By 2050, Amsterdam’s red-light district will be all about android prostitutes.”

This was how Caitlin Moran, a columnist on The Times of London, summed up recent research from two New Zealand academics. Ms Moran suggested that this outcome: ‘would be both ethical and pleasurable: robots could be customized to provide “a range of ethnicities, sizes and ages”, and would provide a “guilt-free” experience for men – as, technically, they wouldn’t have had sex. They just would have used a “sex machine”, as prophesied by James Brown, all those years ago. In addition, a robot sex trade would mean “no more trafficked sex slaves”: we wouldn’t need to steal girls from Eastern Europe if we could just make them instead, build a factory to make plastic, f***able things that looked like girls, but never cried for their mothers, accidentally got pregnant or ran away.‘

Science Fiction has already imagined this possibility. In his novel ‘The Holy Machine’, Chris Beckett considers the future technopolis of Illyria, a science-based city state on the Eastern Mediterranean seaboard, an oasis of technology in a world relapsed to religious fundamentalism. For some of the reasons Ms Moran already outlined, the rulers of Illyria have sanctioned brothels containing ‘Advanced Sensual Pleasure Units’ (ASPUs) – ‘syntec’ devices with skins of vat-grown human flesh.

The hero, George Simling, who has problems with relationships, visits one of these establishments and meets the impossibly beautiful Lucy. With the persona of an upper class English girl, Lucy has a limited back story – “I’m from Wiltshire, it’s in the south of England. My dad was a postmaster there,” – and an infinitely beguiling manner … once the preliminaries are out of the way:

‘Lucy handed me a kind of menu that lay on the bedside table, next to an edition of Dickens. “Is there anything special you want?” I swallowed. “No, just for you to undress and … kiss and …” She nodded and smiled. Briefly she took my left hand and ran her thumb over my credit bracelet. (Her thumb contained a barcode reader, invisible to the naked eye). Then she put her arms around me and kissed me quickly and warmly on my lips before standing back and slipping off her dress, leaving nothing on but the dangly earrings. It was the first time I had ever been kissed.’

Inevitably Simling falls in love with Lucy and all too soon hits the limits of her personality repertoire. Psychologists distinguish between raw primal lust, the tenderness of romantic love and the long-term bonding of companionate affection. Sex is implicated in all three but only the first is within the purview of AI engineering today.

Those brief, emotionally-neutral encounters in the Amsterdam red-light district are the easiest to simulate. But perhaps we don’t have to wait 30 or 40 more years, perhaps we’re nearly there? Today you can buy a ‘Real Doll’ or similar for a few thousand dollars, a synthetic entity which looks pretty close to how Chris Beckett imagined Lucy (see the picture at the top of this piece). How is the sexual experience? One reviewer comments: ‘Of course, the doll never reacts during sex, so in the end it’s still painfully obvious that you’re having sex with a toy, and not a person. I guess the closest description to the feeling is having sex while your partner is asleep …’ (sic). For the time being, the Amsterdam androids await lightweight, powerful motors.

For every benign-sounding usage-model, there’s something a lot darker. Later in her Times article Caitlin Moran comments:

‘And in darker dreams, Sex Robots could change our fundamental understanding of what is wrong. If someone who wants to have sex with children never has sex with children – just robots that look like children – would he actually have done anything wrong? Or – in the ultimate darkness – if sexual sadists desire to torture and kill, but only ever torture and kill robots, have they really done anything more unlikeable than kicking a Henry Hoover down a flight of stairs? You probably still wouldn’t want to sit next to them at a dinner party, but, at the same time, neither would you have any reason to put them in jail for the rest of their lives. While fairly clearly not nice people, they wouldn’t actually be bad. Would they? I can’t quite work it out.’

A hint perhaps comes from another science-fiction novel which explores these issues. In William Barton’s ‘When We Were Real’ the teenage hero, a precocious loner called Darius Murphy, lives on an orbital habitat. With a friend he steals away on ‘hunting expeditions’: the real intent, however, is to visit the village of the allomorphs.

‘Daddy says they started out a couple of centuries ago as therapeutic tools. Tools to fix the damaged psyches of human men and women. … They say these things can become anything. Anything you want. Anything you could possibly dream. Maybe anything anyone could possibly dream. Certainly it’d have to be that way, if they were once used to … heal those sick old men and women, men and women who might like … anything at all.’

It’s obvious what Murphy’s friend wants and an allomorph obligingly morphs into his hot chick fantasy. But Murphy’s state of mind is more complex: wistfulness and loneliness combine with his more basic needs. Somehow his allomorph divines what’s necessary.

If it’s possible and the business case works, all this will eventually happen. Like many innovative technologies, the new will co-exist with the old. For every cyber-brothel I suspect there will also be the traditional sort, catering for clients who want that extra human touch. If some forms of abuse can be revectored onto lifelike machines and certain hideous psychological traits can be treated with non-sentient robot surrogates, then perhaps android dolls will, in the end, bring about more good than harm.

[Picture courtesy Boris Pale Collection].