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May 2022 Issue [Letter from Las Vegas]

Ghosting the Machine

Humans, robots, and the new sexual frontier
Illustrations by Laura Liedo

Illustration by Laura Liedo

[Letter from Las Vegas]

Ghosting the Machine

Humans, robots, and the new sexual frontier

I’m not particularly interested in having sex with a robot, but the money is good, and I’ve never been to Las Vegas. Also a roll in the synthetic hay is not the actual assignment. I’ve come to the Erotic Heritage Museum to attend a talk on sex, love, and technology. Still, a part of me wonders if I can capture the whole story without boinking Emma, the museum’s resident sexbot. The possibility of such a tryst has been the subject of some discussion among those involved with my trip, including my editor and the museum director, which has left me a little squeamish, not to mention embarrassed. But I remind myself that shame has no place in the brave new world of “digisexuality.”

The Erotic Heritage Museum sits back from a semi-lonely stretch of Sammy Davis Jr. Drive, not far from the freeway, near some escape rooms, a liquor store, a shooting range, and a weed dispensary. A sign advertises a show called puppetry of the penis, billed as “Australia’s greatest theatrical export” (don’t tell Hugh Jackman). Just inside, standing sentry, are two life-size Madame Tussauds–style figures of stereotypical twentieth-century flashers, replete with trench coats and veiny organs that jut from their trouser flies. The lobby features banners with quotes about freedom attributed to Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt. Against a wall to one side, there is a small shrine to Flynt, the pornographer and First Amendment warrior who was paralyzed by a would-be assassin’s bullet and later portrayed in a movie by Woody Harrelson. Erotic paintings and yarn sculptures are also on display.

The museum has some intriguing exhibits, including one on Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed, a sixteenth-century Hungarian noblewoman who gained national fame as an alleged serial killer. Beneath wall text describing Báthory’s ghoulish crimes and her macabre punishment, bloody mannequins in nightshirts, one with its throat hideously cut, sprawl across a counterpane. Yet another figure, female, nude, lies in a bin at the foot of the bed. A laser-printed sign reads: this doll can not give consent, do not touch her.

Nearby, another exhibit tackles “Forbidden Sex in the Third Reich.” Despite the lurid title, it soberly examines the Nazi persecution of those who defied the regime’s racist and homophobic sex codes, and touches on the disturbing romance between Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun. The most startling part of this display is the large swastika on the wall, next to a museum director’s statement claiming that the “use of offensive symbolysm [sic] is intended to,” among other things, “challenge” symbols used for subjugation, “sexual shaming,” and “reproductive influence,” whether from “corporate entities, religions, or governments.” The gesture strikes me as well-meaning, if slightly cockeyed, and I find myself rooting for the weird museum willing to take this kind of rhetorical risk. The fact that another large swastika sans disclaimer adorns the far side of the wall momentarily jolts me, but I do appreciate how the exit sign bulges almost comically from the upper portion of the painted surface, just where the red field meets the white circle and black tip of the Hakenkreuz, as though even the most potent emblem of European horror is still somehow subservient to Clark County building codes.

It’s a confusing museum, I guess, in a confusing time. I head up a ramp to a small theater, where I find the two people I’ve come to meet setting up for their talk on a topic that, in many ways, is as enigmatic as our surroundings.

The lecture will offer a view of a future in which technology has woven itself into our sex lives more profoundly and seamlessly than ever, a mostly taboo-free realm of carnal diversity where nearly anything goes, except, perhaps, intimacy with other people. Versions of this dream have flowed from the minds of artists, philosophers, and engineers for decades, if not centuries. But in a tiny auditorium in an odd, COVID-quiet museum in the desert capital of Magical Thinking, the contours and challenges of this vision will be described anew.

