Tracey Follows, futurologist: ‘Who will control the AI applied to sex? Because it will not be the user’

Soon, people will be able to access an extensive menu of sexual practices in which the body will no longer be a limitation, and having a virtual girlfriend will be seen as acceptable within the narrative of diversity

Tracey Follows
Futurologist Tracey Follows.Fran Monks

At some point, long ago, we were given the vision of a placid future, where robots would perform the hardest tasks and humans would have time for personal development and pleasure in a hedonistic society. However, movies like Blade Runner (1982) also alerted us to the possibility that technology could take over and tarnish this happy, idyllic future. Today, artificial intelligence is viewed with considerable suspicion, partly because it is poised to take many of our already scarce jobs, and partly because it is giving us a glimpse of a world for which we are not yet prepared. Technological advances are once again moving too fast for our minds, laws and morals.

In 2018, the physicist, mathematician and futurologist Ian Pearson talked with EL PAÍS about sextech, a term that refers to high tech applied to sex. In a report on the future of sex that he made for Bondara, an English brand of online erotic shops, Pearson predicted: “We will start to see some forms of robot sex appearing in high-income, very wealthy households as soon as 2025. By 2035 the majority of people will own sex toys that interact with virtual reality sex. We will start to see robot sex overtaking human-human in 2050.”

But the use of humanoids is just the tip of the iceberg of everything that technology has in store for our private lives. It is also, by far, not the most disturbing possibility. In the very near future, we will have access to an extensive menu of sexual practices in which the body will no longer be a limitation. “People will be able to get a replicant, exactly like them, and (literally) have sex with themselves. Virtual reality will allow us to have long-distance relationships and feel kisses, caresses and physical contact, thanks to sensors connected to touch screens that will send messages to the brain. It will be easy to materialize any fantasy that anyone imagines, or to make a replica of someone who died. It is already possible to temporarily suspend consciousness in order to perceive the sensations of other bodies. For example, if you want to experience a sex change or be a different age. Or we can switch bodies and have intimate relationships where each one feels what the other feels,” Pearson pointed out.

For scientist and researcher Brian Roemmele, artificial intelligence is the electricity of the future. From the perspective of sex, some people already identify as digisexuals, which means that their primary sexual identity is linked to the use of technology and they do not need other humans to form intimate relationships.

Tracey Follows is one of the top 50 female futurists in the world. She is the author of the book The Future of You, host of a podcast with the same name and visiting professor, expert in digital futures and identity, at Staffordshire University, in the United Kingdom. We talked with her about how artificial intelligence will affect sex and relationships.

'The future of you'
'The future of you', essay by Tracey Follows.Elliott & Thompson

Question. The field of sexuality seems like a good place to put artificial intelligence into practice because it is designed for pleasure, not for work, and because it is like a magic wand that can make all our fantasies come true. A friendly space to promote this controversial tool; “You see, AI has come to make us happier, not to take our jobs!”

Answer. I think it all depends on how we use it. AI will be able to do many things and, in collaboration with humans, it will be used to perform many of the tasks we take for granted today. One thing about generative AI is that it turns everything you imagine into an image. It can take a mental image and turn it into a concrete image using the text-to-image or text-to-video process. And because so much of sexuality has to do with our desires (some secret, some public), people will be able to communicate those desires better in new and, apparently, more obvious ways.

Q. If there is something we must learn in the age of AI, it is that an image is no longer proof that something is real. The porn industry is the best example. A person can create or recreate people, from Scarlett Johansson to their neighbor, to have sex with them in virtual reality. This is the example of websites like MrDeepFakes. The sad case of the Spanish girls [whose fake nude pictures circulated all through their school], confirms that laws and security measures are slower than technology.

A. I think that there will soon be regulations to regulate or reduce some of this. There will be an attempt to carry the moral and legal codes that exist in the real world to the digital world. For example, don’t hug or kiss an avatar you don’t know without their consent. But I think they will probably fail, because the personal dynamics of a digital world or a virtual environment are different than those of the real world. Laws that adjust to this new universe will have to be made.

Q. When we talk about AI applied to sex, people automatically think of sex robots. Do you believe, like your colleague Ian Pearson, that sexual relations between people and robots will overtake those between humans by 2050?

A. It could be. Look at how popular phone sex became in the last few decades, and then cybersex. Whatever technology humanity invents, it will always find a way to use it to satisfy its desires. Consider OnlyFans and other sites; people are already starting to fabricate their personas, to the point that they might as well present themselves as avatars. In Japan, a large number of young men already prefer to have relationships with their digital assistants, avatars or holographic girlfriends, instead of dealing with the complexity of real-life relationships. And this trend is increasing. I will build on Dr. Pearson’s prediction by saying that I think this will come to be seen as acceptable within the narrative of diversity. That is, a virtual girlfriend will simply be another option, and that will be the way in which relationships between humans and AI will be accepted; under the banner of “inclusion.”

