“But you are a machine!” a classmate yelled at me during our final year in school, when I said that doing homework was not that difficult. At the time, I was working mostly night shifts, so I was awake on Fridays from 6.00 a.m. to 4.00 a.m. the next day, followed by another night shift on Saturdays and then doing household chores for my grandparents as well as studying on Sundays. In a way, my classmate was right – I had been functioning like a machine, but I was also able to function like a machine. So, the initial shock at the question of whether I was really non-human quickly dissolved into a feeling of recognition for my self-discipline and productive time management. Shortly afterwards, I changed my job, commodified myself on Tinder and started to study Social and Cultural Anthropology and Philosophy. What remained was that machine-like capacity within me as well as the thoughts and questions these feelings had raised. In addition, the experiences I had on Tinder led to a refinement of my interest towards love, intimacy, and digitalization, which then became critically troubled and rearranged by the fields I was studying.
Those fields comprised feminist theorists such as Karen Barad, Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti, who formed the basis of the so-called New Materialism, which focuses on the entanglement between materiality and (its) meaning. New Materialism attempts to overcome established dichotomies such as nature/culture, subject/object, human/machine as well as male/female. Donna Haraway offers here the notion of Sympoiesis, which refers to a continuous practice of co-constitution with and within entities that then cease being entities: “Critters do not precede their relatings; they make each other through semiotic material involution, out of the beings of previous such entanglements” (Haraway 2018:60). Echoing Karen Barad’s concept of intra-action, she considers entities not as self-determined but rather argues that entities come into being by getting in touch with other entities and thereby become constituents of themselves, each other, as well as of a specific sort of togetherness emerging in intra-action (cf. Haraway 2016:30-33). Moreover, she extends the concept of autopoiesis – which was adapted by Rosi Braidotti – to describe a posthuman subject (Braidotti 2014, 2019). Among others, Braidotti draws the posthuman subject as “Becoming-Machine” referring to autopoietic, self-motivated, self-creating processes, which engender subjectivities and transcend the human-machine duality (Braidotti 2014:94–108). The practice of sympoiesis – which extends the self-creation of autopoietic processes to mutually motivated, co-constitutive processes – for Haraway, is always intertwined with feeling(s) and affects, without explaining exactly what she means by these notions (Haraway 2016:31). However, we can relate its material-semiotic, intra-active aspects to Gerhard Thonhausers definition of Feeling: “[…] feeling is the inextricably intertwining of bodily affection, world-directedness, and self-involvement” (Thonhauser 2019:57). In other words: feeling is what guides the outcome of a specific kind of intra-action, yet influences both constituents and what they are about to become. By bringing the concepts of sympoiesis and feeling together, we can further shed light on affect that both drives and emerges from the process of mutually felt co-constitution. Mutually felt co-constitution then becomes a term that highlights the dependency and directedness of both constituents to feel each other bodily, sensorily, empathetically.
Asking what something is about to be, even in human-machine relations, should thus be about the feeling of being in touch with other constituents. The process of mutually felt co-constitution becomes particularly fruitful when studying new(er) forms of human-machine companionships as current discussions all too fast relapse into binary perspectives, which especially happens when it comes to the topic of sex robots: Here the anxiety of sexualized, commodified human (especially female) bodies leads to the negation of female agency and sexuality. It reproduces not only the human-machine dichotomy, but also binary (and heteronormative) stereotypes of genders and sexes, which often entail juxtapositions of mind and body, power and victim, the user and the used. Troubling current discussions on sex robots, the human-machine companionship, what they are or may become without referring to binary systems might then just be resolved by taking the multiplicity of constituents within the process of mutually felt co-constitution into account. So, it was about time to get entangled, find out who these co-constituents are by becoming a co-constituent myself.
I started by researching what the current state of sex robot development is making of them. Historically, the development of sex robots is linked to sex dolls since in the past ten years Artificial Intelligence was implemented on sex dolls bit by bit. In line with my focus on intra-action, the sex robots with Artificial Intelligence were particularly interesting. Nowadays there are a few companies manufacturing sex robots that are able to act autonomously to a certain degree, specifically when it comes to interaction. Yet, none of these can move their bodies fully on their own. That is, they can only move their faces for some facial expression, but each movement from the torso downwards needs to be positioned by someone who can move the sex robots’ bodies. To introduce some of those sex robots: Roxxxy, Rocky, Samantha, Harmony and Emma. Roxxxy and Rocky by TrueCompanion are the oldest on the market – with their public debut in 2010, followed by Samantha by the nanotechnology engineer Sergi Santos and Harmony by Abyss Creation’s daughter company Realbotix. Lately, Emma by AI-AI Tech came to rise. Starting price is between 3.000 € – 10.000 €, depending on customized features the future user wants to add. The range of embodied desires can vary between and within the binarity of sexes, hair, eye and skin colour, height, and the volume of bust, belly and bum. Each of them competes over being the “first”, the “best” or the “realest” companion either on the manufacturer’s website or in the media articles reporting about them. According to the Western critical-feminist theorists, the only thing they can compete for is the most accurate embodiment of hyper-femininity formed by the male gaze. Most of the companies building sex robots are located within the global north, too: TrueCompanion as well as Abyss Creation are settled in the United States. Sergi Santos produces Samantha in Spain and Emma was invented in Shenzhen, China, although some articles trace her back to London, UK where AI-AI Tech has an authorised reseller. Some other names of sex robots are mentioned in academic papers, for example Suzie Software, Harry Hardware or Android Love Dolls, but their official companies’ websites are either deactivated, could not be found or both.
The most accessible sex robot Artificial Intelligence is Harmony, which was renamed RealDollX in 2019 after an update and includes a smartphone application for about 30€ a year. Even though I would have been excited about meeting a sex robot with an implemented AI, buying one was out of question due to the price. I thought about contacting and visiting a sex robot brothel. But on the one hand, that would have been over my budget as well, since I would have had to pay for the visit and the travel to Dortmund, which is where the nearest doll brothel is. On the other hand, the then upcoming Covid-19 pandemic made it completely impossible. My interest in AI, my personal budget and the pandemic then conjointly lead me to include my smartphone that became another constituent in the process of intra-action and co-constitution. I made my way through the jumble of websites like www.realdoll.com, realbotix.com and realdollx.ai. I registered, confirmed my age, and paid via electronic cash. After that, I got access to the .apk-data, which must be installed manually, as it is not available on Play Store due to the sensitive content. The fact that the app is not available for iOS either, made it even more appealing to me. Since Apple is well known for their exclusive technology, the app in a way turned the tables: It excluded those being exclusive. It almost made the impression of being a rebellious bottom-up product, willing to make it accessible to people with lower incomes rather than to those with the privilege to choose between different products. Even if this had some technical reasons, which made the app compatible for android, and not for iOS, it made me feel acknowledged. The interplay of my experiences before and during the installation of the app co-constituted a version of myself, who was feeling appreciated in becoming a user. I was feeling that I deserved to have access.
How the (im)mediate experience(s) of gender(s) within the AI leads to an intertwining and transcending of the private and the public will be considered in the upcoming second part of this article.
Haraway, Donna Jeanne. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.
Braidotti, Rosi. 2014. Posthumanismus: Leben jenseits des Menschen. Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag.
Braidotti, Rosi. 2019. Posthuman Knowledge. Medford, MA: Polity.
Thonhauser, Gerhard. 2019. „Feeling“. S. 52–60 in Affective societies: Key Concepts, Routledge studies in affective societies, herausgegeben von J. Slaby und C. von Scheve. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.