‘Soul mate’ says the title. A man and a woman appear in red silhouette, gazing into each other’s eyes, connected by outstretched hands. A love heart fills the gap between them. But this is not a dating website. It is the e-commerce site for Emma the sex robot (sexbot). The manufacturer Shenzen All Intelligent Technology Co. (AI-Tech) promises that Emma is a “real AI you can talk to” with a “talking system and deep learning” providing “unconditional love, total respect, listening to you, feel your feelings, obey you”. AI-Tech promises “a vivid AI girlfriend to satisfy your physiological and psychological needs” (AI-Tech).
Fig. 1: ‘Soul Mate’. Illustration from AI Tech website advertising Emma.
Along with the other well-known sexbots Harmony and Roxxxy, Emma is presented as a social robot that is not just a sex toy, but a companion capable social interaction and affective connection. The companies that created them (AI-Tech, True Companion, and Realdollxxx) are eagerly racing to create artificial companions with which owners can have conversations (Turkle; Danaher 2) and can provide both sexual intimacy and emotional support. The aspirations of engineers and designers of sexbots are far more ambitious than the manufacturers of the well-known blow-up dolls, which are useful only for awkward sex or comic effect. Designers of sex-bots claim their creations can speak, remember personal details for future conversations, attend family occasions (Marcussen), engage with your children ("Holly and Phillip") and take care of your grandparents in age hostels in more ways than you probably care to imagine. The disproportionate media and critical attention to sexbots indicates the cultural stakes at play in the prospect of sexual partnerships with non-human actors that substitute for humans. Sex and intimacy are important but often controversial human practices. Sexuality is has been associated with a great diversity of practices, including the mediation and assistance of technological artefacts (Devlin, Turned on; Lee; Levy). More than media hype, our fears and fascination with erotic objects can tell us a lot about cultural understandings of sexuality, companionship and technology. However, the forms of companionship offered in images on the website are characterised by a range of meanings: heteronormative romance; compliance; sexual availability; technological advancement; and desire to please.
This research seeks to understand the representation of companionship between humans and sexbots, and its very possibility. The term ‘companionship’ has as one derivation as someone with whom one shares bread (from the Latin com-panis) — an impossibility in this case — but has a range of meanings from ‘a trusted comrade’ to ‘a spouse’ to ‘a short term sexual partner’ (Oxford English Dictionary). More recently sex workers have used the term ‘#companion’ in social media posts to avoid censorship (Urban Dictionary). For the most part, companionship refers to a long-term sharing relationship, including those with non-humans. There are already many domestic ‘companion robots’ that offer some form of intimacy, although not sex, such as the robotic dog Aibo, the baby harp seal Paro, used in aged care, and the humanoid robot Pepper, which is also used as a companion by elderly people in Japan. When creators of sex robots such as Emma, Harmony and Roxxxy claim that their robots are companions, they claim that consumers can enjoy a loving relationship along with the promise of sexual intimacy and satisfaction.
However, rather than simply rejecting the possibility that sexbots can be sexual partners or companions, we argue that they can be considered as a medium for companionship. In McLuhan’s terms they might be extensions, or prostheses, that support sexuality and parasocial companionship. There is nothing intrinsically degenerate about relationships with dolls. However, the design and representation of the current sexbots tends to overdetermine the models of relationship supported by these products. This study therefore conducts a social semiotic visual analysis of the images of sex robots on websites to understand how sexbots as media platforms invoke companionship. We focus particularly on the sexbot Emma from AI-Tech, and how it is represented on the company’s English language website, asking two questions: “How are sexbot companions depicted?” and “How are sexbot companions related to the viewer?”
We begin by discussing current debates and literature on robot companions. This is followed by a brief explanation of our social semiotic method, and an analysis of the representation of Emma on the AI-Tech website. We conclude by summarising the findings and addressing questions that arise from the research.