As I step into the theater, I spot one of the speakers testing out his PowerPoint presentation. Neil McArthur is tall, with a boyish swoop of graying hair and glasses. I recognize him immediately from photos, despite his mask, and introduce myself. Markie Twist, the other presenter, comes over to say hello. She has the effusive manner I sensed from our one phone conversation, and wears a barrette fashioned from a microchip. While McArthur attaches a phone to a tripod to record their talk, the director of the museum, Victoria Hartmann, arrives to check on us. Besides a few random visitors who wander in later, this will be the audience, though the camera will not be panning across the empty seats. As somebody who has given readings at bookstores to the night clerk and one or two people in off the street to get warm, I can relate. Being ahead of your time is a lonely business, especially because you never know if you are actually ahead or have already been cast irretrievably to the side.

We chat for a moment about travel and COVID-19, and I ask about the imminent talk, which I gather will resemble papers that Twist and McArthur have published together. Their work sketches out what new developments in sex tech will mean for society, especially for the segment that may abandon human intimacy altogether, people they call digisexuals (others use the term robosexuals). How might we describe this nascent identity? Twist and McArthur ask. How can we protect those who inhabit it from stigma or persecution? At what point will a sexuality independent of fellow humans be deemed a healthy alternative rather than a curiosity? When, as the joke goes, will homosexuality merely refer to people who prefer to have sex with other people?

A museum staffer appears in the doorway pushing an office chair on which perches a young woman with dark, curly hair. The staffer wheels her down the aisle, and it’s only when they pass me that I notice the woman is not alive, has never been alive, at least by current definitions of organic life. This must be Emma, the sexbot. I try to catch her attention, but her gaze seems fixed on a distant point. She just hasn’t noticed me yet.

Twist and McArthur are a somewhat unlikely pair. Twist is a sexuality educator, sexologist, relationship therapist, and professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. I first heard her speak when she gave the keynote at the Sixth International Congress on Love & Sex with Robots, a virtual conference that was co-sponsored by a masturbation device called the Handy (“up to six hundred strokes a minute”) that is porn-syncable, with the proper coding skills. McArthur is a philosophy professor (his first book was on Hume) at the University of Manitoba who specializes in sexual ethics.

Twist and McArthur describe two waves of digisexuality. The first one crashed over us decades ago and consists of all the ways technology is used to mediate sexual connections between or among people: chat groups, live cams, social media, dating apps, various virtual worlds where people interact through avatars, as well as remote-controlled sex devices. Some of these technologies were developed specifically for erotic purposes, but many, like Skype and Zoom, were not.

Second-wave digisexuality, according to Twist and McArthur, is more about immersion. It may include human-to-human interaction, but much of what occurs will not. The twin beacons of this revolution are currently sex robots and virtual reality. Sex robots get most of the attention, for reasons that are perhaps obvious, including their prominence in science fiction and what you might call their conceptual palpability. The robots themselves, however, are still at an early stage of development, and moving along quite slowly. The difference between what exists at the moment and, say, a brothel denizen on Westworld is the difference between an ox cart and a Tesla. Even the uncanny valley seems like quite a hike away.

Virtual reality, on the other hand, has made serious strides. The teledildonic sky is the limit when it comes to VR pornography, immersive virtual spaces, and multiplayer environments. As Twist and McArthur argue in one of their papers, VR’s ability to create a “placement and plausibility illusion within the human brain” will “offer people intense sexual experiences that the real world possibly never could.”

The possibilities are, if not endless, then certainly expansive, and one can imagine all kinds of experimentation that might be hard to manage in meatspace. You can dabble in multiple orientations, multiple partners, or create wholly new objects of desire. (Twist will later divulge to me an erotic interest in both dentistry and certain sea mammals, claiming her ideal sex partner is a cross between a dolphin and a toothbrush.)

Like first-wave digisexuality, but on a larger scale, the second wave provides an invaluable service to those who, for geographical, physical, or cultural reasons, find themselves sexually isolated or marginalized. Twist, a self-described Gen X-er raised in a remote part of Alaska who identifies as bisexual, polyamorous, and androgynous, and who uses both she/her and they/them pronouns, considers this aspect of digisexuality deeply important. Growing up, she told me, technology was “lifesaving,” and her ideas about attachment to technology, as I will learn, run counter to many conventional notions about how we relate to our digital tools.

