How Will AI Impact Our Sex Lives?

Is sex with robots the future of getting off?
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About eight years ago, I did a stint as a guest on The Verge podcast “What’s Tech?” For most of the episode, host Chris Plante and I talked about my brief career as a cam girl, and how performing digital strip shows in the era before widespread streaming video had informed my understanding of how people have sex online. But towards the end of our conversation, Plante took things in a slightly different direction. He asked not about the past or present of virtual sex, but what he envisioned as its future: fully AI cam performers. It has made me ponder how will AI impact our sex lives, and really got me thinking.

A Concept From Another World

Back in 2015, such a concept was utterly sci-fi. Although chatbots existed, they were still fairly rudimentary, hardly capable of handling an extended erotic conversation. And the video technology required to pull off such an endeavor seemed even further out. 

As I told Plante, it seemed likely that any AI cam performer would fall deep into the Uncanny Valley: obviously attempting to be human, but just off enough to spark revulsion rather than attraction.

In 2023, This Question Hits Different

Major advances in AI have created a world that would have been practically unrecognizable to 2015 me. In 2017, early “deepfake” technology was used to insert actress Gal Gadot’s head into a hardcore porn scene. Over the years, it’s become significantly easier to create convincing videos of events (and people) that never actually existed. Large Language Models (LLMs) like ChatGPT use massive databases of text to train themselves to converse with human users. In 2022, one Google engineer even became convinced that the program he was working with had gained sentience (a hotly disputed claim). 

On social media, it’s not uncommon to hear people insist that the end is nigh for sex workers, who are sure to be replaced by high-end chatbots any day now. This environment that once was a mere sci-fi query now feels a lot more pressing. 

Photo: Anna Tarazevich via Pexels

Love and Sex with Robots

For decades, movies and TV shows have helped us envision what romantic relationships with robots might look like. Jude Law’s Gigolo Joe in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied virtual assistant Samanta in Her, and Alicia Vikander’s devious Ava in Ex Machina have all offered roadmaps for what intimate relationships with artificial beings might look like. 

But the obsession with robotic romance isn’t limited to Hollywood. In 2008, artificial intelligence expert, David Levy, published Love and Sex with Robots. The book subsequently inspired a conference that has brought together academics with an interest in AI sex every year since 2014.

Levy’s argument in favor of artificially intelligent paramours is a fairly simple one: humans already form emotional attachments to all manner of automated devices, including Roombas and digital assistants like Apple’s Siri. It’s not a stretch to imagine that, once the technology is sufficiently advanced, humans will find themselves erotically attracted to robots—especially since, unlike human partners, algorithmically driven ones will theoretically be able to predict (and meet) their human partners’ every desire. They could even potentially monitor brain waves and biometrics in order to craft the optimal experience.

But Here’s the Caveat

Yet, for as long as Levy has been promoting sexbots, they’ve always been just out of reach. In 2009, Levy insisted that high-tech sexbots would become a reality within just a few years. In some ways, he was right: 2010 saw the debut of Roxxxy TrueCompanion. Ultimately, Roxxxy flopped, as did Harmony, a more advanced robot who came a few years later. It’s easy to blame the quality of the tech. Neither Roxxxy nor Harmony came anywhere near to simulating a human woman convincingly. Still, it’s hard not to wonder if there might be a fundamental flaw in the entire premise of AI sex work.

After all, most of these conversations lack the voices of some of the most knowledgeable people of all: human sex workers.

Photo: Mysticsartdesign via Pixabay

Is AI the Future of Sex Work? 

To find out, I reached out to Ela Darling, a long-time adult film performer and podcaster. Hardly adverse to technology or sexual interests, Darling has pushed the boundaries of VR cam work.  Currently, she works with the hyperrealistic sex doll manufacturer Real Doll as an affiliate liaison. 