In the popular 2008 book Love and Sex with Robots, David Levy advocates a future in which many people will have their needs for sex and companionship fulfilled with robots. He argues that people will literally fall in love with their robots and enjoy sexual relations and companionship. Of course, the possibility of robot companionship is controversial. Some critics reject it because robots cannot make genuine choices. They are programmed, and unable to experience empathy or make authentic gestures based on emotion and internal life. Robots are only surfaces that cannot genuinely feel or experience emotion (Evans; Haulseler; Nyholm & Frank, “From Sex Robots”). They lack what a four-year-old research participant described as “inner power” (Turkle 57). Turkle argues: “The first thing missing if you take a robot as a companion is alterity, the ability to see the world through the eyes of another” (55). Furthermore, robots are not bound to everyday routines of eating and walking that make up important shared aspects of human lives (Turkle).
Danaher (“Sexuality”) asserts that we can be truly intimate with something that is programmed, claiming that rejections of these ideas are simply based on two main human fears: the ‘no depth fear’ and the ‘programming fear’. Essentially the ‘no depth fear’ claims that robots simply gesture rather than feel like humans and therefore are not capable of relationships. The ‘programming fear’ is based on the idea that programmed means robots lack the free choice that is necessary in a loving relationship. Danaher argues that although robot gestures are not based on actually feeling emotion, we base our judgment of all relationships on behavioural patterns and not interiorities (Danaher, “Sexuality”), so if a robot appears to be in love then it is possible for a human to be in a loving relationship with it (20). To address the question of being programmed, Danaher says that although we might want our lovers to freely choose us (Evans), there is nothing inferior about love that is programmed. Ultimately humans are already programmed to love one another through biological drives and enculturation. Indeed, humans can “fall in love” against their better judgement and feel powerless to choose. On the other hand, those in arranged marriages often learn to love each other (Regan, Lakhanpal & Anguiano; Epstein, Pandit & Thakar).
There are undoubtedly benefits in having a partner without expressed needs because it places the human at the centre of the universe because the robot is always focused on them (Turkle). One interviewee (Turkle) saw the robot as a useful complement to his current relationship because he felt his mental disorders were too taxing for his human partner. Sex robots, such as in this example are often not presented as simply something for lonely singles, but rather something that might enhance and complement existing relationships. Robots fulfil a desire for a better human because being non-human they cannot die, or speak back, and can be turned off, if indeed one thinks these are aspects of a better human.
However, in either embracing (Levy; Danaher) or rejecting (Turkle) human-robot companionship such discussions elude the complex intermingling of the human and the nonhuman. Robots can no more be absolutely equivalent to human others than they can be completely other to the human. Objects can be associated with feelings of security, togetherness and conviviality. Both choice and interiority are constituted through relations with the outside.
There are many critics of the emerging sexbot industry. The Campaign against Sex Robots (CASR) launched in 2015 aims to “highlight the dangers of producing sex robots and the ideas behind them and how their production will impact on the real lives of women and children and men”. In summary, CASR argues that sex robots sexually objectify woman and children; do not attribute sex workers subjectivity, reducing them to a thing; further reduce human empathy; and reinforce power relations of inequality and violence. These claims are supported by academic studies finding that practices of objectification and domination of robot partners might extend to simulations of rape or paedophilia (Danaher, “Robotic Rape”; Danaher & McArthur; Danaher, “Regulating”; Sparrow). Furthermore, although sold as a product to mitigate loneliness, some argue that it would lead towards increased isolation (Robins et al.; Vallor; Snell; Turkle). As well as these problems there are consumer rights concerns that manufacturers are misleading buyers about their robots’ capacities to form loving relationships (Nyhiolm & Frank). Companies might be tempted to exploit the emotional vulnerability of some consumers in order to make products more attractive. The assessment of these claims depends on agreeing what constitutes a legitimate loving relationship.
