I learned a new term. Sex-tech or sextech. Sex-tech is a technology market category that’s growing explosively with the mainstreaming of artificial intelligence. And yet, the Surgeon General is warning us that loneliness is epidemic and doing measurable social harm. So, two parallel tracks, explosive growth in sex-tech and explosive growth in loneliness. Is there a connection? I think so. My intuition is that we have an intimacy problem.
There are lots of examples of people being intimate with technology instead of being intimate with other people. Yes, sex toys. But also, digital romances between people and software. A person sits at their computer, subscribes to a service, designs their ideal romantic partner, who appears as an animated person, and then they chat. The software learns the human’s preferences for conversation and records the history of the relationship to inform future interactions, until a rapport between the human and the digital doll is established and the human begins to interact with the digital doll as though it’s a lover. One of the most popular digital doll services is called Replika. This is synthetic intimacy. It’s big business. Millions of people are doing it. So, no shame. But why is it easier to find synthetic companionship than to find available humans at a time when loneliness is rampant?
What is it that keeps us apart? What story are we telling ourselves that encourages our isolation? It’s an all-ages problem. We have young men who consider themselves involuntarily celibate. We have young women who are suicidal with self-loathing. People aren’t getting married and having babies like they used to. Divorce is up. Fertility is down. Men are worried about a lack of testosterone. Women are suffering a lack of estrogen. No one seems to like being in their own body. Elders are aging home alone. Some women are living their whole lives without an orgasm. And many men are living their whole lives feeling unloved.
Are we lonely souls with impossible standards for the sort of person we would accept in a romantic relationship? Has our entertainment warped our sense of what’s real? Has gender trash-talking made us hyper critical? Has porn distorted our understanding of anatomy with fake scenes and fake bodies? Has the proliferation of artificial scents confused our pheromones? Have our pharmaceuticals sabotaged our libidos? These are some monstrous social trends. Our intimacy problem seems to be embedded in our way of life.
Now enabled by artificial intelligence, human-like technology is going to bombard us with relationship solutions. Sex-tech. But is that really what we need? Is one more chip-driven gadget going to suddenly restore our self-confidence, our body image, our libido, and our sexual satisfaction? Isn’t our infatuation with technology what got us here in the first place? Remember Faith Popcorn and the term “cocooning”? In the 1980s, she warned us about staying home in our “shell of safety” and snuggling up with our technology, which at the time was cable TV, VCRs, and CDs. Yes, our intimacy problem started before most people knew how to use a personal computer. But it’s peaking.
Economists are saying sex-tech will be a $53 billion industry by 2026, encompassing internet-connected sex toys, virtual reality sexual experiences, chatbots, digital dolls, and sex robots. It sounds like so much fun, and I’m sure the scandals will be hilarious. But what about skin? Holding hands? Kissing? The scent of a human? Touch? We are biological beings. These inventions coming at us from all directions are parasites. They don’t exist without us. They consume us. They record the human experience and feed it back to us, but without the body heat, without authenticity, without the biological entanglement we were designed for. We’re at the beginning of a sex-tech tsunami powered by our need for intimacy, when the most groundbreaking solution to our loneliness may be as simple as a warm, thoughtful human hug.