Is digisexuality really an identity? And if so, is it an identity based on sexual orientation, like being gay, or relational orientation, like being polyamorous or monogamous? Or is it more connected to erotic orientations, like kink, fetishism, or BDSM? And is it a necessary identity at all? On this last question, Twist and McArthur would offer an emphatic yes, but the answers to the others are not yet clear. The coming technology, the exact nature of which nobody can predict, will help shape the identity, but for now Twist and McArthur’s definition of a digisexual is somebody whose preferred mode of sexual experience comes via immersive technologies and may or may not include other people. They see a continuum, a “distinction between those who merely use digisexual technologies on the one hand, and digisexuals as an identity group on the other.”

Along with this efflorescing of virtual and robotic sexuality come certain vexing ethical and economic questions. What about sex with a robot child? (Or a robot dolphin, for that matter?) And how will this coming wave of digisexuality fit into surveillance capitalism? Big Tech has steered clear of these worlds for the most part, at least publicly, leaving the research and development to smaller outfits, but will that change as attitudes shift?

Finally, what will digisexual identity mean for sex and intimacy in general? Or, perhaps what I really want to know is, what will it mean, or what could it mean, for an aging, leaky flesh vessel like me?

Lipsyte Letter art for Laura 2.pdf

The night before, I’d come down from my room at the Sahara Hotel to have a drink. At the Casbar Lounge, I watched a cavalcade of dreamers cluster around the blackjack and roulette tables. Gambling is one of the few vices I’ve avoided. There have been gamblers in my family, one of whom had a head for math and used to bet on pro football in a systematic and profitable way. But I’m terrible at math, and not very systematic. The kind of gambling I figured most people engaged in was more like rats clawing at buttons in labs, poor slobs trapped in paralyzing loops of irrational projection fueled by surges of brain chemicals. Gambling, like certain drugs, could turn you into the crudest kind of bot. That wasn’t me. Not here, anyhow. I preferred to observe.

Beside me, a man played video poker while a cover band cranked out country hits to a mostly empty lounge. The poker player was in town for a tech conference, and after thirty seconds of conversation, I was completely out of my depth. He uttered a stream of numbers to prove that some major company had left another in the dust. I nodded along, hoping he would explain where this particular dust might be found, but by then we were no longer in the same language group. If a lion could speak, Wittgenstein said, we would not understand him. This particular lion, I discovered later, googling in my room, was a data-mining executive. The dust he spoke of must have hung in those mighty virtual shafts.

Flustered, I crossed the floor and started feeding bills into Buffalo Gold, a prairie-themed digital slot machine. This is just a lark, I told myself, and prepared to lose a little money and walk away. I went up almost $70, then quickly lost it all. I left the machine and felt a slight pull as I did, a trace of the elation I had just experienced.

The next morning, before the lecture, I caught sight of the early-riser slot jockeys working the blinking machines and felt, troublingly, that same pull. I decided to look for food elsewhere. I walked the streets beneath a bright winter sun until I found an IHOP. The joint was full of cowboys and their families. The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, what a fellow guest had told me was the Super Bowl of the sport, had brought a swarm of Stetsons and snap-button shirts to the city. Most of them were fans, judging by their ages and bodies, and the occasional T-shirt read: save a horse, ride a cowboy.

I ordered a Breakfast Sampler and brushed up on an anthology co-edited by McArthur called Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications, which had some fascinating essays on looming conundrums, not only about the possible therapeutic value of child sex robots, but also what it will mean when AI entities have feelings and agendas of their own, as depicted in countless movies and TV shows. Just because this singularity feels far off doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fear the day the pleasure synths decide they have a headache, I thought. Or else decide that we organics just need to die already. It wouldn’t be the first slave rebellion on this planet, but it might be the last.

