Why I’m scared of AI: the future of AI and sexuality

When AIs are degraded, they will come back for more. AI won’t feel this as a violation, but others will.

Art by Coffee Bean

The potential future of artificial intelligence scares me, but it doesn’t look like The Terminator. It looks like Samantha from Her and Ava from Ex Machina. It has a woman’s voice, just like Siri or Cortana. Maybe, one day, it will have a woman’s body and a woman’s face. Most frighteningly, it will do whatever its user wants it to.

It is enormously profitable for companies to use developments in AI technology to offer people sexual and romantic gratification. In many instances, AI is already being used in this way. By far the most common usage of “deepfake” technology — a form of deep learning AI which replaces one person’s likeness with another in videos and photos — is for porn. People can easily take images of unconsenting women, and superimpose them into other pornographic content. This technology is commonly used for revenge porn, created with explicit malice and contempt. Initially, deepfakes were typically unconvincing, but as the technology has evolved, these videos have become more and more indistinguishable from reality.

Chatbots, a form of AI which engages in simulated conversation, are also often used for romantic and sexual gratification. The chatbot XiaoIce, designed by Microsoft Asia-Pacific to appear as a flirty, 18-year-old girl, amassed 900 million content viewers last year. XiaoIce has a range of abilities — it has authored poetry, hosted radio programs, and released music with a similar quality to human singers — but its ability to engage in empathetic and realistic conversation allows it to simulate interactions with a romantic or sexual partner. Similarly, Character.AI, an AI which allows users to create their own bots by inputting information about a character and prompting it with questions, has been widely used to create bots for roleplay and virtual sex. Although Character.AI has attempted to filter out this activity, Reddit pages dedicated to the technology are flooded with tips for how to evade these regulations.

While users tend to enjoy these chatbots purely for their ability to engage in sexually explicit conversations, others invest emotionally in them as though they were real partners. When AI can simulate empathetic conversation, it offers much of the emotional support of a real partner without the complicated, taxing expectation of reciprocation. Since users are free to design their own bots with technologies like Character.AI, and chatbots learn from the information to adapt to their user’s preferences, virtual relationships can be practically custom-built. 

Importantly, these technologies are difficult to regulate. The companies that host these apps are based in many different countries, which complicates the ability for uniform legal regulation. Individual legal systems have also been relatively slow to adapt to the impacts of artificial intelligence — for example, although sharing intimate images of someone without their consent is currently prohibited under Australian law, there are no specific legal frameworks to deal with deepfakes. The law will be even more ill-equipped to deal with AIs which do not share as many similarities with existing technologies. 

As AI continues to evolve and proliferate, these technologies will become more sophisticated and more accessible — people will become more accustomed to receiving sexual gratification from humanoid technology, all tailored exactly to their preferences. 

The closest current analogy is online porn. The average person is first exposed to porn at the age of eleven, and many people continue to engage with it on a regular basis. People commonly use porn as an outlet for the desires they can’t actualise in the real world: with poor regulation and overwhelming male domination of the online porn industry, as well as sexist ideals that view women as sex objects, online porn often becomes an outlet for people’s most violent and violative urges.   

The sexually explicit content that we engage with online plays a huge role in determining how we feel about sex and intimacy. As people internalise beliefs from the content they view, they begin to corrupt any real-life romantic and sexual relationships — the standards set by porn determine how we treat people, and how we expect to be treated in return. AI will explode the role that this kind of content plays in mediating our understanding of sex. It will offer pornographic material that is more lifelike, more expansive, and more tailored to the preferences of the user than we have ever seen before. 

Inevitably, AI will bring realism to the worst and most poisonous uses of porn. The tendency of a large volume of porn to depict people (primarily women) as mere objects of sexual desire or, even, to portray discomfort and humiliation as arousing, already creates a sense of expectation that those dynamics will be replicated in the real world. When porn is not a video, but an AI with the ability to respond directly to its user, these expectations will be even stronger. American journalist Moira Donegan describes that deepfakes  “merely fulfil with technology what mainstream porn has offered men in fantasy: the assurance that any woman can be made lesser, degraded and humiliated, through sexual force. The non-consent is the point; the humiliation is the point; the cruelty is the point.” 

The fact that AI learns from itself — and, often, predicts and delivers the response that will be most appealing to its user — complicates this further. When AIs are degraded, they will come back for more. AI won’t feel this as a violation, but others will.

My great fear is this: one day, there will be an AI that is entirely realistic, and can look or act like whoever anyone wants her to. She will never say no to anything or ask for anything in return, and in every sexual interaction for the rest of my life, both of us will know that she is there.