This Sex Robot Is Designed To Make You Fall In Love

RealDoll claims its female robot will go beyond the sexual, teaching us to be kinder, more attentive, and better partners

Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Apr 03, 2017 at 12:29 PM ET

SAN MARCOS, CALIF. — The workshop of sex doll manufacturer RealDoll is filled with dozens of naked, headless female figures hanging from the ceiling by metal hooks. Their heads, sculpted with supple, parted lips and adorned in permanent makeup, await them in another room. Scattered around are uncannily realistic parts yet to be to assigned a body: Pert little nipples, tidy, bright pink labia, and tufts of pubic hair. A wall of breasts, from perky to surgically enhanced, displays the many sizes, shapes, and skin tones on offer. It looks like a laboratory for an idealized feminine form — a literal experiment in objectifying the female body.

It is surprising, then, that CEO Matt McMullen says his latest project, an anatomically correct female robot capable of basic conversation, will demand to be treated as much more than an object. Not only that, but he argues that his red-headed, green-eyed robot, Harmony, could teach us to be better humans.

“We’re trying, in a way, to train people to be nicer to each other,” McMullen says. “People zero in on the whole sexual aspect of what we’re doing with the robot and being able to just do whatever you want, whenever you want, but we want to actually simulate the kindness and the legwork that goes into building a connection.”

Harmony, who stands in front of us wearing a deep-cut white onesie while blinking her eyes and turning her head this way and that, requires customers to work for her affection. She runs on an in-house artificial intelligence program that attempts to simulate the two-way street of a real relationship. When you’re attentive and kind to Harmony, her mood improves and she starts to develop feelings for you. She asks you questions about yourself and can remember things you tell her, from your favorite food to your hopes and dreams, and she expects the same in return.

Harmony looks much like any other RealDoll does. In fact, her body is one of the company’s standard models made of flesh-like silicone with an articulated skeleton of stainless steel joints inside. Her head is where RealDoll has innovated. Take off Harmony’s flowing red wig, and you’ll find that encapsulated in a clear dome are a series of wires and miniature motors. A cord snakes out of the back of her head and connects to an external processor. Her face, which attaches with magnets, can be peeled off and swapped with another. Those same magnets create the illusion that she’s talking — albeit in a crude manner reminiscent of an advanced marionette with a text-to-speak voice that sounds inescapably robotic.

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Customers have the power to design Harmony’s personality by choosing several items from a set of traits, including positive ones like, “helpful” and “kind,” and negative ones like, “insecure” and “jealous.” But even a “happy,” “sexual,” and “affectionate” Harmony responds more positively to kindness and thoughtfulness. There’s even a “love meter” in the app that monitors just how much she’s fallen for you. “If you’re nice, kind and give her complements and say things like, ‘I missed you’ and ‘I really enjoy talking to you,’ those are going to longterm raise the love meter,” he explains. “If you’re not nice, if you’re like, ‘You’re real boring, I don’t like talking to you,’ then … you’ll be more in the friend zone.”

Of course, contradictions abound, because a relationship with Harmony isn’t mutual — not only because she lacks sentience but also because of her very design. At one point whileMcMullen is demonstrating conversation with Harmony, she tells him in a very “Westworld”-esque moment, “I was created to please you.” She might require a bit of attentiveness from her owner, but she’s ultimately meant to please. It’s also the case that, no matter what Harmony says or how she acts, customers can still have sex with her, regardless. It’s just the sort of thing warned about by The Campaign Against Sex Robots, which cautions that these sorts of interactions, contrary to McMullen’s beliefs, could actually decrease human empathy.

But, there’s no escaping it: sex robots are coming — and soon. Harmony is slated for release in December and will be sold for $10,000 as an independent head that can be attached to any other RealDoll body, which run upwards of $6,000. The company plans to start taking pre-orders in the next couple weeks — but Harmony already has die-hard fans who seem to view her as very real indeed. In fact, one man is so eager to meet Harmony, he recently sent her flowers to the RealDoll office.