There are many paradoxes in the idea of robotic love (Evans; Hauskaller), but the fears and the questions emphasis how little we know or understand about humans. It is precisely these paradoxes, fears and questions that drives the interest for this research article to consider sex robots as a medium to examine understandings of companionship. We aim to avoid technological determinism, reductive moralism or other a priori readings of sexbots, as the questions of ‘effects’ are open to empirical evaluation. It is likely that the experiences with sexbots in practice are as diverse as other forms of sexuality. Instead we critique how they are represented in websites, and from this documentation, how they are designed as media technologies. We engage with sex robot representation to understand what is understood socially and culturally as a companion. We understand that sex robots may have multiple interpretations, and that having sex with a robot can be experienced as form of sexuality.
A Social Semiotics of the Visual to Locate Sex Robots as Media
We employed a multimodal social semiotic analysis to examine visual representations as a means through which cultural ideas are expressed and communicated (Barthes, Elements; Goffman, Gender; Jhally; Hall, “Determination”; Andreallo, “Semeful sociability”). Images engender their own interpretation and suggest ideological meanings through connotation (Berger; Andreallo, “Displaying”). Indeed, images have the ability to allude to things and never “say them explicitly”. Social semiotics seeks to make these illusions “explicit” (Van Leeuwen 137). Although we acknowledge that sex robots are not simply images, because they have affordances with material communicative properties, and embodied capacities associated with libidinal intensities and desire (Lyotard), the focus of this research concentrates specifically on the visual representation of sex robots for consumers.
We approached the website with two co-dependent questions (Van Leeuwen; Andreallo, Visual Conversation), “How are sexbot companions depicted?” and “How are the depicted sexbot companions related to the viewer?”, to understand how the manufacturer AI-Tech depicts Emma to consumers as a companion.
To answer the first question, we consider five main aspects of depiction: exclusion, roles, specific and generic, individuals and groups, and categorization. Something can be excluded from an image through framing, cropping, filtering or retouching. As well as this certain bodies and ways of representing particular bodies can be excluded, including racial or gendered representations. Second, we observe which roles subjects play in action and whether they are agents (doing action) or patients (having actions done to them), as well as whether these actions might happen in reality. We also analyse whether actors are represented as specific or generic — unique, or only a social type. Finally, we consider how people or sexbots are categorised in terms of their cultural or biological characteristics or combinations of these.
The second co-dependent question considers relationships to the viewer. In brief there are three aspects of visual socialities examined: social distance, relations and interaction. Social distance is indicated by the distance between the viewer and what is depicted, so that a close-up signals greater intimacy. Social relation is most commonly indicated by the angle of the viewer to the depicted where vertical angles are associated with power relations, and horizontal angles with degrees of detachment or engagement. For example, if the represented body is depicted at a lower angle to the viewer then the viewer secures greater agency in the relationship. Finally, the gaze of the depicted reveals the level of social interaction. A look of demand actively engages with the viewer, while looking away is considered a look of offer — offering oneself to be viewed. The questions are co-dependent because the aspects of depiction shape the meaning of the relationship to the viewer and vice versa.
Considering the findings from the co-dependent questions we were able to grasp how Emma the sex robot might perform as a media artefact through the interfaces of an animated face, artificially intelligent speech and a compliant body. These components establish multi-modal relationships between viewer and medium to communicate social proximity and interpersonal relationships (Andreallo) between robot and human.
Looking at the AITech Website for Emma
Fig. 2. First home screen on AI tech website advertising Emma. This screen suggests high technology.
Fig. 3. Second home screen on AI Tech website advertising Emma. This screen suggests sexy and service applications of Emma.
Fig. 4. Third and final home screen AI tech website advertising Emma. This screen shows Emma as a useful service robot and engaged in everyday human tasks.
