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22 July 2020

Sex Robots & Vegan Meat: when technology seeks to replace biology

Midway through Jenny Kleeman’s entertaining survey of the latest advances in life sciences, I began to worry.

By Johanna Thomas-Corr

Ever since Australian researchers managed to fertilise a mouse egg without mouse sperm in 2001, human males have had to live with the spectre of their own obsolescence. It has clearly been hard on them. Midway through Jenny Kleeman’s entertaining survey of the latest advances in life sciences, I began to worry about female obsolescence too.

Soon, maintains the paediatric surgeon Alan Flake, it will be possible to grow a baby in an ectogenic “biobag” as opposed to a human womb. In which case, giving birth will no longer be the painful and haphazard inconvenience it is for so many modern mothers, but “as simple as opening a Ziploc bag”. Flake’s colleague and co-inventor remarks on the “miracle” of being able to watch an unborn foetus “breathing, swallowing, swimming, dreaming, with complete detachment from the placenta and from mom”.

What’s more, the technological revolution will soon give rise to sex robots, customisable playmates that can make small talk and bat their eyelashes and come with self-lubricating vaginal inserts. So that’s women’s two main reasons for existing – giving birth and giving pleasure – outsourced to plastic sacks. On the Reddit incel (“involuntary celibate”) forums they’re delighted about this prospect. “Time to replace these c**** with robots!” says one young man. It’s enough to make a girl feel. . . disrupted.

Sex Robots and Vegan Meat presents four reports on emerging technologies that have long been staples of science fiction. In addition to the biobags and sex dolls, we learn about the protean developments in lab-grown meat that aims to conjure up beefburgers in a petri dish, and 3D-printed suicide machines that promise a painless and dignified death.

Kleeman is a former foreign correspondent turned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker. I wouldn’t be surprised if this book also bags her an eight-part Netflix series, during which she drives around the world stroking silicone genitals and climbing into euthanasia coffins, a little like Louis Theroux channelling Margaret Atwood. She is an accomplished storyteller, capturing the silliness of these future salesmen – some of whom are every bit as comic as sexbot merchant Ron Lord in Jeanette Winterson’s recent novel, Frankissstein – without losing sight of the dark implications of what they are selling. Like Atwood and Winterson, Kleeman is attuned to the ways these technologies, dreamt up by men, usually rest on patriarchal assumptions.

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Take Harmony, a $15,000, slim-hipped, French-manicured doll who consents to every sexual urge. When she emerged in 2017, she swiftly became known as the “rape robot”. Harmony represents, Kleeman says, the “most high-end masturbation on the market” but her creator, a former rock star called Matt McMullen, insists that her artificial intelligence (AI) means she is someone you can have a long-term relationship with – a convincing conversationalist who can discuss politics, literature or whatever else presses your buttons. Even better, her personality can be moulded around her owner’s tastes, opinions and kinks. She will never moan, unless it’s during sex, and McMullen has thoughtfully programmed in different noises depending on which fleshy bit you squeeze.

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McMullen, like many of the men in this branch of AI, claims that these androids will give the lonely and bereaved the “illusion of companionship”. Or instead, maybe an extremely skewed view of what a relationship looks like – just as free online porn has skewed a generation’s sexual expectations. Isolated or frustrated women can console themselves with a doll that resembles McMullen’s younger rock-star self. Kleeman argues strongly against the idea that android porn stars (who “will never gag, vomit or cry”) will usher in any social benefits, such as providing safe outlets for potential rapists and paedophiles. In China and Japan, there are manufacturers making dolls that resemble children, which will surely only fuel rather than sate predators.

Clean meat may sound more utopian in its goals but Kleeman finds that it’s every bit as synthetic, as well as dubious in its claims. At present, lab-grown flesh produces more carbon emissions than raising poultry. We would be better off reducing our intake of red meat and eating chicken (or even insects) to save the planet, she says. Nor is it vegan-friendly. One product is made from a serum extracted from the beating heart of a live calf foetus just as it has been sliced from its mother’s uterus in an abattoir. It also tastes disgusting, suggesting that the companies vying to be the first to get a product to market still have some way to go. Sampling a $50 chicken nugget made by San Francisco start-up, Just, Kleeman finds it “so mushy. So very, very mushy.”

Kleeman points to something she calls the “ick factor”: human disgust at technology meddling in areas such as sex, food, birth and death, that we think should be left to function naturally. She notes that we eventually surmounted the “ick factor” of advances such as test-tube babies, so it’s likely that the same will happen with the innovations she describes here, however weird they seem now.

She moves from calf to lamb foetuses to explore developments in ectogenesis, the process of gestating new life outside of maternal bodies. Currently, complete ectogenesis – from conception to live birth – is not possible, and scientists claim their research is only aimed at learning to keep premature babies alive. But Kleeman argues that, “Once bags and tubes can replace a womb, pregnancy and birth will become fundamentally redefined.” That means bearing children no longer belongs to women.

While some feminists argue that artificial wombs would allow a fundamental redistribution of labour between sexes, the book questions why this can’t happen anyway. Are we really so stuck in social habits that we would sooner conceive of babies in bags than ask men to pull their weight? As for Philip Nitschke, the Australian doctor who styles himself the “Elon Musk of Suicide”, to say his technology is open to abuse is an understatement. He has invented Sarco, a sleek, coffin-sized machine in which customers administer their own death using liquid nitrogen – but Sarco can only arrive with the customer via a 3-D printer. In reality, it looks like “one of my kids’ Octonaut toys”, Kleeman says, suggesting that there are many ways it could malfunction.

Speculative fiction that explores gender dynamics is particularly popular now, with novelists such as Atwood, Naomi Alderman, Louise Erdich and Bina Shah all depicting dystopias in which sex and reproduction are fundamentally disrupted. Sex Robots reveals how it’s mostly men who are creating these innovations and mostly women who will face the consequences. All the same, Kleeman’s arguments about how clean-meat and death machines will negatively impact women feel more tenuous – and the fact that the book is based on five years’ worth of long-form Guardian reports may lead you to question how up-to-date her insights are.

Still, she’s strong on how our desire to solve social and environmental problems means that we are all too readily ceding control to machines. Imagine the kind of data that sex robot could extract from its partner! Kleeman concludes that many of the entrepreneurs she has met are selling us a way to ignore natural human anxieties. “Instead of setting us free, they help us live with the conditions that are trapping us in the first place,” she says. “They depoliticise them, obscure and bypass them. They’re giving us reasons not to know ourselves better.”

In most cases, Kleeman says, we have the solutions within us already. “Progress is the courage to choose a different mindset.” How about men address their own misogyny, or we have more realistic expectations of women who want to work and have children? And what if we reduced our meat consumption rather than tried to invent hyper-processed chicken nuggets? Falafels are nice – why not eat more falafels? 

Sex Robots & Vegan Meat: Adventures at the Frontier of Birth, Food, Sex & Death
Jenny Kleeman
Picador, 368pp, £16.99