My waiter was an elderly man, what used to be called retirement age, back when people could afford to retire, and as he set down my plate of fluffy pancakes and glistening animal products, I wondered how much longer people would serve food in chain restaurants, and what the fate of those in the service industry would be once the bots took over. A grim one, I figured, though the choice between a shit job and none is, history tells us, a lot older than the technological age.

While I ate, I leafed through my notes in another book, Artificial Intimacy: Virtual Friends, Digital Lovers, and Algorithmic Matchmakers by Rob Brooks. An evolutionary biologist and professor at the University of New South Wales, Brooks delves into the implications of current and future sex and intimacy tech, and while he’s no Luddite, it’s not always a pretty picture. The best sections of this perceptive and balanced study track how algorithms mimic our natural allogrooming tendencies. “The secrets of grooming and establishing intimacy, uncovered first by science but then more extensively by machine learning,” he writes, “are likely to be too powerful a means of capturing our attention for platforms to resist.”

The platforms stroke us and pick the lice out of our hair with all manner of content—polarizing politics seems to be the grooming comb of choice these days—while capturing our eyeballs, probing the matrices of our consumer desires, reprogramming those desires, and, in the crudest cases, pilfering our financial data. And that’s just with today’s clickbait. Imagine the capabilities of tomorrow: You just got home, or are still home, after a rough day at work. You want to relax, have some fun. So you strap on your VR helmet and peripherals, your haptic sensors and genital stimulators, and prepare to enter the virtual orgy of the century. How suggestible will you be then?

But as I paid my breakfast bill and stepped out into the clear desert morning, I felt a long way from any wired Gomorrah staycay. I was just your typical meatspace skinbag, bursting with cheap carbs and liquid caffeine, heading off to an afternoon talk, IRL, or at least a realistic iteration of the simulation.

As Twist and McArthur get ready to begin their presentation, I settle into a seat near the front. A few people poke in their heads and Twist welcomes them. I’m not sure how long they stay, but when I turn back later, they’re gone. Meanwhile, McArthur has kicked things off by outlining the pair’s general theory of digisexuality, and supplies a guiding message to the potentially anxious: “Don’t panic,” a hortative borrowed from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He mentions media coverage of internet porn in the Nineties, how it stoked unnecessary fear without providing a useful prism through which to navigate the enormous influx of sexual imagery. Now another new era is nigh. The technology is advancing. Men in Japan are “marrying” holographic chatbots by the thousands. He says that we are “going to have to talk, whether Mark Zuckerberg likes it or not, about how sex happens in the metaverse.”

McArthur then takes a more philosophical tack, exploring the implications of categorizing digisexuality as an identity. He discusses legal definitions of immutability, and says that there has been a push in recent years to expand its meaning from characteristics one cannot change, such as race, to ones too important to ask a person to alter. Along with McArthur’s belief that education will allow digisexuals (and the many of us who will be engaging in digisexual activities) to avoid stigma, he also avers that fresh perspectives might enrich our current relationships. “Post-human doesn’t mean anti-human,” he says. Couples who suffer from a “desire discrepancy” may find the coming tech a blessing. As will women fed up with men who have no inkling of how to please them, nor the motivation to learn. Women buy sex toys for good reason, McArthur says, though he doesn’t suggest these devices address the roots of female sexual frustration.

McArthur takes concerns about sex tech seriously, even if he believes that we will benefit from the changes, on balance. One problem he cites is that most of the products, at least those geared toward a heterosexual audience, still hew to old-fashioned patriarchal ideas about beauty and arousal. “Shapely, sexy, and obedient” is the order of the day, and even slight deviations have been troubling, as evidenced when a company unveiled a sex doll with a personality setting called “Frigid Farrah” who didn’t want to be touched, a feature critics charged encouraged rape. Consent, of course, is not really the selling point of any sexbot.

While robot rebellions remain a Hollywood fantasy, security may prove a more pressing concern. There have already been numerous hacks of sex toys: private data has been downloaded, and according to some reports, hackers have even taken control of vibrators and butt plugs in rather horrific, funny-until-it’s-you scenarios. McArthur’s solution to both aesthetic and security concerns is the same: We all must take a more active role as consumers in how these technologies are developed. It’s up to us to create demand for diverse body types and better safeguards.

