fundamentally different from other species is our social cognition – the degree of subjectivity that we engage in when we have sex with an actual human being,” says Bering. “We view them as more than just a slab of meat that we’re copulating with.”

During sex, we are constantly thinking about what the other person is experiencing, and how they’re feeling. (Well, some of us are.) “Those types of mental state attributions are triggered by things like very subtle emotional experience, eye contact, vocalizations – everything that would remind us that this is another person like us. This a person with a mind, not just a body.”

It would be difficult for a robot to replicate that experience, says Bering. “The robot would really have to push those types of buttons that mimic the presence of the mind in the structure that we’re stimulating our genitals with.”

In other words, a Fleshlight with a brain would not be enough – it would also have to have what psychologists call a “theory of mind”, some sort of understanding of what the humanoid is thinking. Despite the efficacy of those compassionate robo-pets in the study mentioned earlier, Bering doesn’t expect such empathic sex machines – ones that have organic insights into human minds – to materialize in the foreseeable future.

For "Sex at Dawn" author Ryan, the trend towards robot sex is depressing news. “This is just a continuation of our slide into objectivity and despair, further away from true community and intimacy,” he tells me in a Skype interview. “The general trajectory of humanity seems to be towards convenience and efficiency and away from human interaction.”

We’re surrounded by cheap copies of reality, Ryan argues. We have Facebook friends instead of real friends. We eat at chain restaurants that are designed to look like Grandpa’s country diner. We listen to CDs that simulate the noise of rainforest showers as we drift off to sleep. Robosex is part of the same pattern.

Humans yearn for community and contact, Ryan says, but because of the scale of society and the conflict between our biology and the interests of commerce and other aspects of the modern world, we are moving ever further from those basic human needs. We use technology to make up for that, but we know it’s not the same thing. “It’s a very faded copy of reality,” he says. “Everything looks like what it’s supposed to be, but it isn’t. You’re missing the color, you’re missing the sensation.”

Robots, Internet porn, and Fleshlights, it turns out, are merely the fast food of human sexuality. “We end up with the emotional equivalent of empty calories. On a purely physical sensation level, the sex can be mind blowing, but on a level of actual intimacy and connection with another human being, it’s utterly empty.”

The good news about the future of sex? Well, it's small consolation. “Everyone will be getting laid,” says Ryan, "just like everyone can get a burger at McDonald’s.”

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]