This book about sex robots from academic and journalist Kate Devlin is big on breadth and charm. I foreground this because it’s presented by the publisher as a rather different book, a study that will give readers whole new ways of thinking about sexuality and technology, using sex robots as a way of digging deep into identity, society and desire; in reality, it works as an overview of a large and interconnected field. With that out of the way, you’re more likely to enjoy the book on its own terms. I finished feeling like a smart, likeable, informed expert had given me their introductory talks, complete with intriguing personal anecdotes used for illustrative purpose.
It barrels through the mythical basis of sex with non-human objects (the first dildo) and into a complex present, which contains hints about a post-human future none of us can really guess at. It’s loaded with facts and anecdotes, for which the author has a gimlet eye, particularly those that live in the fertile zone between the significant and the absurd. I enjoyed meeting the inventor of the first erect penis in virtual space, and to learn that when customers are delivered handpainted sex dolls in large crates, the manufacturers advise them to say it’s a grandfather clock.
Early in Turned On, Devlin asks, “Does sex with a robot count as cheating? Will it lead to violence and rape? What if someone makes a child version? Will it destroy human relationships? Will the robots, as one 2016 headline suggested, ‘fuck us all to death’?” She expands on these questions throughout and adds many more: How humanly does something have to act before we’ll treat it as human? How much thinking or feeling does a robot have to do before we can say it has something like consciousness, rights or a mind? How worried should we be that sex robots – not to mention Alexa and Siri – are all female, to the point where many people assume there’s “no demand” for male ones? (How worried? Very.) It doesn’t take much to imagine the huge implications for people and societies, well past the ethics and laws of sex and technology.
In the end, one of the most interesting and perhaps savvy tonal choices the book makes is to not apologise, too much, for the salaciousness of the topic, as if Devlin’s philosophy mirrors that of one of her interviewees: “I try not to get too serious about this, because it’s so funny.” CR
Bloomsbury Sigma, 288pp, $26.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 1, 2018 as "Kate Devlin, Turned On". Subscribe here.