February 27, 2023 - 10:42am

Would you ‘kiss’ your partner remotely with a set of robotic lips? This is the promise of a new invention from robotics researchers at a Chinese university that claims to transmit a kiss over the internet to your long-distance lover. 

The device consists of two paired sets of rubber lips, backed by sensors and animatronic motors. It then transmits the pressure of lips from one device to the other, while the sense of your partner being close up is conveyed by their image on a camera. Is this really about presence, though, or the opposite?

The mind shudders at the thought of the technical challenge of an animatronic tongue. But people have been hailing the arrival of ‘teledildonics’ for 30 years now, since a breathless article by David Rothschild in 1993 that imagined a time when “your sex life could be shut off for failure to pay your electric bill”. Since then, web-enabled sex toys have intermittently hit the headlines. As yet, though, most people prefer doing things the old-fashioned way — in no small part because physical intimacy with another person is more or less by definition a full-spectrum tactile experience.

Kissing is almost the only context where someone can be physically ‘all up in your face’, as the saying goes, without being frightening or threatening. The whole point is the proximity. But perhaps this product is not aimed at people who long for human presence, so much as those who recoil from it. Reportedly, the device is selling at a rate of around 100 a week, suggesting at least some people find it appealing. And since the pandemic, this group is on the rise. 

Liberal anthropology has long contained as a core premise the assumption that it is good and right to treat separateness, not connection, as the default social condition. For many, the profound fear engendered by the virus normalised this — indeed, forced it on us, as in the full-body condoms some made out of shower curtains so they could hug their loved ones. 

For some, this has irreparably tainted interpersonal contact with the kind of ‘yuck’ response normally experienced in close contact with something noxious. And, in the process, it has crystallised already emerging ‘digisexual’ identities and practices: that is, using technology as part of sexual intimacy — for example via sexting — and even using technology as a replacement for intimacy with another human. 

At least some are already embracing virtual-first modes of sexuality, whether by desire or necessity, as attested by the wails of distress that erupted recently when the Replika app removed the sex chat feature from its AI ‘companion’. And perhaps this is inexorable: one implication of Virilio’s observation is that separating sex from interpersonal contact altogether really is just the logical endpoint of the condom. 

And it’s bleakly ironic in this context that Chinese researchers are producing “telesexuality” devices even as the Chinese government introduces ever more desperate policy interventions to lure couples into having more children. It’s possible that none of us has thought through the contradictions and long-term implications of the devices that promised to free us.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.