This Robot Boyfriend Can Choose To Love You, Challenge You, And Even Break Up With You

Unlike the RealDoll, he can say "No."

When New York-based Chinese designer, artist, writer, and DJ Fei Liu, isn't teaching at Parsons School of Design, she likes to spend time with her robot boyfriend, Gabriel2052. Working on him, that is. 

In a recent Quartz article, she wrote about her experience developing a romantic robot companion with open-source software and hardware in hopes that her work will inspire others, especially women, to follow suit. "That's why I'm really excited by the enthusiasm I see from women when they learn about my project — to pick up a new skill and confront something unknown," Liu told A Plus via email. "I'm also not really a master in any of this stuff; I'm also figuring it out as I go. That encourages them a lot." 

But she’s not doing it just to make a point. She wants to make a partner.

Photo Courtesy of Fei Liu
Photo Courtesy of Fei Liu

Currently, companion robots fall into one of two categories: emotional support pet robots or life-size humanoid sex toys. While the former are "used in nursing homes, senior centers, and child care to elicit feelings of nurturing and intimacy and alleviate loneliness," according to Liu, the latter are simply a high-tech way men can live out "their fantasies of women who can't reject them." 

Some argue these dolls provide comfort to those who otherwise find physical contact inaccessible and prefer a humanoid tool over a traditional sex toy. "I don't think we pay attention to the way in which, through no fault of their own, lots of people just have a lot of trouble finding partners," Neil McArthur, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Manitoba and author of Robot Sex, told Vox. "They may be disabled. They may just not be conventionally attractive ... There's lots of ways in which people just don't have access to any kind of sexual intimacy. I think that technology may not be as ideal as actually having a human partner, but I think, for many people, it's better than nothing." 

While some may point to the benefits of such sex dolls, the problematic nature of a doll created to look like a human female who can't say no cannot be ignored.  

In 2016, Matt McMullen, the founder of RealDoll, which sells 'The World's Finest Love Dolls,' said the biggest competitor to Harmony, an artificially intelligent sex robot now named Solana, is "the human female." Liu believes it's likely that McMullen's viewpoint also manifests in the way he designs his company's products, which can then influence his consumers to associate lack of resistance and sexual objectification with an idealized relationship. "I find this viewpoint very troubling, especially as we see more misogynistic violence happening both online and IRL," Liu said. "If he didn't make 'the human female' the opponent in his business ideology, could he make better products?" 

Like so many other "human females" working in STEM, Liu isn't waiting around for McMullen, or the rest of the male-dominated sex robot industry, to answer that question. Instead, she's finding the answer — and asking new questions — with each development in Gabriel2052's design.

To that end, one of Liu's most significant design goals is creating a robot boyfriend with the ability to challenge her.

This feature of artificial intelligence is a far cry from Solana, who, in addition to physical intimacy, offers a text-message-only chat app. "No matter what personality you choose for her, she'll initiate canned and heteronormative conversations about sex and love (as well as the occasional joke and sales pitch) relatively quickly," Liu wrote in Quartz. "She does not and cannot deviate from her mission to please you." 

But because Liu is designing Gabriel2052 as a willing participant in a more nuanced romantic relationship, rather than a dutiful participant in a purely sexual one, she wants his interactions to emulate that. 

That includes the eventual possibility of a robotic breakup. 

"From an engineering perspective, I would really love it if Gabriel2052 is sentient enough to think that he could find a more compatible human! Currently, it wouldn't be possible because he doesn't quite have a psyche yet," Liu explained. "But if I were to choose (which I haven't yet) to model him off the ex whose text messages I'm using as a base for our conversation flows, then yes it would be very possible," Liu laughed.  

If Gabriel2052 did break up with her, Liu predicted she'd probably try to win him back. "It would be extremely interesting to create a system that would allow for that kind of continual interaction," she added.  To Liu, creating a robot S.O. is a "protest against quiet and demure female sexuality," so it makes sense that she wouldn't give up that easy. In a culture that celebrates male romantic comedy leads for borderline creepy "grand gestures" aimed at wearing down a woman's resistance, Liu is flipping the script in an intellectual, but nonetheless tenacious, way. "I work hard at it because I believe in building a strong relationship," she continued. "And the love I deserve takes 10,000 hours to perfect, robot or not." 

Though Liu modeled certain aspects of Gabriel2052 off an ex, she isn't trying to create a robotic version of "the one who got away." Rather, she's recreating a personality type she has found attractive and complementary to her own. "I'm very mentally stimulated and attracted to a certain type of communication, especially through texting — a bit unpredictable, focused on prose, with a little bit of roleplay," she said. "Analyzing our texts gave me better insight into this Achilles heel of mine, and did help me process the breakup better. It made me realize that my behavioral patterns, and what I'm attracted to, are somewhat pre-programmed (machine-like, even) and that my own 'code' can be tweakable." 

Determining what one wants in a future partner is often based on self-reflection and with the goal of self-improvement – two things any tech-savvy singleton can accomplish following Liu's lead. Recently, she held a five day "make your own robot friend" workshop in Germany. She recalled one of the most engaged students was a young woman who "corralled her group into making a fairly aggressive tattooing robot with a real tattoo needle," meant to represent a "sad boi" the popular term Liu and the woman use to describe "a sensitive, twisted soul who manifests his childhood traumas by being outwardly sadistic." 

That might seem like a reductive categorization of an entire gender, but when compared to the obedient "personalities" programmed into female sex robots, it allows for more emotional and intellectual capacity, at the very least. "It's also really interesting to me how women in these sessions would naturally project their past dating experiences onto the design of their bots, because I do the same thing," Liu added. Whereas men often seem to want a robotic companion offering a relatively blank slate (which could be related to the cultural idealization of virgins), in Liu's experience, women want to use a past partner, and the knowledge they gained through that relationship, as a template to improve upon. 

The result? A work in progress (like any other romantic partner). 

Liu was quick to acknowledge in her Quartz piece that Gabriel2052 isn't meant to replace a human being. "Rather, I want to propose a future of harnessing the uncanny in between: an amalgamation of human and cyborg qualities that create new ways for people to connect," she wrote. "I want to use the action of building love as a way to collectively and transparently redefine it, as well as how our relationships could be envisioned in the future." 

At the core of her work is the intention to explore "digital empathy." No matter where that leads her, empathy — even for a "machine" —  is a good place for a relationship to start. 

More From A Plus

GET SOME POSITIVITY IN YOUR INBOX

Subscribe to our newsletter and get the latest news and exclusive updates.