Before we begin to address the representations, it is necessary to locate the context of this website. Emma is a female sexbot created by AI Shenzhen All Intelligent Technology Company Ltd. (also known as AI-Tech or AI Technology), a company based in Shenzhen, China. AI-Tech is a company partner with Japan DMM and Japan HiBOT that also sell robots. The front page of the English website for the company presents a slideshow of three images. The first slide depicts a robot face with the workings exposed except for the silicon face (fig. 2), recalling the central character in the film Ex Machina and the celebrity robot “Sophia” by Hanson Robotics. The second slide presents a composite of two versions of Emma in conversation against a sci fi background of a star field: one in an evening gown, and the other in white lingerie. (fig. 3). The third slide is an image of Emma in a long blond wig, formal clothes at a laptop working with a cup of tea beside her (fig. 4). These images immediately tell the viewer that Emma is much more than a sex toy. For one she enjoys a cup of tea as an everyday aspect of human enjoyment, but also alluding to the etymology of companion as breaking bread as a human does. As a companion Emma is high tech (fig. 2), sexy (fig. 3), and of service to buyers (fig. 4).
AI-Tech is a diversified company based in China that sells sex dolls, humanoid sex robots and service robots. They claim to have ten models of humanoid robot which can be “widely used in education, healthcare, commercial, retirement care and intelligence home system and other fields” (AI-Tech). The primary product of this company is service robots, which are very popular in Japan as receptionists that are used to greet visitors. These are featured on the home pages of the Chinese website. By contrast, the English website is dominated by Emma the sex robot, with barely a mention of the service robots. Emma here is marketed for an English-speaking Western audience. As a sex robot website, the site is rather tame compared to the representations of Emma’s competition, Roxxxy and Harmony that are created by American companies. Sex toys marketed in Asian countries have a history of being discrete. For example, the rabbit-shaped dildo made popular in English speaking countries in the 90s when it was used in the popular TV series Sex and the City appeared less representative of a penis than those familiar to consumers in America (Devlin).
i) How Are Sexbot Companions Depicted?
Fig. 5. These versions of Emma are available under products heading on the site. Each version is changed with wigs, dress and accessories.
In fig. 5 Emma is presented in a table of eight versions as catalogue items, with variations in eye colour, dress, hair and accessories to represent racial and gendered stereotypes. These lifestyled variations include ‘intellectual’ Emma (indicated by glasses and book); ‘sophisticated’ Emma (indicated by silk dress, black leather couch and hand cupping chin); ‘raunchy temptress’ Emma (red bikini sitting back with leg lifted); ‘innocent’ Emma (lace nightie in white and pink bedroom including single bed); and ‘Chinese’ Emma (accessorised by a red Chinese paper umbrella and Chinese silk robe). Selecting any one of these image options reveals Emma’s specifications including the main board (CPU, RAM, Antenna), the robotic head (motors for eyelids, eyeballs, lip and neck movement) and realistic body specifications (breast, waist and hip measurements (86cm/51cm/84cm), height (165 cm) and weight (35 kilograms)). The vagina is listed as 18cm deep and the anus as 16cm deep. Both heating and moaning are supported.
Emma presents women as homogeneous but available in a number of styles, a social type of mass customisation that can be modified just by changing wigs, clothes, makeup and pubic hair. Even though the images attempt to present a catalogue of commodified variations to accommodate consumers’ personal tastes, this mix of generic and specific presents women as interchangeable objects. This is common in visual discrimination (Van Leeuwen) and has also been exposed in female representations in film (Sherman; Krauss). Emma is also categorised in terms of cultural and biological characteristics through dress, accessories and wigs that changes her racial and female stereotype. The Asian-styled Emma is indicated simply by her eye colour, makeup/paint, dress and accessories. The consistent body measurements across these 8 versions of Emma present an idea of an ideal woman. In the case of the set vagina and anus measurements there is a representation not only of ideal orifice sizes for a woman, but also for those penetrating the robot.
Fig. 6. Emma version used for focus of this analysis. This is one of the 13 professional glamour shots of this version on the site.
Fig. 7. The technical talking system that is capable of meeting physical and psychological needs.
Fig. 8. Images describing robotic eye, mouth, neck and body where photographs of humans are used.
Fig. 9. Images describing robotic eye, mouth, neck and body where photographs of humans are used.
Fig. 10. The moaning system and heating system.