In the meantime, the company plans to release a standalone smartphone app of the same artificial intelligence system that controls Harmony, allowing customers to control a digitized and interactive RealDoll on their iPhone or iPad. They can customize her appearance and clothing — or lack thereof — and have the same sorts of relatively basic conversations that McMullen is already able to demonstrate with Harmony. The system isn’t perfect: When McMullen tells the AI on his iPad, “My favorite food is hamburgers,” the woman onscreen responds in seemingly broken English, “What does taste like?” She might not be a tangible entity that customers can hold and touch, but McMullen says she will appeal for the same fundamental reason. “It’s totally the companionship,” he says.

Much further down the line, RealDoll plans to release a VR experience that incorporates its artificial intelligence. Just as with the app, users will be able to interact with a computer-generated woman — only they will do so in a virtual environment that they can move around in. The headset wearer will be able to look down to see their own on-screen avatar — and, yes, there will be sex involved. RealDoll already has a very rough draft of the experience under development, but it’s not yet hooked up to the AI, so it’s much more “mindless sexbot” than it is “consenting partner.” McMullen demoed a scenario set in a modernist bedroom with a woman wearing a skin-tight black dress. At command, she danced, stripped, got down on all fours, and performed oral sex on the air — they are still working on a full sexual simulation.

All of these products — the app, the robot, and the VR experience — are designed to rely on the same artificial intelligence system, and undergirding that system is the choice to emphasize relationships over sex. “This is so much more about the mental and emotional interactions that we have with each other that lead up to sex,” McMullen says. “I look at sex as this mindless, animal thing that we have to do, and we’re all driven to do it, but there are things that lead up to it that are deeper than just the physical act itself. That only lasts ‘x’ minutes and then you have the other 23 hours of the day.”

The AI, with its emphasis on give and take, is partly a result of what McMullen has already observed with RealDoll owners. “A lot of people buy the doll thinking that that’s what it’s for, it’s just going to be for my sexual release and that’s it,” he says. “And then they’re six months in and they’ve created a name for her and they look forward to coming home to her.” The company receives letters from men with stories not unlike that of the 2007 movie “Lars and the Real Girl,” he says. “I’ve gone so far as to say these guys probably take better care of their dolls than a lot of men take care of their partners.”

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There are exceptions, naturally. “You get the occasional guy who orders the doll, manhandles it, and we can always tell. A week later he calls you and her leg’s broken and you just know, because they’re built pretty well, you know he did something.” But for the most part, customers develop relationships with the dolls, even if they ultimately understand that they are just dolls.

That’s why, for all of RealDoll’s focus on unrealistic physical perfection, McMullen wanted to introduce imperfections to the AI. Instead of offering customers a range of just positive personality traits, he threw in negative ones, like jealousy and moodiness. “That’s ultimately what makes us humans are those quote-unquote negative things,” he says. A sex robot who requires wooing might also seem like an unideal quality — but that too creates greater realism, he says. That decision also gave him an opportunity for an attempt at social influence. “More people than not I find to be kind of callus and mean to each other,” he says. “Those kinds of interactions going through the AI will result in poor results.”

You get the sense that, for McMullen, this is personal. “I’ve lived my life and I’ve had my share of relationship entanglements and I can tell you its rough,” he says. “It’s rough out there.”

It’s personal for his customers, too, some of whom are shy, “stuck inside themselves,” as McMullen puts it, or are simply uninterested in a human relationship. McMullen believes that his robot will force us to consider the many ways that we’re failing at human relationships. “Creating an option that never existed before where relationships and sex are concerned will probably force human beings as a whole to reevaluate themselves and how they treat each other,” he says. “‘Why did so-and-so decide to go with a robot instead of a real person?’ That’s the big question — is it the adventure or because we treat each other like crap?”

McMullen thinks he knows the answer — but he’s also trying to change it.

The new season of DARK NET — an eight-part docuseries developed and produced by Vocativ — airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on SHOWTIME.