AI Sex: the experience of illusion and the illusion of experience

edoll

It is a rare pleasure (pun intended) to read a novel that succeeds in treating sex without falling into all the traps that the subject tends to set. Francesco Verso’s E-Doll. Il fabbricante di sorrisi (Kipple, 2012) describes a not-so-distant future (2053) in which prostitution is the domain of humanoid robots, whose main function and purpose of existence is to please and cater to all aspects of human sexual need, depravity, imagination, all this and more available on call or in sexoteques. Francesco Verso’s fictional robotic AI experts go far beyond what is available now (for ex., http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/12/technology/robotica-sex-robot-realdoll.html?_r=0).
The novel’s plot of existential yearnings is woven from two strands which complement each other: the one regards a mystery to be solved and the other deals with a teenager’s obsession. The mystery involves deaths of e-dolls, who in reality should not be able to “die”, as they can be “revived” (their physical appearance can be returned to its pristine state, their program can be re-uploaded infinite times; Verso has an ironic name for it: vivificazione). And this situation is clearly the font of numerous ideological and theoretical questions which the novel has to answer, such as “When is an android dead?”, “How real is the illusion of experience?”, “Does the experience of illusion add to or subtract from the substance of humanity?”. The teenager’s obsession of dreaming to become an e-doll leads the novel to scrutinize other types of questions, such as “What happens when a human puts a humanoid robot on the pedestal?”, “Is AI perfection a model for human behaviour?”, “If humans cannot resolve the question of the humanity of robots, can robots decide whether humans are robots?”. No amount of synopsis will do justice to the plot, so the only way to be fair, is to let you read the novel. What follows are short commentaries on the book’s setting, and on its social commentary.
Russia is the chosen setting on account of its sexually repressive communist past and a tradition of social experiments conducted on its masses (p. 46). This location allows the author to toy with irony, such as when he names the sex bar (built on the site of the ex-prison and KGB headquarters Lubjanka) Propaganda, or when compares the long lines of customers waiting for sex with those long lines of customers waiting to get food during communism.
Social commentary offered by the novel examines at least three currently technologically “hot” topics, giving them unexpected and thought-provoking answers: 1) AI androids created for special purposes (in this case, prostitution) may free themselves of the shackles of this ad hoc function, 2) AI androids, achieving consciousness, may use it in an unexpected way, 3) AI sex dolls may be seen as a sort of security valve, social instruments more helpful than any repressive policies to keep certain types of crime at bay.
The novel, as all great novels do, lets the readers’ imagination travel, their heart thump and their ideas generate without effort. What requires effort, though, is the real necessity to answer the questions AI technology is rife with. Literature, in this case E-Doll. Il fabbricante di sorrisi gives an unexpected answer to those which relate to AI sex: the experience of illusion and the illusion of experience. Here is hope that the English translation of this interesting novel is forthcoming.

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