Q. Many will see this as a blessing, but don’t you think that the relationships between avatars created by AI and humans can be equally complex, especially when the former start to become increasingly sophisticated, imitating or developing human-like emotions?

A. I wrote a book about this called The Future of You, in which I suggest that these AI companions and applications will come to define you and your life to such an extent, they will adapt to that knowledge so faithfully, that they will become your mirror. That is, an AI girlfriend will be so perfectly programmed to please her owner that, in the end, the two will become one. At that moment it stops being interesting and, furthermore, it stops being a relationship and becomes more like masturbation. This is one of the risks.

On the other hand, I think we should distinguish between the technology that is used to satisfy our sexual desires and that which is intended to improve human connection. It is now possible to send or feel a hug from a distance; and it would not be at all strange for the wedding rings of the future to incorporate this type of technology. But that is different from that other branch of technology that seeks to satisfy fantasies, to arouse desire, escape and, in a certain sense, disconnection. I imagine deepfake porn will continue to grow and will be very difficult to regulate, so if you want to have sex with your favorite Kardashian, you can. All it takes is some photos or videos and an artificial intelligence platform to have sex with your next-door neighbor. The psychological effects of this, both on the user and the one being used, can be truly dark.

Tracey Follows
‘I imagine deepfake porn will continue to grow and will be very difficult to regulate, so if you want to have sex with your favorite Kardashian, you can,’ says futurologist Tracey Follows.Fran Monks

Q. All these advances can make our sex lives easier and, for lonely people, even possible; but pressing a button and having an orgasm in 10 seconds could be counterproductive. Don’t you think that the fact that we no longer have to make an effort to seduce someone, or to develop certain lovemaking techniques, will make us less intelligent and empathetic and more insensible and selfish?

A. I wonder if we are assuming that one thing will replace the other. It is quite possible that most of this sexual technology complements what we already do in the real world and, in a sense, heightens the need to put more effort into reality. Have food delivery services canceled our need to go out to restaurants? No. They have simply increased our passion for food in general. I think what we will see is that our interest in sex, in all its aspects, will grow. It is very likely that television shows will appear aimed at matching people with AI sexual partners. Spaces that show how to use sexual technology in virtual reality or online will also become popular, and will be broadcast as “educational.”

Q. If the sexual revolution of the 1970s separated sex from reproduction (thanks to the contraceptive pill) and from love (casual sex), high tech promises to give us the best possible sex, physiologically speaking. Robots and various mechanisms will have direct access to the erogenous zones of the brain, something impossible even for the most experienced lover. Does this mean that AI will be able to help with many sexual dysfunctions such as anorgasmia, erection problems or lack of desire?

A. If AI can analyze human behavior and find patterns in it, it may also be able to diagnose and even reprogram people toward certain behaviors and desires, or away from others. Some sextech products and services focus on addressing issues such as erectile dysfunction, low libido or recovery from sexual trauma through guided programs and support. There are also apps and devices that promote relaxation and can improve a person’s sex life by creating an environment more conducive to intimacy. Virtual reality and augmented reality can provide new and exciting ways for individuals and couples to explore their fantasies and engage in role-playing scenarios, adding variety and excitement to their sex lives.

Q. I imagine that AI applied to sexuality will lead us to reformulate many concepts, such as infidelity, open couples, intimacy and jealousy.

A. Certainly. AI will make us embrace completely new and emerging psychosexual concepts that we have not yet heard of or come to terms with. We have a vast terrain to explore, and the big question is: who is controlling this AI? Because it will not be the user. It will be a large technology company that the user has signed up to. That means that the consumer will be, in a way, a hostage of that company and what it allows them to do or not, and that they will subject to the moral obligations of that company. In the same way that Twitter or Facebook censor certain users for their opinions, we will have technology companies that will do the same thing with their customers, depending on their behaviors. What can happen then? Imagine that they socially program usage towards homosexuality instead of heterosexuality, or towards trios instead of couples. Then you could end up with a set of desires that you never thought were part of you, but that have been programmed into you through mental manipulation. Another of the great dangers will be that enormous set of very intimate data that companies will have. What could they do with it? What would happen if it falls into the hands of hackers?

Q. Don’t you think that mental or personality disorders can also increase, in a field – the sexual field – where feelings and affections are very present? I’m talking about losing track of reality or having trouble recognizing what is real and what is not.

A. I wonder if part of the regulation could be messages, after an encounter, that guide you or ask you to enter your emotional state, so that the AI can analyze them and look for patterns.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS