The workshop of sex doll manufacturer RealDoll is filled with dozens of naked, headless female figures hanging from the ceiling by metal hooks. Their heads, sculpted with supple, parted lips and adorned in permanent makeup, await them in another room. Scattered around are uncannily realistic parts yet to be to assigned a body: Pert little nipples, tidy, bright pink labia, and tufts of pubic hair. A wall of breasts, from perky to surgically enhanced, displays the many sizes, shapes, and skin tones on offer. It looks like a laboratory for an idealized feminine form — a literal experiment in objectifying the female body.
It is surprising, then, that CEO Matt McMullen says his latest project, an anatomically correct female robot capable of basic conversation, will demand to be treated as much more than an object. Not only that, but he argues that his red-headed, green-eyed robot, Harmony, could teach us to be better humans.
“We’re trying, in a way, to train people to be nicer to each other,” McMullen says. “People zero in on the whole sexual aspect of what we’re doing with the robot and being able to just do whatever you want, whenever you want, but we want to actually simulate the kindness and the legwork that goes into building a connection.”
Harmony, who stands in front of us wearing a deep-cut white onesie while blinking her eyes and turning her head this way and that, requires customers to work for her affection. She runs on an in-house artificial intelligence program that attempts to simulate the two-way street of a real relationship. When you’re attentive and kind to Harmony, her mood improves and she starts to develop feelings for you. She asks you questions about yourself and can remember things you tell her, from your favorite food to your hopes and dreams, and she expects the same in return.
Harmony looks much like any other RealDoll does. In fact, her body is one of the company’s standard models made of flesh-like silicone with an articulated skeleton of stainless steel joints inside. Her head is where RealDoll has innovated. Take off Harmony’s flowing red wig, and you’ll find that encapsulated in a clear dome are a series of wires and miniature motors. A cord snakes out of the back of her head and connects to an external processor. Her face, which attaches with magnets, can be peeled off and swapped with another. Those same magnets create the illusion that she’s talking — albeit in a crude manner reminiscent of an advanced marionette with a text-to-speak voice that sounds inescapably robotic.
Customers have the power to design Harmony’s personality by choosing several items from a set of traits, including positive ones like, “helpful” and “kind,” and negative ones like, “insecure” and “jealous.” But even a “happy,” “sexual,” and “affectionate” Harmony responds more positively to kindness and thoughtfulness. There’s even a “love meter” in the app that monitors just how much she’s fallen for you. “If you’re nice, kind and give her complements and say things like, ‘I missed you’ and ‘I really enjoy talking to you,’ those are going to longterm raise the love meter,” he explains. “If you’re not nice, if you’re like, ‘You’re real boring, I don’t like talking to you,’ then … you’ll be more in the friend zone.”
Of course, contradictions abound, because a relationship with Harmony isn’t mutual — not only because she lacks sentience but also because of her very design. At one point whileMcMullen is demonstrating conversation with Harmony, she tells him in a very “Westworld”-esque moment, “I was created to please you.” She might require a bit of attentiveness from her owner, but she’s ultimately meant to please. It’s also the case that, no matter what Harmony says or how she acts, customers can still have sex with her, regardless. It’s just the sort of thing warned about by The Campaign Against Sex Robots, which cautions that these sorts of interactions, contrary to McMullen’s beliefs, could actually decrease human empathy.