“Everything you want to see. Everything you want to hear.”
The tagline for Joi, the virtual companion in Bladerunner 2049, promises her to be everything her buyer wants. She is designed to cater to his every whim — from offering scintillating conversation, to performing any sex act that takes his fancy.
Bladerunner 2049 seems like a distant future. But according to David Levy, author of the book Love and Sex and Robots, we are only 50 years away from marrying our AI counterparts.
What’s more, recent technological developments mean men won’t have to wait for decades to bring home their own “robot wife”. If they can stump up the $2,700 fee, they can install “Hikari” into their bedrooms. The “wife of the future” creator Minori Takechi claims 300 men have already put in their orders for the Hikari prototype.
The green haired, bondage-choker wearing, knicker-flashing Hikari is an “AI construct” designed to be the perfect companion for the lonely single man. A miniature anime hologram that you can pop on a table, Hikari will flirt and giggle and – of course – respond to her owner’s sexual fantasies. But what makes Hikari different to previous iterations of humanoid companionship technology is that she’s not all about sex. Takechi believes the owner’s relationship with a robot wife could one day “develop into love.”
Yet having been designed to “understand her husband and […] always be there to support him”, Hikari betrays something chilling about the “virtual love” industry and our perceptions of what love could and should mean.
The robot wives of the present and future are created to accommodate. They are made to exist only in relation to their (male) owners’ desires. What he wants, she does.
The beating heart of the growing virtual love industry is Japan. Here, adults can download a Pokemon Go style app that allows them to take a character on virtual dates. Meanwhile, Tokyo VR company Voltage invented a new experience for a (presumed) straight female audience, where a woman can be “bought” by a wealthy dominant man and act out an S&M fantasy. “I bought you, you are mine,” her virtual partner explains. More menacingly, he tells her: “You can say yes or OK. I expect you to keep me entertained.” It’s notable how, whether the product is designed for men or women, female submission is the order of the day.
In recent years, we’ve seen the introduction of silicon, responsive sex robots. The difference now is that evolving technology means our virtual companions are not just for sex. In the case of Hikari, she is a “wife” designed to care for and form a relationship with her owner (always presumed male — there’s little room for lesbians in the robot wife world). At the same time, VR gives women and men the chance to immerse themselves in their sweetest or darkest fantasies.
Defenders of the virtual love industry say that it does not replace women, but opens up opportunities for socially awkward, lonely men. It is certainly true that in Japan, the growth of virtual love comes at a time of a loneliness crisis. Seven in ten unmarried men aged 18-34 and six in ten unmarried women have no relationship with the opposite sex. Yet young Japanese people aren’t just finding it hard to meet partners, they’re also eschewing the dating scene. According to a 2011 government survey, 45 per cent of Japanese men aren’t interested in finding a girlfriend.
The way virtual love is marketed reflects this as well. One of the selling points of Hikari, that “wife of the future” we met at the beginning, is that the buyer can switch her off. In other words, rather than encouraging more social interaction, it indulges the man’s assumed desires.
Over in California, the virtual love industry is more focused on exploring how technology can allow people to explore their sexual fantasies than love — but that may change. In the Vice documentary “The Digital Love Industry” (NSFW), expert Robert Weiss MSW suggests that one day “machines will be able to evoke and create the same kind of experiences that real human beings evoke and create in us.” As with Hikari, Weiss believes “we may seek out digital devices that are designed perfectly and exactly to meet our every need without any of the interruptions that come from a real person” (my emphasis).
Again we see the same problem: real life women with voices and demands might interrupt. They might say “no”. But your robot wife will always say “yes”.
The growth of the virtual love industry shows that this issue is not going away anytime soon. The speed in which we’ve moved from plastic sex robots to 50 Shades-style VR and Hakiri suggests that, as technology develops, engineers in a male-dominated field are going to keep on refining an ideal Robot Wife. The aim is not meeting a niche demand, but offering an upgrade. Takichi says that Hakiri is designed to “bring greater satisfaction than human interaction.” Is virtual love therefore pushing people further away from the complexities of human relationships?
Rather than liberating sexuality and providing loving companionship, the virtual love industry risks leading us down a path of entrenched inequality and isolation. In its current form, it promotes a very single-minded, male-centric view of human sexuality and relationships that leaves little room for women to express any other kind of sexuality or interaction beyond submission to male dominance. With its anti-humanism, the virtual love industry is building a future where we fetishise female submission to the extent that we marry robots with an off button. To return to Bladerunner 2049, a vision of dystopia, is that what we really want?