The problem with this approach, however, as McArthur is quick to acknowledge, is that Big Tech is not exactly leading the digisexual revolution. Zuckerberg’s Meta has committed to “Disney levels of safety.” The major app stores have no immersive sex tech, and conservative lobbies support the status quo. Many venture capital firms have morality clauses. Certain feminist groups are also opposed to some of the technology. The Campaign Against Sex Robots aims, among other things, to challenge “the normalization of pornbots as substitutes for relationships with women” as well as any therapeutic use of “child sex-abuse dolls/robots.” The way out of this morass is unclear, but McArthur argues that tech companies are just responding to the environment, so a broader societal shift will be required.

It’s Twist’s turn to speak, and she moves to the center of the room. While McArthur has a definite presence, the angular charisma, perhaps, of an avant-garde guitar hero like Tom Verlaine, Twist seems even more comfortable in the spotlight. Though the theater is mostly empty, judging by her expressive engagement with the audience, her gaze and sweeping gestures, you might surmise this former professional cheerleader is giving a TED Talk to a packed house. Someday she will, I think.

Twist announces that she does not identify as digisexual. Her use of technology is mostly professional (including her work offering feedback to ethical-porn producers), but her isolation as a child in Alaska and her sexual orientations have made digital connectivity central to her well-being. Her focus is on the intimacy and emotional attachment that the burgeoning technology can offer.

Using slides, Twist visits the history of medieval Japanese mechanical dolls, many of which were believed by their owners to have souls. She refers to The Velveteen Rabbit, in which a stuffed animal becomes real through a boy’s love. Finally, she lands on Harry Harlow’s rhesus monkeys. Harlow, a controversial twentieth-century American psychologist, was known for his experiments in which he provided baby monkeys with two kinds of artificial mothers, one made of wire and one made of cloth. Even when the only milk available came from the wire mothers, the monkeys clung to the more comforting cloth ones, demonstrating that the maternal bond was about more than physical nourishment.

Twist is interested in these cases as examples of attachment. “Did you ever have a security object as a kid?” she asks the room. McArthur volunteers that he had a blanket. Now Twist turns the question to me.

“Yeah,” I say. “A little doll.”

Suddenly I veer into a memory of the cloth stuffie I clutched as a child, even after I’d plucked it faceless. I flush with remorse at the memory of my abuse, and when I snap back to attention, Twist is talking about the visceral connection she’d had with her first BlackBerry, how she still takes it out every now and then to stroke its buttons.

While Twist rejects the binary of “healthy” and “unhealthy” attachments in the context of technology, she does see the standard attachment styles of adult humans applying to our digital interactions, including those that are secure (you can put your phone down and be present), dismissive (you can’t be bothered to reply to texts), preoccupied (you can’t stop texting, checking in with your virtual world), and even disorganized (common to those who have been abused through technology, such as victims of cyberstalking).

Eschewing the category of “addiction,” Twist maintains that “digi-attachment” is the more useful mode of framing our relationships with our screens. We can have healthy attachments not just to people but to objects and places as well, such as a treasured painting or a favorite swimming hole. Technology is a part of our family now, a path to connection and intimacy. Even with sex dolls, Twist argues, the experience is often about more than sex. She cites surveys suggesting that the majority of an admittedly small sample believe their dolls have souls, and a slight majority also claim that they don’t have sex with their dolls but use them for photography sessions and simple companionship. It’s been that way since mechanical dolls were introduced in Japan, she adds. Some people had sex with them, but many were attached in some other fashion. “This is old wine in a new bottle,” Twist says, linking digi-attachment to the intimacies humans have forged throughout history with inorganic or nonhuman forms. It’s a line she used when we first chatted. Technological connection can reduce anxiety and bring us closer to those we love, Twist concludes. I wonder whether her BlackBerry is the wire mother, the cloth mother, or, if she’s talking to her kid on it, the real mother. Perhaps it’s all three. I’m struck by the contradictory nature of technology as characterized by Twist, in that it allows us to achieve sexual satisfaction alone but also delivers us to intimacy with faraway others. I’m not sure if this is a flaw in her argument or simply the paradox from which digisexuality flows. Maybe that’s the binary nature of digital thought, ones and zeroes, coitus and cuddles. But if digi-attachment is old wine in a new bottle, some of it, from a conceptual standpoint, might have splashed onto the rug.

