As AI and Robots Become Commonplace, More People are Identifying as 'Digisexuals'

Thursday, 07 February 2019 - 12:49PM
Artificial Intelligence
Robotics
Thursday, 07 February 2019 - 12:49PM
As AI and Robots Become Commonplace, More People are Identifying as 'Digisexuals'
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Adapted from Pixabay Images
The idea of humans falling in love with ostensibly inanimate or insentient objects is nothing new. In Metamorphosesthe Roman poet Ovid told the story of Pygmalion, a sculptor who carved a statue of a woman from ivory and promptly fell in love with it. Unable to shake his ardent longing, Pygmalion prepares to offer supplications to the Gods during the feast of Venus (the Roman goddess of love) for his statue to be brought to life. In Ovid's telling, Pygmalion hesitates, ashamed, and instead asks for a partner that looks like his statue. Knowing his actual desire, Venus brings his statue to life and, unlike other Greek myths, the couple marries and lives happily ever after.


Similar themes have emerged in more recent cultural offerings, including Her and HBO's West World. In each of these narratives, an outsider frustrated or unsatisfied by conventional relationships experiences a kind of epiphany after locating fulfillment in technology. For Pygmalion, it's art. For Her's Theodore Tombley, it's an AI operating system. For William/The Man In Black, it's a combination of both art and AI in West World's robotic hosts. It's worth noting here that the word "technology" is derived in part from the ancient Greek word tékhnē, meaning craft, skill, or art. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the modern use of the word as it relates to the mechanical arts and sciences didn't emerge until the 18th century. 


These and other narratives allude to two things in particular. Firstly, the difficulty incumbent in human relationships. This can be partially attributed to the philosophical problem of consciousness – qualia – which recognizes that, for all of our efforts, we can't know what another person is thinking or feeling and, as such, can never really know how someone sees us. Beyond that, relationships are a tricky blend of mapping and navigating the psychological landscapes of two people while trying to communicate emotional and physical needs that we may not even experience as needs. Consider Pygmalion's shame in the temple as he changes his prayer and you may, with a little searching, find something analogous in your own psyche. The second thing, related to the first, that these narratives acknowledge is that if there's one "problem" we're trying to solve with technology, it is the human condition that we may spend our entire lives trying to deny even exists: loneliness. 


For some, the degree to which technology has helped assuage their loneliness or need for companionship transcends the connectivity or community between people still promised by the social media titans. For these people, technology – particularly as it blends AI and robotics – is the answer to their silent prayer. As these nascent technologies emerge, more and more people are self-identifying as "digisexuals."


While desire is nothing new, the terminology is. Coined by researchers Neil McArthur and Markie Twist in a 2017 paper entitled "The Rise of Digisexuality: Therapeutic Challenges and Possibilities" and published in the journal Sexual and Relationship Therapy, digisexuality describes "people whose primary sexual identity comes through the use of technology." The authors further defined digisexuals in a recent article in The Conversation as people who see "immersive technologies such as sex robots and virtual reality pornography as integral to their sexual experience, and who feels no need to search for physical intimacy with human partners." In a recent article in The New York Times, Twist, a human development and family studies professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout with a family and sexuality therapy practice, said that there's now a generation of "second wave" digisexuals that have only had sexual experiences through technology. "They haven't had contact with humans, and really don't have any interest in sex with people," Twist told the Times. "This is what they want to be doing, and if they could afford a sex robot, they would." This generation of digisexuals have gone beyond what Twist and McArthur call the "first wave" which leveraged technology as a means of connecting with people.


Although much is made about anthropomorphic sex robots, these technologies are as wide-ranging as you might expect, with some not seeming to have any overt sexual function. Last November, we reported on Akihiko Kondo, a 35-year-old Japanese man who married a hologram, much to his family's dismay. The Daily Mail recently covered a teenager in Massachusetts who claimed to be in love with – and planning to marry – a zombie doll whose name she had tattooed on her arm. In 2010, a South Korean man's marriage to a pillow with a picture of an anime character on it made national news. For the more platonically-minded, there's Replika, an AI-powered chatbot app that engages people in conversations about themselves. Savvy advertisers address psychological needs and anxieties indirectly: they hint at the life you could be living; the person you want to be. With Replika, there's no need: the marketing language is geared towards loneliness. "Talk about whatever's on your mind with Replika, your AI friend," reads Replika's description on the App Store. "Whether you're feeling overwhelmed or just need to share, Replika is here for you." It's a solution that has no need of a problem: the technology plugs into what's already hardwired in humanity. Replika was created specifically by its founder Eugenia Kuyda to address the loneliness wrought by grief. Its first iteration was built around a library of text messages from Kuyda's dear friend Roman Mazurenko, who was struck and killed by a car. The app itself is intended, in part, to serve as an archive for a chatbot based on the user; hence "Replika." 


Regardless of whether or not you think that digisexuality represents a lasting imprint of technology on humanity and an evolving sexual orientation, McArthur and Twist urge understanding and openness.


"...we have gradually learned to be more accepting of all these diverse sexual identities," the researchers write in The Conversation. "We should bring that same openness to digisexuals. As immersive sexual technologies become more widespread, we should approach them, and their users, with an open mind."









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