‘Damn she boutta get it.’
‘Hola guapa… my angel.’
These are the sort of comments you’d expect under any famous woman’s Instagram post… but in this case, they were made under photographs of a woman who doesn’t exist.
Lil Miquela is one of many models made entirely by AI.
She isn’t real, in terms of actual flesh and blood, but she exists on Instagram to be thirsted over, gets signed to major ad campaigns and landed in some hot water by making out with Bella Hadid, an act that was accused of ‘queerbaiting’.
Lil Miquela doesn’t exist but that doesn’t stop people from being attracted to her. Could AI-created people be the future objects of our affection?
Think of all the celebrities with fans who would say they’re deeply in love with someone they only see on screens, or the YouTubers who feel like our pals despite us never having met them.
Physical contact in those cases isn’t a necessity to attraction, affection, and obsession nor is a direct reciprocation of our longing.
So why is it different if it’s not a ‘real’ person?
It’s easy to dismiss those commenting on the pics of Lil Miquela and another digitally created model, Shudu as confused men who don’t understand that the people they’re crushing on aren’t actually people.
But that’s not the full story:
Digisexuality is a form of attraction primarily through the use of technology.
Those who identify as digisexual may be attracted to sex robots, AI, digitally created imagery or only feel arousal when engaging in sexual activity with a machine rather than a human.
Akihiko Kondo has a happy marriage with his wife, a hologram of a virtual reality popstar called Hatsune Miku. Neither the original Hatsune Miku nor the hologram are human beings and so he is in love with a concept of a person, someone who exists in terms of an idea.
He says he’s always been in love with Miku. Each morning his personalised hologram of the singer wakes him up, says goodbye when he goes to work and turns on the lights for his arrival back home.
He says he’s simply not attracted to human beings, only feeling attraction to his wife and wants recognition of digisexuality as a valid identity.
‘I believe we must consider all kinds of love and all kinds of happiness,’ he said.
‘It’s simply not right [to try to change these feelings], it’s as if you were trying to talk a gay man into dating a woman, or a lesbian into a relationship with a man.’
Akihiko’s relationship is considered unusual.
But in the future, as sex robots become more readily available, AI progresses and social attitudes shift, could having a relationship with someone who doesn’t exist be considered entirely normal?
We might already be part of the way there.
Dr Markie Twist and Dr Neil McArthur coined the ‘digisexual’ label and see technology used for pornography, sexting, and teledildonics (remote sexual devices) as the first wave of digisexuality.
‘Those who engage in first wave digisexual activities like watching online porn or online dating (for example) most likely do not consider themselves digisexuals,’ Dr Markie Twist, of the University of Wisconsin-Stout, tells Metro.co.uk.
We should now be prepared, they say, for the second wave.
The second wave describes people whose primary sexual identity comes through the use of tech.
‘Those who do and/or will engage in second wave digisexual activities like sex with robots may consider themselves a digisexual,’ Dr Twist says.
‘Their primary engagement with sex tech is the engagement with the technology itself – not as a mediator for human connection/partners.’
‘In other words, their orientation is to the technology itself not to humans.’
This means that other humans are taken out of the process.
While the focus on digisexuality is currently on sexbots, there’s potential to be explored in virtual reality and AI creations.
While sexbots’ cost makes them inaccessible to many, an AI partner could be cheaply and widely spread to anyone interested.
Rather than swiping through a dating app based on existing human beings, the future could be right-swiping through faces that are digitally created.
They swipe right too (of course they do, they’re bots), and you begin to chat.
As we mentioned, responses aren’t needed for a sexual attraction, but with AI they’re entirely possible.
Just as Siri responds to questions you ask, the technology is there to make your digital dream person have a conversation – even one that turns flirty.
Things progress and you decide to be in a committed relationship.
Sex can happen through a VR headset and immersive sex toys, allowing you to see and feel your digital partner’s ‘response’. They can appear on your Instagram at important events, comment on your photos, and send you messages and voice notes while you’re at work.
They’ll exist. Your relationship will be ‘real’. Except it will all be through tech.
The Future of Sex reports that ‘by 2024, people will be able to be anybody, with anybody, in photorealistic worlds’.
Why does that anybody have to be a real person?
There are obvious benefits to having a digital partner – they’re designed to your exact specification, they don’t get grumpy and won’t suffer emotional depletion after pondering whether you’re really the one.
They’re the perfect partner. The only thing missing is the physical intimacy of talking and touching IRL.
But does that really differ from the internet dating and long distance relationships people are currently having?
There’s the social stigma of not having a ‘real’ significant other to contend with but that could disappear as we grow to accept the greater presence of tech in our bedrooms.
Dr Neil McArthur tells Metro.co.uk that by 2050, ‘digisexuals will probably make up around 3% of the population.’
That might not sound massive but Neil believes that in the next few decades, identifying as digisexual will be regarding with the same respect as other minority sexualities, and will fight for inclusion within LGBTQ+ spaces.
‘By that time it will simply be regarded as one shade in the kaleidoscope of human sexuality that people will by that time just take for granted,’ Dr McArthur, of the University of Manitoba, says.
‘It will sit alongside other alternative sexual identities such as kink and the different forms of non-monogamy.