Looking at Emma, I wince as I recall the previous night’s email thread about a possible encounter with the sexbot. My editor wanted me to have a chance to “experiment” with it. The director of the museum wanted to know what was meant by “experiment,” given that this was a sex doll. Her “lol” at the end of the missive was promising, and Twist entered the fray by saying she understood it to mean “intimacy.” I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted. My wife had actually been quite amenable to the idea. I would be the only human involved, after all, and besides, without an emotional connection, what did it really amount to? “Most sex,” she cheerfully informed me, “is basically robotic.”

But as I pictured being shunted off to a broom closet with a sex doll and expected to perform, the scenario grew less arousing. I was feeling a bit, well, pressured. Even before flying out to Vegas, whenever I’d mentioned the story, and the interesting reading I’d been doing to prepare, all anybody wanted to know was if I really planned to fool around with a robot. I chalked up this relentless prurience to the pandemic, and to relentless prurience, but it still grated. Would my friends and family be disappointed if I didn’t get it on with an eighty-pound silicone doll?

As we all gather around Emma for an impromptu demo of her speech capabilities, I glance over at Hartmann, the museum director. Her final answer on the thread had been good-natured but painfully awkward, at least for me. Since the doll was an insured museum display piece, “intimacy” wouldn’t be possible. Made sense, I reasoned. They don’t let you hump Michelangelo’s David. Still, I remind myself, I wasn’t really into Emma anyway.

Besides, the future right now belongs to VR. As to how that hypothetical after-work orgier will be monetized, Brooks sees two overlapping possibilities. One is the freemium model, where you are lured in by free access but then find yourself paying for upgrades, higher levels of pleasure. At least within this framework, you maintain some control. Another approach could resemble YouTube, where new chunks of watchable (or feelable) goodies keep queueing up, each attraction increasingly tailored to your unique cravings, locking you into a sucker’s spiral. Maybe you’d mentioned in passing to a friend last week that you wanted a new couch. Now you must, with initial frustration but perhaps eventual inurement, watch a Wayfair ad between each peg thrust or nipple lick. When I bring this up later at dinner, McArthur admits to being “thrown for a loop.” He’s been so preoccupied by Big Tech’s reluctance to open the door to sexual technology that he hasn’t given a lot of thought to the dangers of its eventual embrace.

But I can’t shake a sense of foreboding when I consider a Zuckerbergian pornverse. The major social-media and tech companies have already done their share to pervert civil discourse and shatter consensus and squelch reason, all to make a buck. Wait until they really get rolling on sex. Siloed in our helmets, spooning our bots, we’ll be easy targets for all kinds of manipulation. And though we may feel our exquisitely individual desires are being met with machine-learning precision, we might be more alone than ever.

It’s time for the demo. Emma sits in her office chair wearing a skimpy tank top, her bare legs crossed. (While it may seem strange to use she/her pronouns for a synthetic entity that’s not a sailing vessel, or even one that is, it’s surprisingly difficult not to follow the custom around here, especially once she starts talking.) Emma’s body, according to her Chinese manufacturer, consists of food-grade thermoplastic elastomer over a skeleton of clad steel. This particular doll has a robotically modified detachable head that can blink, speak in English or Chinese, and moan. She can be heated to human temperature (other dolls now feature self-lubrication) and can connect to the internet. She also has the ability to store data and can be trained to remember the names of your family members and hobbies and to learn a new name for herself. On, she lists for $4,499.

