Imagine this: A totally realistic robot of your own design that is capable of fully carrying out any sex act that you can dream up. It looks, smells, and sounds incredibly realistic. And your state-sponsored insurance paid for her in full. In effect, she was free—prescribed by your physician to help with your status as officially “sexually dysfunctional.” Recent federal legislation, supported overwhelmingly by a male majority in the House and Senate, has made this kind of medical prescription perfectly legal.
Robin the Robot never has a headache. It never gets a cold. It never rejects an advance. It is, perhaps strangely, beautiful in many respects. And, surprisingly, it is even seemingly intelligent and witty.
Sure, it sounds great on the surface.
And get this: According to expert clinical psychologist and sex therapist Marianne Brandon, what I’ve described above is, in fact, a likely portrait of our near future.
Welcome to the new world.
Sex Robots as Supernormal Stimuli
Earlier this month, I was fortunate to attend a special symposium on understanding mental health from an evolutionary perspective. This event, formally sponsored by the Applied Evolutionary Psychology Society (AEPS) and affiliated with the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society (NEEPS), was eye-opening for the many scholars, practitioners, and students who were in attendance. And while all of the talks were provocative and engaging, I have to say that Brandon’s presentation was something of a show-stopper.
When you think about things from an evolutionary perspective, the history of human technology largely becomes the history of developing supernormal stimuli for profit.
In the 1950s, renowned behavioral biologist Niko Tinbergen articulated the idea of a supernormal stimulus. A supernormal stimulus is essentially an exaggerated, often human-made version of some stimulus that organisms evolved to respond to in certain ways.
For instance, humans evolved taste preferences so as to desire high-fat foods because our ancestors regularly experienced drought and famine. A Big Mac is a human-created product that includes an amplification of high-fat food that would have been beyond the fat and caloric content of nearly any food that would have existed under ancestral human conditions. The Big Mac is a classic supernormal stimulus.
Same with pornography. And video games. And so many cosmetic products that amplify attributes of faces and bodies that bear on Darwin’s bottom line of reproductive success. Vibrant hair coloring and lip gloss are supernormal stimuli.
Importantly, as you can see, supernormal stimuli may well be deceitful. In the modern world of humans, supernormal stimuli are essentially hijackers. They are human-created technological products that hijack our evolved psychology in a way that leads to short-term emotional and/or physiological benefits. However, since these products are, at the end of the day, evolutionarily unnatural, they quite often do not lead to the long-term evolutionary benefits (such as strong connections with others and/or long-term reproductive gains) which pertain to why these stimuli evolved to be desired by humans in the first place. We can call this evolutionary irony.
In her presentation, Brandon rightfully pointed out that sex robots, when they arrive—and they will—will be the ultimate in human-created supernormal stimuli.
This could be a problem.
Potential Problems Associated with the Sex Robot Revolution
Is there a sex robot revolution on the horizon? In a few weeks, the city of Brussels will host the 4th International Conference on Love and Sex with Robots, so you tell me.
In her presentation at the AEPS symposium, Brandon made a strong case suggesting that sex robots are truly in development and on the way, perhaps in a decade or two.
Brandon pointed out several potential problems that may well come along with the robots for the ride. These problems all make sense when we think of our evolved relationship psychology:
- Men, already disproportionately represented as consumers of pornography, will likely be over-represented as consumers of sex robots.
- Within committed relationships, sexual interactions, which are apparently already on a nationwide decline, are likely to drop further.
- Intimacy in relationships, which strongly maps onto both quantity and quality of sexual interactions within mateships, is likely to drop in quality as well.
- The prevalence of marriage and birth rates may well see declining numbers.
- Motivation for people to work on relationship problems within mateships will be naturally reduced.
In short, the advent of sex robot technology may well foreshadow, in many ways, the demise of intimate relationships in the modern world.
As biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and software technologies advance, sex robots are nearly certainly on the way. And they might sound like a great idea to some. But once we think about this technology from an evolutionary perspective, we can quickly see that sex robots will represent an unprecedented form of supernormal stimulus—one that may well have extraordinary physiological short-term benefits, along with equally extraordinary long-term costs, ultimately taxing individuals, dyads, families, and broader communities.
In our upcoming book, Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life, Nicole Wedberg and I (2020) make the case that any and all newly developed technologies need to be considered vis-a-vis our evolved psychology. Businesses are so stuck on short-term profits that they may well, often, neglect to consider long-term human and community-based consequences. Let’s hope that the people pulling the strings on the upcoming sex robot revolution take the time to learn about and understand human evolutionary psychology, along with how technologies need to be considered carefully relative to our evolved behavioral and mental processes. If sex robots are truly on the way, I’d say that the industry will need some strong evolutionarily informed oversight.
Thanks to the Human Behavior and Evolution Society for providing a generous grant to AEPS to allow for the success of the symposium mentioned here, and to AEPS president Dan Glass for his work organizing the AEPS Mental Health Symposium.
Facebook image: Fossiant/Shutterstock
Brandon, M. (2019). Sex Robots. Invited presentation at the Mental Health Symposium of the Applied Evolutionary Psychology Society.
Tinbergen, N. 1953. The Herring Gull's World. London: Collins.