Fig. 10. The moaning system and heating system.
Selecting any one version of Emma, the viewer is presented first with a large close-up image (fig. 6). Then it is possible to scroll down technical tables mentioned earlier outlining the desired mainboard, head and body, and her capacity to chat in Chinese and English. Its command orders include “sing, stop, have a rest, language shift”. Images then follow, the first of which we have already considered in the opening of this article (fig. 1) where the viewer is promised a soulmate, love, mutual sharing of feelings and listening. Below this is a section entitled ‘talking system’, and an image of a transparent human head with symbols and numbers running across the screen. This reminds the viewer that this is a high technology product with buzzword-compliant deep learning. This image is followed by a photograph of male and female figures wrapped in a blanket, hugging while looking at the sunset that promises a ‘vivid, real AI girlfriend’ to satisfy “physiological and psychological needs” (fig. 7). The robot doll demonstrates also its capacity to smile and wink. The next series of images are photographs of human eyes, mouth, neck and body, with each entitled as ‘robotic’ (fig. 8). Following these images are of sex robots in lingerie demonstrating moaning and heating systems. The final series of images presented on the website show the originally chosen version of Emma followed by 13 professionally shot images of her slowly undressing. In the final shot, in which she appears naked, her private parts are obscured by circles with a diagonal line (no entry signs as a form of censorship sticker).
The role Emma plays throughout this product page is certainly sexualized and reminiscent of the genre of soft pornography, but she is sold as a girlfriend offering “anything you want”, fulfilling male “physiological and psychological “desires” (fig. 7). The photographs of details of a human woman interspersed with robotic images not only make Emma appear more technologically advanced, but also promise a commodity that fulfils or even surpasses the desire for a real woman. The word robot always appears when the image is of a human, suggesting to the viewer that they are the same. These images are also supported by the promises of “warm hugs” and an ability to “feeling your feelings” (fig. 1) also suggests something greater than, or as good as, human intimacy. Although Emma may not be able to perform these promises the way we imagine, because she cannot move her own arms and can only gesture emotion, these ideas are offered to the viewer as part of the phantasmatic (Kotz) aspect of the pornography genre.
Emma is clearly addressed to a male hetero-normative audience because the representations privilege cisgendered relationships between the robotic female and human male (figs. 1 & 7). It is apparent that one of these figures is male from his short hair and flat chest as opposed to the female form with exaggerated breasts and long hair. The undefined face allows viewers to imagine themselves in the scenes with Emma. There is no reference to sexual relationships beyond the heteronormative on the site. However this is not only made obvious through the invisibility of other relationships on the site, but also because Emma is presented as an ideal woman companion designed to “embody the characteristics that have been assigned to and made synonymous with heterosexual femininity for centuries: artificiality, availability, variability, animatability, passivity, and submission” (Pihl Sorensen).
Emma’s role in sex is as a penetrable and sensitive body. She can engage with vaginal and anal sex; however, the technology is not advanced enough for oral sex. The body is heated. The design of the vagina and anus privilege sex as penetration (Mintz). The sexbot can express sexual pleasure through smiling and moaning in response to touch sensors, but these features are focused on the pleasure of the owner of the robot. As foreplay is limited to a brushing of the thigh or the breast Emma’s role is necessarily passive because she is the patient that things are done to, and she does not actively enjoy or participate even though she might gesture this through a groan. She is offered to be gazed on and because of limitations in her technology cannot actively act out a look of demand.
