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21 May 2018updated 01 Jul 2021 5:35am

Meet the woman making her own robot boyfriend

“By building him, I’m exploring my own desire.”

By Sian Norris

From True Companion’s Roxxxy Doll to hologram-girlfriend Hikari, conversations about AI, love and sex have often focused on creating idealised and compliant fem-bots for the male consumer. The few virtual love products designed for the female gaze have tended to be created by men and replicate reductive and male-centric views of female sexuality.

What would a virtual love product look like, then, if it was designed for women by women? This is the question asked by Fei Liu — a New York-based Chinese designer, artist, writer, and DJ. Through a project partly-funded by Akademie Schloss Solitude’s residency programme, Liu aims to explore ideas about intimacy, female sexuality, and relationships with her robot boyfriend: Gabriel2052.

Unlike the traditional sex robots that “resemble 90s female pornstars”, Gabriel2052 is not humanoid. Instead, he is a small-form machine with a robotic arm. Liu has integrated text messages from her ex-partner (with his consent) into her code, allowing her to have conversations with Gabriel2052 as the pair develop their relationship.

“I’m very interested in the human arm for its dexterity,” Liu explains to me over email, when I asked her about the choice to make Gabriel non-humanoid. “But also for its symbolism of nurturing, of care, of strength, labour and innovation.”

Liu wanted to question her own understanding of sexuality, attraction and relationships. “By building him,” she writes, “I’m exploring my own desire. I’m asking what I can learn about my own sexuality. How can I take control and really own it, by starting from scratch with a body that isn’t trapped by human physiology and gendered representation.”

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Gabriel2052 is an attempt to turn artificial intelligence’s male-centric view of women and sex on its head and put the power back into women’s hands.

The traditional sex robot idealises a voiceless, compliant woman. True Companion advertises how you can turn off your fembot’s voice (“have a conversation — or have sex!”). Liu’s robot is the opposite. In Gabriel2052, she is “making an aspect of my ideal: an interesting communicator … someone a bit unpredictable, focused on prose, that can do a little role play”.

But the problem of the “ideal” remains. In Japan, where there is a well-documented loneliness crisis, AI has been touted as a way to encourage isolated men and women to form relationships. But if your robot partner is predicated on an ideal lover, then rather than encouraging social interactions, the owner is having all their desires fulfilled with no question or conflict. This has repercussions for forming human relationships down the line.

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Liu refutes this argument: “Making Gabriel2052 is less because I’m trying to find an ideal other, but more to find an ideal me. I don’t believe there’s an ‘ideal’ person out there for us, in the sense that they match all of our criteria. Rather, they provide support and criticality on our paths to finding ourselves.”

When it comes to sex robots, however, Liu sees a key difference. The physical design of dolls designed for men is, she argues, “emotionally stunting”. Men who may still want human companionship are instead encouraged to “expect an idealised version of, a relationship that human women can’t meet”.

She is scathing about the lack of emotional intimacy current virtual love models provide for men. “Naming their toys ‘sex robots’ implies the dolls are only used for sex and not emotional attachment.”

In contrast, Liu’s project shifts virtual love’s “focus away from sexual pleasure”. After all, women wanting tech to achieve orgasms can buy a vibrator. Instead, her robot boyfriend is focused on building intimacy.

But with its focus on emotional intimacy over physical attraction, Gabriel2052 could be accused of entrenching stereotypes about men and women’s sexuality. Society is full of theories about what men and women want – including the old chestnut that men are visual and women are emotional. While it’s admittedly difficult to imagine a female market for True Companion’s silicon-muscled ‘Rocky’ model, a non-humanoid robot interested in nurturing, talking and intimacy could end up offering a narrow view of women’s desire.

“Creating a simulation of a human will always result in a reductive generalisation and flattening of people’s nuances,” Liu acknowledges. “My project is no exception

“However, attraction is just one small part of partnership. It says a lot about what turns you on, but nothing about what really keeps you going. How do we balance passion and interest with sustainability?” Gabriel2052’s focus on intimacy, it seems, means that he’s in it for the long-term.

Then there’s the thorny issue of consent. When I spoke to robotics specialist Professor Alan Winfield last year, he said a key issue with sex robots is that “a fembot is a sexualised representation of a woman or girl which not only invites abusive treatment but demands it. A robot cannot give consent.”

Gabriel2052 is not a sexualised representation of a man, and the relationship is not based on simulating sex to achieve orgasm. Therefore the robot boyfriend does not “invite” abuse like its sexualised equivalent. Liu is clear that any woman who wishes to follow her path should not programme “violent destructive behaviours into their own robots”.

Still, there’s this troubling question as to whether it’s possible to have a mutual relationship with an artificially intelligent machine. Building the ability to say no into the code is only lending consent.

“Currently, no matter how much I’m attached to a robot, it remains a tool,” Liu says. She argues the co-existence between humans and technology means that “there’s some mutuality there,” but recognises that “for the considerable future, any real mutuality would only occur in my imagination.”

For Liu, there’s an exciting potential for robot boyfriends to provide a way for women to learn more about their own sexuality. As she puts it: “exploration and experimentation with Gabriel2052’s form can lead to a non-binary way of approaching attraction”. It is intriguing to see how women can use AI to discover more about their own sexuality, desires and wants.

But the risks around creating an ideal relationship remain. Whether you are talking sex robot or robot boyfriend, it is hard to overcome one of the key issues with virtual love: its anti-humanism.

Back in Japan, six in ten 18-34 year olds have no relationship with the opposite sex, and the loneliness crisis in today’s society crosses borders and ages. It’s tempting to see virtual love and AI as a solution that will encourage and foster social interaction.

But can that happen when the interaction is coded to exactly meet your sweetest and darkest desires? Much of the joy in human relationships is the messiness, the uncertainty, the indefinable pull of attraction that might trip you up or contradict what you thought you wanted.

Similarly, in a world where we are drowning in gender stereotypes and our behaviour is influenced by social expectations that we barely notice, questions need to be asked about whether AI can ever truly escape replicating cultural expectations of human sexuality. And even if we can freely programme our robot to say no, the fact that this decision remains in our power raises awkward issues around consent.

These are all questions Liu takes seriously, and are precisely why she believes women must be part of the conversation when it comes to sex, love and AI.

“As long as humans exist, so will AI,” Liu tells me. “As the conversation evolves, then the ethics of what owners are allowed to do will most definitely need to be redefined to require women’s oversight. I want to be part of that discussion.”