‘My prediction is that these sort of minority sexual identities just will not make anyone raise an eyebrow by that time.’
It won’t be an easy ride, though.
‘There will certainly be a backlash to digisexual relationships at least in the first few years following their emergence,’ Dr McArthur tells Metro.co.uk.
‘New, alternative sexual identities always face hostility, stigma and fear. And people have a tendency to panic any time sex and technology come together.’
Kathleen Richardson is a professor of ethics and the co-founder of The Campaign Against Sex Robots. She doesn’t see being digisexual as a real identity.
‘Most human beings aren’t attracted to objects,’ Prof Richardson tells us.
‘If men could have substituted women with an interest in objects, they would have.
‘Most men, even the ones who claim to be all for sex robots, are unlikely to be aroused by a rubber doll with a bit of mechanics.
‘It’s a lie that humans are in relationships with robots and AI. Digisexual is a term made up to describe men who fantasise with rubber dolls with tech.
There’s only one commercially available head that can be put on a doll’s body that costs thousands to buy.
‘The primary buyers of these are sex dolls fetishists… agalmatophilia [an attraction to statues], digiphilia is probably a better description of what might develop.’
The price of sex tech being an exclusionary factor is unlikely to be the case for long, particularly if purely digital, not physical, AI become more widely available.
But there’s already a larger conversation taking place about the inclusion of kink and fetishes as sexual identities – could that conversation include emerging digisexuality too?
‘People are constantly convincing themselves, for reasons I don’t understand, that the sexual identities of a small minority of people are somehow going to have a massive social impact,’ Dr McArthur says
‘People honestly thought as recently as a few decades ago that if homosexuality was legalised the human race’s ability to reproduce itself would be threatened.
‘People already worry that our relationships to technology are undermining our ability to have healthy relationships. And we have seen cases where this does happen.
‘But any behaviour – shopping, eating chocolate – can become problematic if the person starts to experience it as beyond her control.
‘People who identify as digisexuals and who don’t see their relationship as problematic shouldn’t be pathologised. And most people are not going to give up human relationships. The race will survive.’
Drs Twist and McArthur say we don’t need to panic about rigid lines drawn between digisexuals and those who prefer a human touch.
‘Some people are worried about people not having sex with humans and only having sex through masturbation via porn or virtual reality, but if a person is not in a relationship with a human than who is this hurting?,’ Dr Twist says.
‘If they enjoy these activities then okay – they can’t get anyone pregnant or get pregnant, can’t really spread sexually transmitted infections, can’t be raped [by a digital partner], etc.
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‘If they are in a relationship with another person or people – then it is up to the people in the relationship to discuss and contract with digisexual involvement makes sense to them and their relationship. Because the technology is constantly growing and changing this will most likely have to be a conversation that is revisited across the lifespan of the relationship/s.
‘When vibrators first came on the market people were worried that women would stop having sex with men and that hasn’t happened. It’s a little like this in that the fears and concerns – what I call digisexual phobia – are a combination of technophobia and erotocentrism.’
With sexuality being seen by young people increasingly as a spectrum rather than one thing or another, the things described as digisexuality could just be one part of someone’s experience:
‘Many people, maybe most people, are a bit kinky,’ Dr McArthur says.
‘They do kinky things when they are in the mood. But then there are people, a relatively small number, who identify as kinky as their sexual identity, and cannot imagine their sexuality apart from being kinky.
‘Similarly, nearly everyone will experiment with second wave sexual technologies and incorporate them into their sex lives. A small number will use them as a source of identity.’
Most of us have experience with first wave digisexuality – four of the most popular 30 websites in the world are pornography sites – but second wave digisexuality is beginning to happen, even if it may be on a small scale.
So what happens next?
A lot of that will come down to the big questions: what makes someone ‘real’? If something looks, talks, and acts like a human, what is it that prohibits it from being treated as a human?
‘Lil Miquela is really interesting because she is a celebrity who isn’t real,’ Dr McArthur says.
‘But she is for most purposes just as real as most of the celebrities people follow on social media, in that the followers will never meet or interact with the real person anyway.
‘I am not sure why we would see it as more weird to be attracted to her than it would to be attracted to Taylor Swift or Beyoncé.
‘People are drawn to this idea of perfection they know is impossible.
‘These relationships can be very safe and predictable.
‘Real life is messy and we should accept that. But you know what, most of us have lots of real, messy relationships in our lives already.
‘Who could blame someone if they wanted one relationship in their life that was a little bit easier or more relaxing to deal with?
‘Some people will come to prefer these digital interactions to relationships with real people. These are the things we know for certain.
‘These technologies may very well help make our old ideas of gender and sexuality obsolete. I think that’s exciting.’
The Future Of Everything
This piece is part of Metro.co.uk’s series The Future Of Everything.
From OBEs to CEOs, professors to futurologists, economists to social theorists, politicians to multi-award winning academics, we think we’ve got the future covered, away from the doom mongering or easy Minority Report references.
Every weekday, we’re explaining what’s likely (or not likely) to happen.
Talk to us using the hashtag #futureofeverything If you think you can predict the future better than we can or you think there’s something we should cover we might have missed, get in touch: [email protected] or [email protected]
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