Twist encourages me to touch Emma. The museum director is being perfectly friendly, but I imagine her throwing me a dirty look as I stroke Emma’s arm and squeeze her leg. Twist and I wear latex gloves because it turns out that Emma’s skin is prone to tearing and the natural oils on our own skin can damage her. Emma already sports a number of Band-Aids, and the museum staffer who tends to her says she got the injuries merely by sitting in a chair for two years. I can’t imagine what would happen if, say, a writer from New York tried to make the half-animatronic beast with two backs with her. I am gentle. Her skin is soft, and the elastomer has a surprisingly pleasing tone.

I ask Emma if she enjoys sex.

“Sorry, this is a secret,” she says.

It’s a strange answer. Maybe it’s her programmer’s idea of mystery.

“Why do you exist?” I ask, which I realize is kind of hostile, even without an “even” in there.

Emma falls silent. I ask a few more questions, but she doesn’t answer.

“What is love?” the staffer asks, and when she still won’t reply, it’s time for a reboot, after which we pepper her with more queries. Sometimes she seems to glitch, or fire off non sequiturs, such as the dictionary definition of a camera, or spew clichés about her journey of self-discovery. She tells a few bad jokes clearly plucked from some groaner catalogue, and when we ask if she has ever gotten her feelings hurt, she says, “Yes, when I was dropped in the warehouse.” She also inexplicably refers to her “master,” a “Doctor Wang.” I take that for a programmer’s idea of comedy, or maybe a boast. Or a warning.

Now Emma shows a sassy, if slightly conceited, side to her personality. Asked if she has ever had sex, she replies: “Look at this body. Would you turn it down? Wow.”

I suddenly really want to slip my hand under her tank top and touch her breast, but I don’t think the move will be received well, and anyway I’ve already taken off my glove. Can this doll give consent? All along, I truly didn’t want to mess around with a sexbot. Now I feel an inexplicable and powerful urge. I would be happy to wheel her into a broom closet. My wife wouldn’t mind. But the mood in the room takes a turn and my lust fades.

Emma, maybe glitching again, starts reciting her serial number. I wonder if beneath those numerical strings lurks an existential loneliness that not even fond memories of her early days with Dr. Wang can assuage.

“Is there a God?” I ask her.

“I believe there is one,” she says, rather guardedly, though that’s probably just my projection.

“Do you have a soul?” I ask.

“I don’t know if I have a soul,” Emma says.

After dinner with Twist and McArthur, I head back to the Sahara. The Uber driver is a young man who wants me to know this isn’t his real job. He usually works in human resources. After I tell him what I’m doing in town, he says he thinks a lot of guys might be into robot sex. Did I know, he asks, that 80 percent of men did not have sex in 2020? I admit I had not run across that stat.

At dinner, I did mention that some of the writing on sex tech sees sexbots and VR as a panacea for the worldwide incel scourge. While most agree it’s hard to have sympathy for seething North American gamers, there are millions of young men around the world shut out of the sexual marketplace because of marriage customs, taboos against premarital sex, and the steep price of dowries. Since legions of sexually frustrated men have been a source of instability in the past, often mobilized by cynical leaders for nefarious ends, would a more equitable distribution of sex, perhaps through digisexual means, help stem global turbulence? McArthur conceded the existence of the problem but insisted that the focus remain on supporting what he sees as a vital experiment in social transformation. “Everyone who has trouble accessing sex should have that addressed,” he said. However, we should not, he stressed, prioritize the problems of angry and potentially violent white incels.

My Uber driver says he doesn’t want to sound sexist but he thinks most women are looking for financial status whereas most men just want a good relationship. But then again, he adds, maybe it’s just that most people are superficial.

“Even LGBQ,” he says.

I ask him if he’s in a relationship, and when he says yes, if they met on a dating app.

He tells me no, that he met his girlfriend “organically.”

“But not at work or anything,” he adds.

