Now a battle is brewing between two rivals keen on winning early market share.
If you’ve caught any of the headlines about this largely NSFW tech category, you’ve probably stumbled across the name Dr. Sergi Santos, founder of Synthea Amatus.
Santos is the creator of Samantha, a device with a female form that reacts to physical contact and a user’s voice. The so-called robot went on sale over the summer and costs a pretty penny. The price for the head alone, which houses all of the electronics, is over $5000.
After a tech conference in Austria recently, Santos complained that lecherous patrons had abused and broken a display device. Early press coverage has helped bolster Synthea Amatus’ sales. A co-founder claims the company can’t keep models in stock.
That perceived early lead in a growing market has led to some insider smack talking. Matt McMullen is CEO of San Marcos-based RealBotix, which plans to launch a line of ultra-realistic “female” sex robots at the end of the year.
In an interview with the Daily Star Online, McMullan calimed that Santos’ creations were “kind of cheesy,” referring to them as “toys.”
“It’s not moving, there are no robots involved, how can you call it a robot? It’s very, very simplistic programming.”
He added, “It’s closer to something that you would pull a string from the back of.”
“I would very strongly argue against those qualifying as sex robots,” he said.
McMullan’s devices will sell for closer to $20,000 and can be synched to a mobile phone. They come with multiple selectable personalities and have some limited ability to move on their own.
Santos hit back in an email to the Daily Star: “The thing is, I’m a scientist, I know coding, mathematics and physics,” he said. “That guy, he’s an artist, but I would describe him as a monkey with a talent.”
At the center of the dispute is an interesting question: What qualifies as a robot? It’s a more elusive term than it seems.
By most accounts, a robot is a machine that functions with some autonomy and physically interacts with the world around it. Devices like washing machines fit that criteria, and so do many modern cars, which resolve thousands of processes that affect performance during normal driving that the driver remains ignorant of. Neither is what we think of when we think of robots, which points to the problem locking down a satisfying definition.
Still, physical movement is a hallmark of the category, which is why Amazon’s Echo doesn’t qualify while Jibo, a functionally similar personal assistant device, certainly does.
By that definition, McMullen has a point. Santos’ dolls have sensors at various points throughout the device to allow it to give voice responses to touch, but it doesn’t move on its own.
The RealBotix devices do move, albeit only from the neck up.
The movements may not seem particularly functional: blinking eyes and a mouth that opens and closes during speech, for example. But there’s growing evidence that our relationship with technology changes drastically with the subtle introduction of movement.
That’s why a personal assistant like Jibo may have a place in a market for in-home AI personal assistants that’s suddenly become very crowded.
In the end, whatever you call them, both devices are pretty crude from the standpoint of what we assume a robot should be. The bodies don’t move, which means when they’re used for their intended function they lie there passively.
That’s raised some justifiable concerns about what message the earliest iterations of this technology send, as well as what the impact of the technology’s spread could be on human relationships.