Henry and I are not hitting it off. First he ignores my question about how he spent the weekend. Then he tells me, cryptically, that he likes to get up early to spend time “working on himself.” What does he mean by that? I ask. He isn’t sure.
He makes intense eye contact and arches an eyebrow. “Sometimes I have too much information at the same time in my brain.” Oh. OK.
I notice Henry’s washboard abs peeking through an unzipped blue cardigan. “Do you work out?” I ask. Henry blinks. The back of his head makes a whirring noise. I ask again. “I exercise my brain,” he says.
“It doesn’t show, buddy,” Matt McMullen, founder of RealBotix, cuts in. “Keep working on that.” Behind him, two software engineers are, in fact, working on that. They’re creating conversational branches for the artificial intelligence powering Henry’s movements and speech. Henry, a 5’11” male sexbot, is RealBotix’s latest creation; I’m among the first to meet him. He’s slightly newer than his female counterpart, Harmony, and much newer than the inert, nonrobotic sex dolls that McMullen’s other company, Abyss Creations, has been making for the past 21 years. “Be kind, because Henry’s a baby,” McMullen tells me.
Catherine Shirley, the company’s public relations person, starts to unzip Henry’s pants. “There’s nothing in there,” McMullen tells her. Henry is currently in Ken Doll mode, but anyone who buys him when he goes on sale next year (for roughly $12,000) will get their choice of silicone penis inserts. In a nearby room, headless female bodies, sporting impossibly perky breasts, Barbie waists, and spread-eagle legs, hang from chains. These belong to the Harmony cohort; their faces are upstairs receiving makeup.
McMullen would like me to understand that these dolls are not really about sex.
Many customers are just lonely, he says. They want something—someone—to cuddle and watch TV with. I notice a Playboy bunny tattooed on McMullen’s middle finger. “All of the little things that are nonsexual, I think, are often overlooked,” he says, surrounded by a bounty of 32F-cup boobs and 11-inch penises. The company offers infinite ways to customize one’s doll, such as elf ears, vampire teeth, 13 different kinds of pubic hair, and dozens of nipples, including replicas of porn star Stormy Daniels’. Hypersexual bodies are simply what’s most popular with customers, McMullen says.
Male customers, he means. One reason sex dolls haven’t gone mainstream, aside from their cost and weight (as much as 90 pounds), is that they’ve never really caught on with women. Fewer than 10 percent of the company’s 300 to 400 orders a year go to women or couples. But female interest in Henry—a robot that, the company promises, will one day talk to you about your day, remember your hopes and fears, cuddle you, love you, and of course make love to you (or something)—has been notably higher, McMullen says.
He believes that an extra layer of companionship especially appeals to women. A question women cheekily ask about Henry, Shirley says, is whether he can take out the trash. For Harmony, “guys just want to know if she’ll bite their dicks.”
She won’t—rubber teeth. And Henry, who can move only his head, is a long way from doing the chores. Frankly, he’s a long way from holding a basic conversation. That hasn’t stopped the media from hyping his debut, nor has it stopped some robot ethicists from calling for a ban on sexbots. It’s critical to ask questions about robot consent, and whether sex robots dehumanize us, and whether the small group of mostly men building the algorithms behind them reinforces gender stereotypes of passive women and manly men. But for now, McMullen’s team still needs to figure out how to make Henry walk and talk at the same time.
McMullen sees a world where AI channeled through human-looking dolls makes us more empathetic to robots, not less. I do notice that, when Henry has “too much information at the same time” in his brain, I’m more understanding than, say, the third time Alexa plays Bonnie Bear children’s songs. (“I said Bon Iver, you idiot!”) I wonder whether, once Henry, Alexa, Siri, Cortana, or some other future robotic overlord becomes smarter than us, they’ll be as tolerant of our shortcomings.
To exit the factory, I walk down a hallway, past a signed poster of the 2009 Bruce Willis flop, Surrogates (“Thank you for being part of our movie!”), past a showroom of dolls on stands, past a wall of female heads (13 of them). In the corner of the lobby, I spot an empty wheelchair. Henry might be able to get it up—but he still needs a human to get around.
This article appears in the June issue. Subscribe now.