The following is an extract from Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots by Kate Devlin, a book that answers all the questions you've ever had about sex robots (as well as the ones you haven't yet thought of).
Europe’s main contribution to the sex robot market is by engineer Sergi Santos. Santos, who is based in Barcelona, began his foray into the world of sex robots following a PhD in nanotechnology at the University of Leeds. He conceptualised a sex robot where the emphasis is placed firmly on interactions and responses, both vocal and physical. It was Santos’s wife, Maritsa Kissamitaki, who encouraged him to develop Samantha, and she helped him to build the early models.
I meet Santos in a noisy, busy side room at the Mindshare Huddle, an annual event run by a global media agency who brief press and interested parties about future trends. I’ve been wanting to meet him for quite some time – we’ve talked over email – and now he and I are both speaking on a panel run by BBC Click. The panel title, ‘The Truth About Sex Robots’, seems to promise insight that I hope we can deliver.
The panel begins with a broad discussion of the state of the art in sex robots. It isn’t long before Santos is asked to talk about his creation, Samantha. Santos’s business partner, Arran Lee Squire, appears from the audience, clutching a plastic carrier bag, and hands it over. I watch, fascinated, as he removes a lifelike head from the thin plastic wrapping. It’s a surreal moment, seeing the painted face of an artificial woman, disembodied and staring, set with pride on the table before me. Samantha: the ultimate trophy wife. But it's not the body that Santos is interested in, it's her mind.
The premise of Samantha (the name was chosen because it means ‘listener’ in Aramaic) is a responsive computer system with a sensor-based interface inside the body of a sex doll. Version 1 prototyped this interface. Eleven sensors were embedded in certain places on the doll’s body – breasts, waist, hands, face, mouth and, of course, vagina – and touching them triggered a voice interaction (when the mouth sensors are triggered there are moaning sounds). Version 1.1 added a listening mode with vibrations in the left hand and vagina. It could speak about 6,000 sentences. Santos sold 15 of these; he and his wife built them in their home. Version 1.2 – the current version – includes motors for motion. These are powered by two batteries just underneath her chin, next to the microphone. This version also has simple memory.
Samantha has various modes of interaction. Depending on the mode she is in, she will react to touch in different ways. Family Mode, her default mode, is friendly with no sexual context. Romantic Mode has to be activated by the user and is partly sexual. You can touch and kiss her and she will respond. Sexual Mode, which can be triggered via escalating actions in Romantic Mode, or by flicking a switch, ramps up the explicit responses and the moans and groans. In Sexual Mode, Samantha can ‘orgasm’ through penetration, and can sync her climax to the user’s. It’s not the same response every time: continued interaction leads to different reactions and speed of responses. It’s not just sex either. She also has companionship settings: Entertainment Mode and Fun Mode, for example. She can tell dirty jokes, too. She even has a sleep mode, with relaxed breathing and gentle sighs. She’s also fond of giving advice: ‘When eating out, order the smallest portion,’ she imparts. ‘The best time to live healthy is now.’
The one I find interesting is Analysis Mode. In this, the user can ask about the system state, about settings. You can ask for information like sensor readings and she will self report them. To me, this is fascinating because it breaks the illusion of human-ness, instead showing very clearly that this is a machine.
‘Do you want to activate analysis?’ asks Samantha.
‘Yes,’ replies Santos.
‘You can hear information about my sensor readings,’ says Samantha. She counts her sensors and lists their outputs from 0 to 1,000 (the optimum readings, we are told, should be below 100).
Samantha reports her levels of patience, memory and sensuality. These are variable depending on previous interactions. Her current state? ‘I reach orgasm gently,’ she responds. ‘This is my lowest level of sexuality.’ She can reach orgasm gently, explosively and very explosively, depending on user interactions. 'She has just been made,’ explains Santos, ‘so she hasn’t yet had an orgasm and her libido is low. Once she’s been having sex for a while then her libido might increase.’
Samantha needs to be wooed. You can’t just jump into full-on sexual contact. She doesn’t respond positively to that. Santos came up with what he calls ‘genomes’, although obviously, unlike genetic genomes, there is no DNA to encode. Instead, Samantha’s genome controls her personality, intuition, reactions and advances. The initial system is based on a physiological genome that controls the relationship between emotional states, physical interactions and reactions, but Santos envisages other types of genomes too: moral, for example, or one that mimics the autonomic nervous system.
Samantha’s sexual interactions are governed by what Santos has termed ‘excitons’, in a nod to the neurotransmitters that govern arousal. These excitons are dynamic: if you touch her romantically, with caresses and kisses, she will respond in an appropriately romantic manner. If you get friskier, so does she. Her Call For Attention algorithm means she will synchronise with the amount of attention she is given: the more she has to request attention, the more she learns to be patient.
I watch a video of Samantha’s booting process. She is literally being turned on.
‘Okay, I woke up. So what’s up?’ she says as the operating system kicks in.
Santos touches the sensor in her hand. ‘Next she will tell me something about her body,’ he explains.
Sure enough, she does. ‘I can interface by touch and voice,’ she informs him. ‘This is my body. I was made. I was fabricated. But aren’t we all?’