Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots


A quippy, personal tour of the world of sex dolls; a decent starter book to learning more on this topic

Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots by Kate Devlin is a mostly pleasant but somewhat superficial romp through an interesting landscape of sex dolls and the (mostly) men who love them.

Devlin is a fine writer, and is clearly knowledgeable about the topic, but focuses on chronicling her personal journey of discovery, the sympathetic people she meets and the curious places she finds herself in — so get ready for lots of descriptions of factories and warehouses, synthetic breasts and penises, sex doll conventions and developers, and squirmy discomfort from friends when she talks about her research specialty.

I’d love to see her either tackle this topic in a much more rigorous, focused and less personal way or commit to the other path, and make it all about the quirky interesting people who love their sex dolls, the porn stars who model for them and the developers who promise sexual companions and instead deliver oversized “fleshlights” for slightly enhanced masturbation.

By following the middle road, the book felt like a long, mildly amusing blog post surveying the sex doll industry instead of expert evaluation of this fascinating moment when science and sex are coming together in an interesting way. It felt too shallow to take seriously, not salacious enough to read like a guilty pleasure and not nuanced enough to make much of a lasting impression. And since the author peppered the book with clever-ish, witty observations (“try everything once, except incest and folk dancing …”) it felt like she was trying too hard for humor which kept reminding me, with a jolt, that she was trying to be clever.

What I hoped for was a more scholarly look at the cognitive characteristics of attachment — to animate and inanimate objects — as well as the risks and challenges of developing artificial intelligence, or AI, that can approximate desire and emotional attachment along with some informed speculation on where this current trajectory will take society (and should we be fearful or hopeful) as we increasingly find solace, empathy and sexual relief in the company of our devices.

And while these topics are acknowledged, they are by no means excavated or explored satisfactorily. In fact, the closest Devlin come to staking out her own territory was in writing about the design of sex dolls as a proxy for the objectification of women. And also when she focused on what it might mean for sex crimes and rape fantasies when such dolls become more commonplace. But even here, she shies away from having much of an opinion, other than what most of us already suspect — these are complicated issues that will require more data before we can draw any conclusions. And she also has a running thread of how the current crop of sex dolls are male fantasy objects and wouldn’t it be interesting to think beyond big boobs and willing mouths to what sexual satisfaction with a robot could look like. Well yes, but that’s not happening, and I wanted to know why, in her opinion, that’s the case.

Still there were plenty of interesting nuggets scattered throughout:

“Unintended biases can be a big problem for machine-learning algorithms. The computer will pick up all our habits, good and bad.”

“… for many marginalized sexual subculture groups the Internet is an important place of refuge, strengthening self-identity. Where there is strength in numbers, there is increased visibility, and with increased visibility can come a movement for acceptance.”

“A neurophysical study in 2016 showed that people showed compassion when a robot vacuum cleaner was verbally harassed. Other research indicted a surge of empathy in humans when they saw images of a robot’s finger being cut.”

It was a fun, fast read with some interesting factoids about the history of sex devices sprinkled in, and a decent starter book to learning much more about this topic.