Building a Sex Robot


Matt McMullen is developing a sex robot that uses technology to create the illusion of sentience. But is it enough to generate real emotions in its user?

Matt McMullen has proved that some people are willing to spend thousands on sex dolls.

Mr. McMullen, the creator of the RealDoll, says he has sold over 5,000 customizable, life-size dolls since 1996, with prices from $5,000 to $10,000. Not only can his customers decide on body type and skin, hair and eye color, but on a recent day in the company’s factory in San Marcos, Calif., a craftsman was even furnishing one doll with custom-ordered toes.

Mr. McMullen’s new project, which he is calling Realbotix, is an attempt to animate the doll. He has assembled a small team that includes engineers who have worked for Hanson Robotics, a robotics lab that produces shockingly lifelike humanoid robots.

Mr. McMullen is first focusing on developing convincing artificial intelligence, and a robotic head that can blink and open and close its mouth. He’s also working to integrate other emerging technologies, like a mobile app that acts like a virtual assistant and companion, and virtual reality headsets that can be used separately or in tandem with the physical doll.

One of the challenges that Mr. McMullen will have to contend with is the so-called uncanny valley. It is a concept first written about in 1970 by a Japanese researcher, that says people’s responses to robots will shift sharply from empathy to revulsion the more closely the robots resemble humans. In other words, something robotic that looks alive, but is not completely convincing, will creep people out.

In a paper, the researcher, Masahiro Mori, then a robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, likened the experience to encountering a prosthetic limb.

“We could be startled during a handshake by its limp boneless grip together with its texture and coldness,” he wrote. When that happens, according to Mr. Mori, “we lose our sense of affinity, and the hand becomes uncanny.”

With Realbotix, Mr. McMullen is trying to avoid that sense of uncanny by creating products that still look like dolls and not, as he says, copies of people.

Mr. McMullen says the Realbotix head, which can be attached to the existing RealDoll body, will cost around $10,000, and be commercially available in two years. The full body, which he will begin developing next, will most likely range from $30,000 to $60,000. — Emma Cott

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