How long before we cut sex out of the equation?
In the world of design, there are two ideals that must be balanced: form and function.
They rest at opposite poles of a spectrum, and a designer's vision must find a compromise between them.
At one extreme, the designer can prioritize form over function to achieve a compelling and appealing aesthetic that may be wildly ineffective in terms of their creation's intended role. At the other end of the spectrum, there is an ergonomic and effective tool devoid of flare, style, or emotion.
In the world of science fiction these extremes of design are often played with to inform how the technology and culture of an imagined future have evolved. Is the world functional and sanitized like a Federation Starship in Star Trek, extravagantly brutal like the Mad Max universe, or minimalist and hipsterfied like the world of Her?
These movies give us glimpses of possible futures, but they are rarely if ever accurate. Rather than looking for similarities or prescient predictions, it is often more interesting to see the ways reality diverges from these fictional worlds as time goes by.
Take, for instance, the killer robots from the Terminator franchise. Conceived as the terrifying, soulless enemy, that terror was prioritized above all else in their design.
Does it make sense for Skynet to model its foot soldiers after the human form—with arms and legs and a head full of teeth? If they're blending in with the humans like Arnold Schwarzenegger, sure. Otherwise, absolutely not.
The human body is designed for a wide range of biological tasks, most of which have nothing to do with murder—making that design wildly inefficient. Yet throughout the Terminator franchise infiltrators like Arnold's T-101 (which at least make sense) are vastly outnumbered by the marching legions of bare metal skeletons (which do not).
Something like the robotic "dog" in Black Mirror's "Metalhead" would be a much more sensible design for a killer robot. But when it comes to Terminator's foot soldiers, their appearance is the point.
They tap into our most fundamental fears by reminding us of our own mortality. They are emotionless killer robots that embody death—with shining skulls and glowing, blood-red eyes. Director James Cameron and his team clearly made them as frightening as they knew how.
The Sperm Extractor
And yet, reality and the preference for function over form has somehow managed to produce machines that are far more disturbing. For example, feast your eyes on the clinical Sperm extractor.
Manufactured by Jiangsu Sanwe Medical Science and Technology Center in Xuxhou, China, it's certainly not an ugly device. Available for between $5,000 and $6,000 on Chinese retail site Alibaba, it looks a bit like a cross between a Dalek and a ladies' electric razor, and the company apparently sells around 10,000 each year.
'Sperm Extractor' Machine Replicates Human Vagina for Donors | NowThis www.youtube.com
There was clearly some effort put into making the design simple and appealing — with soft curves and pink highlights working to feminize it. Nonetheless, its clean industrial design—shiny plastic, devoid of emotion or even a basic nod at the human form—becomes nauseatingly surreal when you understand what this machine truly is: a sexbot.
While said to be more efficient than the manual process, the machine doesn't perform its extraction with needles or plungers. It provides users with a lubricated "massage pipe" (which, incidentally, also has a glowing blood-red eye) that operates at an adjustable height and width, and performs a reciprocating motion with variable speed.
On top of the machine's pedestal there is a screen offering users the option of visual stimulation—although explicit sexual content is prohibited under Chinese law—along with a series of knobs that allow users to control speed and various functions such as warmth, vibration, and "twitching."
On the sides, there are handles that either make it easier to move the machine, or possibly give users something to grip when they are convulsing in ecstasy/horror.
Introduced to Chinese hospitals in 2010 — at a time when China had a shortage of willing donors — the primary function of the extractor is supposedly to allow those who are uncomfortable with the prospect of self-stimulating in a hospital environment to donate their sperm. But it is also marketed as providing "desensitization training" for individuals who struggle with a, uh...hair trigger.
Seeing the details of the machine's operation, it's hard to deny that it would provide significant desensitization. While the product listing asserts that its "massage pipe" can "simulate [the] vaginal environment," it clearly does quite a bit more than that.
Its pulsing grip and textured interior appear to be aiming for extremes of genital stimulation, and no amount of clinical branding can alter the fact that this strange, thoroughly unsexy device was built to provide pleasure.
Our Horrifying Future
What makes that so disturbing is hard to articulate. If a person with $6,000 to burn and the appropriate biological equipment wanted to have a machine on hand that would provide that kind of intense stimulation, why is that substantially different than the wide range of "personal massagers" that are available for other forms of stimulation?
I genuinely don't know the answer, but there is something about the concept of a sexbot designed to look like a sleek home appliance that suggests a horrifying science fiction future that is somehow our very real present.
It's a machine that seems to be trying to replace the humanity and passion of sexual acts with pragmatic, industrial efficiency, and it begs us to imagine a world in which the old-fashioned way of doing things is forgotten. It calls to mind the genetically modified ChickieNobs in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake—headless masses of living, growing chicken meat.
Our lives are already so divorced from anything like a state of nature. Our processed foods resemble nothing that occurs in flesh or fruit. Our homes are constructed of fake stone and our furniture is stamped with phony wood grain. And we celebrate all these advances that help us forget we're animals.
Does this machine mean that sex is next on the chopping block? Will we soon forget that we ever did anything so savage? Keep it beside your toilet to relieve yourself of your other unclean biological needs, and let it collect your gametes for safe-keeping—in case a baby ever becomes useful.
It's a machine that has somehow managed to take the sex out of sex… And I will take an army of shiny murder-skeletons over that concept any day.