When I asked her about how AI might change sex work, she was full of ideas. As AI tools have become more accessible, Darling has used them to streamline her work. She uses an AI assistant to make transcripts of her calls with clients and another AI tool to parse those transcripts and remind her of crucial information that’ll help enhance her next session. 

When she’s feeling lazy, she even uses an AI bot to improve the resolution of her laptop webcam, upscaling her image through a fancy algorithm. 

Earlier this year, she even attempted to create a chatbot based on her own OnlyFans conversation history. She’s not sure it would have actually worked as intended, but she loves the idea of a program that would give her a list of possible responses she could make use of while she’s sexting with one of her fans.

But when I asked about the fantasy that’s so frequently brought up on social media… the fully automated robot sex worker here to put human sex workers out of business… Darling didn’t seem concerned about the threat. It’s not that she doesn’t think there’s a market for AI cam performers. After all, Vex Ruby, a completely CGI performer, has found her own fan base. If a XXX video game character can carve out a niche for herself in cam work, it makes sense that a more fully featured AI sex worker might also be able to make bank. 

But the kind of people who get off on a software simulacrum of a sex worker simply aren’t the kind of people who are paying someone like Darling for her time and attention. And that’s a crucial distinction she wishes that more people would make.

There’s No Algorithm for Human Connection 

AI sex work boosters tend to paint a vision where advanced algorithms open up a world of endless possibilities for sex work consumers. Any sexual scenario you can imagine, any physical configuration of features… they are all yours for the taking. And yet, in a world where free porn is easily accessible, many of us functionally have access to that already. Even more notable is the fact that in a world where seemingly endless sex and nudity are available at our fingertips, it’s something else that drives consumers to open their wallets.

“The new trend in consumer spending in adult is direct to creator,” Darling says. “There’s an urge to spend your money on the actual individual. I think it’s something that’s incredibly humanizing for performers now.” 

During our conversation, she recalled an XBIZ panel where the consensus among veteran performers was that rather than elaborate makeup, styling, props, and editing, what truly drives fan interest (and payments) the most are the moments that reveal their favorite performer’s humanity. 

Darling says, “[It’s those moments when] you’re farting in yoga pants with no makeup on, just behind the scenes editing… They love that authenticity. They love you.”

With AI, on the other hand, there is no authenticity, Darling says. There is only an algorithm programmed to cater to whatever a user requests. This can counterintuitively make the experience less special, not more. 

“When you’re dealing with something generated by a computer, there’s a guaranteed outcome,” says Darling. “There’s no ‘thrill of the hunt,’ there’s no possibility of surprise.” 

Photo: solas-ser via Pixabay

The Exclusivity Element

AI does not even offer a sense of exclusivity. There is nothing for you to know that your favorite performer is choosing to spend their time talking to or creating content for you in particular. Custom scenes, in which a performer creates something, especially for a fan… usually for a higher price… are a popular feature on platforms like OnlyFans.

With an AI sex worker, getting a custom experience or scene is easier than ever. Yet, at the same time, it’s significantly less special since it takes no effort to make. 

Similarly, an AI sexbot might be able to provide you with a highly unique and individualized sex chat. One that is perfectly catered to your own turn-ons and needs. However, what if they’re simultaneously holding other conversations with hundreds, even thousands, of other users? How special can your experience actually feel? An AI isn’t choosing to respond to your request.

And that lack of choice carries more weight than many people realize.

Fundamentally, it all may come back to an insight I shared with Plante back when we were talking about virtual sex. “I think consent and free will are very sexy,” I told him. “Even if you know that someone is just doing this because you’re paying them, they are still opting to do it because you are paying them. Knowing that someone is choosing to have sex with you, not that someone’s programmed to have sex with you, is pretty hot.”

AI may be able to pull off a convincing conversation. It may learn to manipulate pixels into a convincing simulacrum of a sexually attractive person. But by definition, it can never be a real human being. And for many sex work consumers, that in and of itself is an inherent dealbreaker.

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