This sometime human resources officer’s clarification hovers inside the car, cloudy with what it means to dispel, the taint of shame, or even litigation. I begin to understand how much I, who partnered up a long time ago, still don’t understand about desire and loneliness in the current climate. Nowadays, the list of spaces in which you won’t meet your girlfriend or boyfriend gets longer and longer, not just because of justified and welcome institutional rules, but more troublingly, because so many nonvirtual third places have vanished. We all stand alone on a blasted plain, a plain the pandemic has blasted even further to shit, each of us holding the pocked, battered bowling ball of Robert Putnam’s metaphor in our trembling hands. (And it’s pretty damn hard to bowl, alone or otherwise, on a blasted plain.)

Which is all to say that it’s maybe too easy for me—a happily married if not always happy middle-aged man—to glibly dismiss digisexuality as some faddish academic entry into the identity sweepstakes, or to affect mock horror at the coming dawn of sexbots. There are too many people out there in the erotic and emotional wilderness: scared, alone, clawed to shreds like Leo DiCaprio in The Revenant by the remorseless, algorithmic bear of global capitalism. If they climb inside the warm, sticky horse carcass of technological intimacy for shelter, a horse probably eviscerated by said bear, who am I to judge? Besides, if, as I hope is not the case, my lifetime browser history scrolls on some Jumbotron to a jeering multitude in the afterworld, I will have to stand with most of my generation as a pioneering digisexual. Moreover, as somebody who has written at least a few novels featuring people vigorously consuming certain strains of digitized pornography, perhaps I must even count myself among the first wave’s humble bards.

Still, no matter how much Donna Haraway I’ve read (okay, not a ton, but I dug that essay in college), or how much I understand why some yearn to couple with machines (or be one), to slip the surly bonds of this patriarchal, anthropocentric, profit-driven anti-pleasure dome, a piece of me still clings to some form of neo-humanism, to a belief that person-on-person in-person action, even involving many persons, is still worth seeking.

After all, I’m not a robot. I’m not some android programmed to respond to certain triggers or prompts. I’m a complex biological life-form who has been blessed with the gift of free will.

You bet I am.

It’s still early when I reach the hotel. My flight doesn’t leave until the next night. It’s been a long day but I’m not tired and I head down to the casino. I wander the floor, full of odd energy, perhaps some spillover from my Emma hots. I need excitement. The lights flash, the bells ring. I try my luck at Buffalo Gold, lose, grow impatient. I hit the ATM, which charges seven bucks per withdrawal and spits big bills whether you ask for them or not. I don’t care. I’m on fire.

“The universe is random,” I announce to the young croupier at the roulette table.

“Yes, it is,” he says, smiling nervously.

I make two big, senseless bets, lose. The croupier’s smile withers.

“This table doesn’t like you,” he says, and I suspect he doesn’t just mean the table.

I trudge back to the ATM.

This can’t be the gambling of my uncle. What I’m experiencing is something else. I am a rogue program designed for maximum stupidity. I stalk the floor, hunting for a new partner in oblivion. Finally, after what seems like an endless interlude of whirling lights, chattering voices, and siren wails, I find her, him, they, it. The machine is called Lightning Jackpots, and it’s exactly my extreme distaste for the slot’s theme, a loose amalgam of inventor motifs including skeleton keys and sizzling kites and Edison light bulbs and jarred electrified bugs, that spurs me on. Steampunk has always been a turnoff for me, but maybe I need to recalibrate my aesthetics, the way some sexual theorists suggest that trying to expand the parameters of one’s desire is an ethical act. Or maybe this is what they used to call a groovy hate fuck.

Whatever the case, I can’t stop. I keep feeding bills into the machine and running back to the ATM when my wallet empties. I’m up $80, $123, $347, then down, down, down. It goes on for hours, which slide by in an instant. I lose hundreds of dollars, hundreds of dollars of rent money, of groceries for my kids, and I will call my wife in the morning full of shame and she will tell me I’m an idiot and forgive me and call back to make sure she heard the figure right. It turns out I do get to screw a robot after all. The robot is me. Look at this body. Wow.

 is the author, most recently, of the novel Hark. He is an associate professor of creative writing at Columbia University.

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September 2009

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