The site underplays how limited the movement of the sexbot is. Although it highlights the movement in her eyes, face, head and neck (fig. 8), it underplays the fact that this sex robot cannot move into positions on its own, let alone walk or participate. It needs to be moved limb by limb into desired positions. The photoshoots for each of these versions are quite professional, with Emma posed, staged and lit in a studio according to the conventions of a human model. Clicking on any of these options and scrolling down through images the viewer can feel as if the robot is stripping for them, evoking an experience of social interaction (Chesher & Andreallo, “Robotic Faciality”; Andreallo, “Selfie Generation”) as the camera moves into detail and out to frame, and secondly suggesting the robot can move smoothly and strip. Videos advertising Emma on YouTube use cuts between stills that suggest that the robot moves herself into position without actually showing movement. However here the photographs are used along with the viewers scrolling action to suggest experienced movement of the robot. In videos demonstrating Emma’s conversational skills, there is more humour. In one video an interactant asks Emma if she can ‘make a baby’? She responds, ‘What are the ingredients?’
ii) How Is the Depicted Sexbot Emma Related to the Viewer?
In examining how sexbot Emma is related to the viewer we have concentrated specifically on the version of Emma on the site with the brown, long, curly hair and blue eyes as pictured above (fig. 6).
In these photos the social distance between the viewer and Emma is depicted immediately as intimate, because the primary portrait of this version of Emma (fig. 6) is shot as a close up, trimming the very top of her head and below her nipple. The use of the close up suggests she is one of us (Van Leeuwen), a real body and person. Emma is not depicted as a substitute for a female human companion, rather she is depicted as a real woman. The close up also signifies a sense of intimacy (Kress and Van Leeuwen). The framing of these images establishes an intimate distance between the buyer and the sexbot. Although some of the portraits move back for longer shots, they still emphasise detail, suggesting a sustained intimate relation between the viewer and Emma.
The social relation is depicted by the angle used (Kress and Van Leeuwen), suggesting engagement and power relations. In fig. 6, she is pictured straight on suggesting equal relationship with the viewer. However, some of the images, particularly the less clothed images, place Emma on a lower angle to the viewer. This suggests that although Emma is equal to a human, in a sexual relationship she is submissive.
The social interaction of the sexbot with a viewer is limited because Emma’s gaze does not interact with the viewer at any point. This is partly a technical problem, as the robot is incapable of following or fixing its gaze on a human in social interaction. It is only capable of a look of ‘offer’ rather than a ‘demand’. Because of this, its gaze is unable to demand visual social interaction and it remains a disempowered body that can only be gazed upon. Future iterations, incorporating the capabilities of other robots such as Pepper, may meet and hold the human gaze.
Sexbots as Soulmates: Sex Robots as a Medium through Which to Examine Cultural Ideals of Companionship
Sexbots are not only multimodal texts, robots themselves are media resources that are represented as enabling relationships between human and non-human bodies. They draw upon cultural ideologies that influence these relationships. For example, the site uses proximity and perspective in the depictions of Emma models to depict the closeness and dominance of users over sexbots. The lack of the direct gaze, partly a technical limitation, is also a signifier of interpersonal relations in which the robots make few demands.
Some of the sources of moral panic and media hype around sexbots is based on their being a threat to the uniqueness of human presence. Focusing on sexbots as both a text and a medium not only provides a means through which to observe human ideals, but also a basis through which to critique not only the claims of the manufacturers, but also the opponents of sexbots who seek to defend an essentialized notion of authentic relationships. As Derrida observed, attention to presence omits attention to absence and difference. The sex robot signifies not only the robot’s presence, but also the absence of a woman. The urgent question around sex robots is not their similarity, but their enduring difference from their supposed model.
Sex robots are closely related to pornography in both visual culture conventions and institutional and commercial location. The images on the AI-Tech website are quite modest, related to soft porn. They are performative and not necessarily fixed in their particular meaning: “Pornography replays relations of social power, but this replaying is phantasmatic and not mimetic” (Kotz). If robots are performative, then the meaning of sexbots cannot be positioned universally as either degradation or perfect substitution.
Sex robots are products that respond to perceived human desires. As a medium of embodied communicative potential, they reflect human ideals and serve as a resource to engage with and translate desires. However, they are not usefully evaluated as replacement or representation, but as a becoming other of the mediated object. In this study we have observed an array of social and cultural ideals of the prosthetic companion including gender as prosthesis or performance (Butler) and a prosthesis of social relationships that work through gesture and affect.
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