Fascinating Strangers: Dr Tessa Leach’s Work on Sex Robots

Advances in robotics raise all kinds of questions about how humans will relate to this new technology, and how this might change our society and our understanding of what it means to be human. In her recent PhD, Dr Tessa Leach explored an especially controversial aspect of this topic: the human-like sex robots that may soon be among us.

Content warning: sex; mention of sexual violence; mention of sexualisation of children

How can the humanities help us to study technology?

When I began my PhD research this question was on my mind, but I had no idea about the incredibly varied approaches that academics around the world take on this issue. When many people think of the humanities and technology, they think of ethics and moral philosophy, which are specialised fields. But much of our work transcends disciplines, requiring researchers to be knowledgeable about the humanities as well as important scientific and technological problems, to collaborate with academics from other fields, and to understand how scientists and engineers create and implement new technologies and practices.

My PhD focussed on the application of contemporary metaphysics to anthropomorphic machines. An anthropomorphic machine is a nonhuman that we design and codify to look or act like a human. Using that broad definition, I looked at computer interfaces, robots, and artificial intelligence. Metaphysics is a very broad field of philosophical study, but my particular interest is the question of how we humans interact with nonhumans, and, specifically, technological nonhumans. To me, this is a very practical and relevant question, and this is nowhere more apparent to me than in my study of sex robots. The concept of sex robots is both exciting and terrifying, and it is a very contentious and sensational topic that will only become more relevant in the next few years.

Moving, talking humanoid machines are now a possibility. And as is often the case with a new technology, one of our first instincts is to ask how it might change the way that we have sex. The burgeoning field of “sex tech” attests to this.

Scenes from Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang, 1927


The idea of a robot designed for sexual and romantic purposes has been around since the nineteenth century, when the technology to build a female form capable of movement and speech was far beyond us. In the 1927 film Metropolis, the beautiful and compassionate Maria is kidnapped by a scientist and used as the model for a lascivious and destructive gynoid. In this famous dance scene, a room full of men desperately gaze at the robot Maria’s unnatural yet erotic dancing: Maria’s robot replica is obedient to her creator and comfortable with breaking societal taboos. Sex robots will possess the same kinds of qualities and will likely serve similar needs, at least in the immediate future.

Right now, sex robotics is in its very early stages. The first robots to be released to consumers will likely be capable of AI-driven speech and some movement in the face and other body parts, but incapable of things like walking and embracing. They will also be extremely expensive.  One company currently developing sex robots is Realbotix. Their unofficial spokesrobot, Harmony, is prominent on the company’s Instagram page. In this image, Harmony’s ‘feminine’ form is contrasted with her clearly cyberised head.

ABC (USA) News Story on Sex Robots, 2018


A thousand questions immediately leap to mind.

Who will buy sex robots, and why? Can you really have sex with robots, or is it just a more elaborate kind of masturbation? Can you rape a sex robot? What about sex robots that look like children? If sex robots become widespread, what will happen to our traditional nuclear family structure? What will happen to the economy if the nuclear family is no longer its foundation? Will there be both male and female sex robots? What about sex robots that blur the lines between traditional female and male stereotypes – what are the implications for the way we think about gender? Are we on the road to a world where sex is not tied to our social roles, or are our social roles about to fundamentally change?

My research into this topic has taken a roundabout journey to these issues through metaphysics, yielding what I hope are new insights on the topic.

I am interested in object-oriented ontology (OOO – pronounced “triple-o”), a controversial field within metaphysics. Ian Bogost has described OOO thus:

Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology (“OOO” for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally – plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example. In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves.

OOO rejects the idea that humans are philosophically special. Or, more accurately, it posits the claim that all objects are equally special in their own ways. OOO scholars tend to be interested in the weird internal worlds of objects. For my application of OOO to sex robots, I have three main questions: what sensory worlds do sex robots inhabit, how can we gain knowledge about those worlds, and what are the implications of that knowledge for the social and cultural impact of sex robots?

At our current level of robotics and AI technology, sex robots do not inhabit the same sensory worlds as their human users. The sensors they use to sense and interact with their worlds bear very little resemblance to human eyes, ears, and skin. They have weird, machinic experiences.

But sex robot developers tend to exaggerate the similarity between machines and humans, encouraging us to think of interactions with sex robots as though they are similar to interactions between ourselves and other humans. We are easily charmed by anthropomorphic robots and other nonhumans, and the people building these machines are eager to capitalise on that tendency. Conversely, human-like qualities in machines like sex robots can shock and horrify us, or they can seem uncanny.

A sex robot has strange sensations that we are unaware of, like the friction of a silicon heel on the floor as it is dragged, the impact of temperature on circuitry, and the slow degradation of iron in contact with air.

Beginning by opening our minds to these ideas, we can escape the hype and consider the effects of nonhumans on our world (and our world’s effect on them). We can thus avoid the kinds of disastrous moral panics that tend to culminate when a technology like sex robots suddenly becomes widespread in society. A vast amount of academic energy is currently going into anticipating the possible problems and consequences of sex robots before they are among us. So along with many other approaches, philosophies that focus on nonhumans can ironically help us to gain clarity on human problems. Similarly, Timothy Morton has deployed OOO to argue that it is essential to think of the human-created problem of climate change counter-intuitively through the lens of nonhumans, particularly nonhumans that are much larger than us.

At this important point in human history it is essential for historians, philosophers, and other academics from traditionally humanistic disciplines to apply their knowledge to significant transformative scientific and technological phenomena.

Tessa Leach with a model of the Marvel character Iron Man, 2018

Many books have been written on sex robots in recent years. For something that does not exist yet, they have prompted a lot of academic output. For further reading about these fascinating strangers I recommend Turned On (2018) by Kate Devlin, Love & Sex With Robots (2007) by David Levy, and the essay collection Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications (2017).

Dr Tessa Leach completed her PhD in the History & Philosophy of Technology and Engineering in 2018 at the University of Melbourne. She currently works at the Melbourne School of Engineering as a marking coordinator. She plans to publish her thesis as a book and move into technology consulting.

Feature image: Maria, the Robot from Metropolis, at the London Science Museum, 2017. Photographer Matt Brown via Flickr, CC BY 2.0