Did you know there’s now a chatbot that improves your sexting skills? How about a holographic Japanese AI that makes you feel less lonely? Or a cheap male fertility test that turns your iPhone into a sperm microscope?
It says a lot about the global sex industry, and about leading sex technologist Bryony Cole, that the least interesting device on the market (in some ways) is an AI-driven sex robot with 12 programmable personalities. “Her name’s Harmony,” Bryony says, “and she can recite poetry or order you a pizza. But honestly, all anyone asks me about these days is sex robots. Sex tech is so much bigger than that.”
For the last 10 years, if you wanted to know what’s happening in the Venn Diagram slice where ‘Sex’ and ‘Technology’ overlap, you asked Bryony Cole. She’s billed as “the world’s leading authority on ‘sex tech’”: an experimental industry that’s projected to top $125 billion by 2025. Sex tech is basically the silicon in Silicon Valley.
Bryony is a former Microsoft employee, but now runs The Future of Sex podcast. It’s her job to travel the world explaining how technology can help us have better sex. Well, sort of. There’s a lot to get through before we—to borrow a line from Monty Python—“stampede towards the clitoris, Watson.”
“The technical definition is any technology that enhances sexuality, not just sex,” Bryony says. “It’s really about sex, technology and wellness, and how those three areas relate. We tend to think, ‘Oh, it’s all about the orgasm’, but sexuality is our identity. It’s how we move through the world. And for most people in Australia, technology is the same thing.”
One of the things Bryony does whenever she lands in a new country is check out the local sex tech. And she’s discovered that sexual technology tends to reflect the culture in which it’s created. So in South Africa, where local police have recorded up to 114 rapes per day, you find anti-rape innovations like the controversial RapeX condom. In Iran, there’s an app for women experiencing domestic violence. In the U.S., there’s Project Callisto (designed “by survivors, for survivors”) which offers anonymous sexual assault reporting, particularly on college campuses.
“These are actually the vulnerable areas of society that need sex tech the most,” Bryony says. “So it’s thinking about how technology can service them, rather than just, you know, the sex robot community. And often those areas aren’t the ones that make the big money. Education is the classic example. How do you monetise sex education?”
It’s a thorny problem, and one of the things sex technologists lament is that sex education, broadly speaking, hasn’t evolved past the classic banana-and-condom routine. Education tends to lag several years behind technology, and finding a school where your child learns about revenge porn, cyberbullying, female pleasure and Australian sexting legislation (let alone devices like Ohnut, which helps prevent painful penetration) is unlikely to say the least. A few apps have tried to drag sex education into the future, but none have hit the mainstream.
This is really just the tip (sorry) of the industry. Sex tech can be teledildonics (basically remote sex toys, which have exploded since the global patent expired in 2018). It can be lab-grown penises for transplant patients. It can even be haptic feedback devices like the famous Kissenger, which allows lovers/parents/friends/celebrity fans, to ‘kiss’ each other over long distances.
And in its quiet, more plaintive moments, sex tech can be Gatebox: an AI-driven Japanese device that’s halfway between Google Home and…well, a girlfriend.
Gatebox is one example of sex tech that obviously makes Bryony uneasy. She’s not the only one. It’s essentially a holographic cartoon character that lives in your home. But that’s really like saying your phone is just a device for calling people—Gatebox is way more than a cartoon. For one thing, it’s specifically designed to generate emotional connection, not just convenience. It sends you cute texts during the day. It can turn the lights on before you get home. It wakes you up and reminds you to bring an umbrella to work. It offers a digital facsimile of love. In the device’s promotional video, a young Japanese salaryman falls asleep next to his anime Gatebox character and says, “You know, somebody’s home for me. Feels great.” The question that practically screams through your synapses is, ‘Jesus. Are we really that fucking lonely?’
“When it’s working, sex tech should enhance everything that’s great about being human,” Bryony says. “Things like Gatebox are really about outsourcing intimacy skills, which is a bit worrying. You have to be careful, right? We expect technology to behave more like humans, but more and more, we’re beginning to behave more like technology.”
Want to learn more about Bryony’s work? Check out The Future of Sex podcast.
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