The Human Beast

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Sex on the Internet: How Far Can It Go

Currently,limitation is technical, in the future it will be imagination alone

Pornographers are noteworthy for their skill in adapting new technologies. The Internet was no exception and pornographic sites were the first big money spinners in cyber space. Now, the Internet is a more mainstream way of meeting new romantic partners, and even conducting relationships. What do new technologies hold in store for our sex lives?

The Internet sex business

So far as sex businesses are concerned, the Internet made a killing by selling subscriptions to pornographic sites featuring pictures, videos, and live performances. These products involve different types of fantasy enhancement that facilitated masturbation.

They have some surprising features as Internet businesses. For one thing, the apparent privacy of the medium opened up the market to a broader range of customers, including religious conservatives and women. Moreover, they are surprisingly “addictive” and a large segment of the population, female as well as male, find it hard to stop using sex sites, which may be why they generate so much revenue.

The Internet sex business mimics many aspects of the real world industry. For instance, there is a variant on the old peep show where models remove an item of clothing, or adopt a requested pose upon request. Such minimal interaction may appeal to hard core users but is not very satisfying to most people either emotionally, or sexually.

In role-playing games, there is more extensive interaction and people who frequent such chat rooms often find themselves forming emotional attachments based on minimal information that is inherently unreliable. For instance, a middle-aged woman might post a picture of her daughter and pretend to be much younger than she is or a gay man might pose as a woman. Video chats provide much more information and are therefore somewhat more reliable as a means of forming a relationship.

Dating sites are now considered a respectable method of contacting dates and are widely used in winnowing down the romantic search process. Electronic efficiency also comes into play in connecting prostitutes with their johns as revealed by numerous complaints about popular web sites such as Craig's List. The issue here was not just that the business of prostitution is illegal in most states but that many of the prostitutes were teenage victims enslaved via human trafficking.

So the Internet provides seeming anonymity, and efficient search, but is limited in the level of physical interactivity required for satisfactory sexual or emotional relationships. The problem is that there are technical limitations. Yet, the future of artificial reality devices promises ever greater interactivity right up to the point of seamlessly mimicking a sexual interaction between two people, or between a real person and a fictional avatar. If such technical problems can be solved, they open up a whole vista of new Internet possibilities.

Artificial reality and sex: Let us imagine the ways...

In Woody Allen's sci-fi spoof, Sleeper, the protagonist obtained sexual satisfaction by stepping into a machine called an orgasmatron that looked like a large refrigerator. If something like that happens in the future, it will likely be thanks to an artificial reality device.

So far, artificial reality technologies are capable of producing an immersive experience, meaning that the subject enters a virtual world in which they can move around and get appropriate sensory experience so that they cannot distinguish between the artificial world and everyday experiences.

In future, it will be possible for two or more individuals to enter the same virtual world and interact with each other in naturalistically convincing ways. At present, this problem exceeds available processing capacity. Since processing capacity increases exponentially over time, as acknowledged by Moore's law, it follows that couples of the future will have virtual sex via artificial reality devices without any physical contact.

It is hard to know how such virtual relationships will affect people's romantic lives. Will they become even more addictive than contemporary Internet pornography? Will users welcome profound sexual experiences that are unencumbered by real-world commitments, complications, and costs? Will prostitutes go out of business, or realize novel revenue streams as the erotic advisers and sex therapists of tomorrow? It is very hard to say.

One reasonable expectation is that our electronic avatars will have sex with artificial, or fictitious entities that learn how to please. If that happens, it will only be a matter of time before computers are better than humans at making love.

Skeptics who think that impossible would do well to remember that computers are already better at chess and Jeopardy. So they already know all the moves and have mastered the small talk.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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