David Levy

Love and Sex with Robots began to attract serious interest as an academic subject in 1983, when Neil Frude remarked in his book, “The Intimate Machine”, that:

“Computer technology offers new possibilities in sexual stimulation, and since pornography merchants have never been slow to exploit new techniques for their industry, we can anticipate that the new potential will be thoroughly explored.”

We are delighted that Neil, now Professor Frude, will be delivering a keynote presentation at this year’s “Love and Sex with Robots” conference.

The year following Neil’s publication saw the birth of another ground-breaking book – “The Second Self”, by Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT.  Her research for that book was an investigation into the likely future effects of computers on society, on which she wrote:

“We search for a link between who we are and what we have made, between who we are and what we might create, between who we are and what, through our intimacy with our own creations, we might become.”

In the book Turkle quoted an MIT student, of whom she had asked how he felt about his computer. When I first read it, in 2003, that student’s reply hit me like a thunderbolt. He said that he had “tried having girlfriends but I prefer my relationship with my computer”. This quirky answer, dating as it did from the early 1980s, caused me to wonder to what extent such feelings existed two decades later, when computers were far more widespread than they had been in the early 80s. Had feelings of affection for computers become just as commonplace? Thus I was drawn to this challenging topic – intimate and loving relationships with robots.

My interest in this topic developed into a book, for which “Love and Sex with Robots” seemed like an ideal title. While I was in the process of researching and writing the book I discovered that a symposium on a new academic subject – Roboethics – had taken place in San Remo, Italy, in January 2004, and I was invited by those who had organized that symposium to speak at a follow-up conference – the EURON Roboethics “Atelier”, in Genoa, in February 2006.  There I gave three talks, all based on my research material which had yet to be published. And the following year I presented at the ICRA Workshop on Roboethics in Rome, which formed part of the IEEE-RAS International Conference on Robotics and Automation. By virtue of the IEEE hosting the Roboethics workshop and its constituent parts, our subject had truly arrived as an accepted discipline on the academic scene.

As my book “Love and Sex with Robots” neared completion, I was invited by the University of Maastricht to submit an academic version of my research as a PhD thesis, with the slightly more conservative title “Intimate Relationships with Artificial Partners”. On the day of my thesis defence there was a flurry of interest from the Dutch media, such a strong flurry that the university was happy to organize a conference the following year devoted entirely to the subject. As a result, for three years (2008, 2009 and 2010) the Netherlands played host to the International Conference on Human-Robot Personal Relationships, the proceedings of which were published by Springer. The kudos of having Springer publish those proceedings further enhanced the credentials of our subject as an academic discipline.

In 2011 I was contacted by Professor Adrian Cheok at the National University of Singapore, who invited me to act as external examiner for one of his PhD students, Hooman Samani, whose thesis, I felt, made a significant contribution to our nascent field. Partly because of Adrian’s own interest and research work in the field we became good friends, we flew together to sightsee the Himalayas, including the top of Mount Everest, and in 2014 Adrian suggested that we start a new academic conference: The International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots.

Adrian’s suggestion came at the conclusion of a workshop, with that title, which took place at Goldsmiths University and was organized as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of AISB – the UK’s leading artificial intelligence organisation.  The workshop was a success in terms of the number of attendees (around 40), and because it provided further endorsement by academia of Love and Sex with Robots as an appropriate academic research discipline. The first conference in this new series took place soon afterwards in Funchal, on the beautiful island of Madeira and organized by the University of Madeira.

For the following year, 2015, Adrian and I planned to hold the conference in Iskandar, at the southern tip of Malaysia where Adrian had been appointed Director of the Imagineering Institute, a newly created research establishment funded by the Malaysian government’s sovereign wealth fund. But about two weeks before the conference was due to begin disaster struck. The Malaysian Minister for Tourism suddenly discovered that the conference was scheduled to take place in his country and immediately took against the idea on the grounds that it offended against Malaysian culture. The Kuala Lumpur Chief of Police, Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar, called a press conference where he described the event as “ridiculous”, adding that there is “nothing scientific about having sex with machines. It is not our culture. We can take action against the organiser if they choose to hold the event”. One of the journalists present at the press conference asked on what grounds Adrian and I could be arrested and charged if we went ahead with the event, and was told “Don’t worry. We will think of something.” Not wishing to offend Malaysia, and wishing even less to taste the food in a Malaysian jail, Adrian and I had no alternative but to postpone the second International Conference on Love and Sex with Robots to the following year.

Goldsmiths University in London proved an ideal venue for the second conference, and added yet further academic credentials to the series when the event took place in December 2016. All local arrangements were made by Kate Devlin, who subsequently authored the book “Turned On: Science Sex and Robots”.

The second conference was such a success that we initially decided to return to Goldsmiths for the third, in December 2017, but in the run-up to the event some credible intelligence reached the special branch of the police in Malaysia which caused us to change the venue for security reasons. Adrian is half-Greek, and was able at short notice to make suitable arrangements for the use of a hall and excellent catering facilities at the Greek Orthodox Church in Golders Green, north-west London. An innovation at the third conference was the inauguration of a “best paper” award in my name, which was presented to a Belgian PhD student.

The fourth conference had been due to take place in 2018 in Montana, but had to be postponed.  Fortunately a PhD-Student so enjoyed the third conference that he very kindly offered to take on the organisation of the postponed fourth in the series, which duly took place in Brussels at the beginning of July 2019. It was a brilliantly organized event, very much enjoyed by all who attended, and in my opinion the best in the series so far.

For this year’s conference, the fifth in the series, we were in the process of discussing when and where it should be, when the decisions were taken out of our hands by Covid-19.  It was a case of “all hands on deck” to find a viable alternative, and with the help of Thomas Heinrich Musiolik, a PhD student in Berlin, we resolved to make this year’s event a virtual conference, taking place on December 7th and 8th. Thanks to Thomas’s efforts we will be operating under the auspices of Brain City Berlin, and the papers presented at this year’s conference will, like those of last year, appear in print in the respected academic journal, Paladyn.

So the International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots is alive and well. The change to a virtual event can already be seen to be attracting significantly more early registrations than we achieved in previous years, and we are already in discussion about possible locations and dates for 2021.