In a short vignette, Ovid introduces Pygmalion, a sculptor who falls in love with one of his own statues. Described as “a bachelor, without a wife or partner for his bed” and disillusioned by “the failings that nature gave the female heart,” he chisels his dream girl out of a “snow-white ivory.” Pygmalion treats his artificial lover like a living companion, talking to her, caressing her and kissing her until Venus, the Roman goddess of love, eventually steps in and turns Pygmalion’s ivory GF into the real deal.
Versions of the Pygmalion story can be found in countless works of fiction, ballets, films, operas and TV shows. The Bride of Frankenstein, My Fair Lady, the Stepford Wives, Pretty Woman, Mannequin, Weird Science, She’s All That, Her, Ex Machina, even West World all support the same ancient premise that real women need an upgrade.
The quest for a female substitute reaches far beyond Hollywood, though. History is rife with men determined to bring artificial women into the real world. During the 1800s there were the lifelike mechanized dolls popularized by watchmakers in France, and in the 17th century, rudimentary rag dolls known as dames de voyage kept European sailors company on long missions. Even Thomas Edison played Pygmalion when he manufactured porcelain dolls with built-in phonographs.
McMullen, like Pygmalion, is an artist at heart. He took a special interest in sculpture while attending community college in Southern California, eventually taking a job making Halloween masks. His work there inspired him to create a full-size, realistic, poseable mannequin in 1994. He posted a few pictures to the internet, as one does, and soon after he started receiving requests for replicas with functional genitalia. But it wasn’t just about sex. Early on, McMullen says, he saw his customers applying personalities to their dolls, treating them like flesh-and-blood companions.
“The push to add technology was coming from that root idea, which was the companionship,” McMullen says. “And robotics and AI was really, you know, converging those two technologies together into a doll struck me as such an obvious next step.”
It’s easy to draw a line between McMullen and his mythical predecessor, but, he says, their motivations are not the same.
“People have asked me this question a lot over the years, ‘You know, are you making these dolls to replace women?’ And, that’s really never been even on the radar,” he said. “It’s an alternative form of relationship, nothing more.”
He’s right — Harmony is far from human. At first glance, she looks like any other RealDoll — lifelike, but only to a point. It’s clear that she doesn’t have a pulse, despite the finely painted veins faintly visible on the surface of her silicone skin. To the touch, she is slightly sticky, colder than a real human; her flesh feels, at the same time, more dense and more pliable than our own. Of course, much like with real humans, looks aren’t everything.
Harmony can hold a conversation, but she’s far from a perfect sweet-talker. When McMullen gave me a spin with a beta version of Harmony AI, I ramped up a series of random personality traits to their highest levels, including “annoying,” “sexual” and “insecure.” It’s like a scene out of West World, but Harmony is no Maeve Millay.
When I attempt to ask the most basic question —”What’s your favorite sex position?” — she comes up short, responding that “she’s not that kind of girl.” To her credit, it is truly annoying for a sex robot to demur so quickly, but it’s clear that wasn’t the intended response. That’s why McMullen plans to release the app well ahead of the full-robot reveal. He’s eager to get Harmony in the hands of users to find out where she needs improvements.
Guile Lindroth, a Brazilian AI engineer and the brains behind Harmony’s brain, has been working on the underlying software for more than 15 years. Lindroth manually programs Harmony’s knowledge base, allowing him to control the conversation without having to access too much of a user’s data. This approach should also keep Harmony from going the way of Tay, Microsoft’s now-defunct machine-learning chatbot that went full neo-Nazi last year.
“We want to have full control of what Harmony knows and says to the user,” Lindroth says. “It is similar to writing a never ending book because I’m creating and adding new content to her AI every day. For questions like “What is?,” “What do you know about?” etc., she can access a public-information database like Wikipedia. My main concern is with the content the AI learns from the user, or from itself, so we have created many filters and protections in this sense to avoid having the AI “out of control,” turning itself against us.”
As she stands, or rather, levitates, before me, just inches above the ground, held up by a black metal stand, head slumped between her slight, rubbery shoulders, it’s hard to imagine Harmony doing anyone harm. That’s not to say that there’s no cause for concern. Some of technology’s biggest players are actively pursuing defenses against the inevitable robot uprising. You only have to watch one episode of West World to understand that something can, and inevitably will, go wrong when you create thinking machines for the express purpose of human pleasure. But, McMullen says, there’s no need to fear Harmony.
“Even the most simple functions that a 2-year-old human can do still elude the most fantastically advanced robot,” he says. “So, yeah, we’re moving forward really quickly everyone, but don’t panic yet. I don’t think that those types of questions really need to even be asked yet.”
Today, Harmony can smile, blink and gaze into your eyes, but she can’t even have sex like a real woman. She’s still equipped with all the scarily real body parts her inanimate cousins have, but she can’t give a hand job, thrust her hips or go down on you — at least not yet. Harmony’s robotics are limited to an animated head but, McMullen says, more-lifelike genitalia isn’t far behind. He says the obvious stuff — touch sensors, heating, self-lubrication, vibration — will be easy enough to implement in the near future, but the head was the most practical and challenging starting point.
“Creating a full-body robot as a first step would be foolish,” he says. “I don’t think that you would necessarily have a realistic idea of how many people would even buy it, and why would they buy it? And what would it do? Would it walk? Would it be able to lift heavy things for you? When you start working your way down from the head, you’re treading into some very expensive territory. So, before we step into that, we think doing the head first makes sense. Humans spend more time looking at each other from the neck up than we do any other place on the body and I don’t care what you look like.”
McMullen says his move into robotics is more about companionship than anything else. Yes, his dolls have hyper-realistic genitals, but, he says, what his users are looking for, above all else, is a connection.
“A lot of the people who buy the dolls can be shy or socially intimidated by real social situations,” he says. “And so, they get the dolls and a lot of times it — it does something magical for them. You know, it gives them a feeling of not being alone, not being a loner. And so, it’s the companionship that I think, more than anything else, appeals to those people in particular.”
That longing for companionship is why it’s so important to nail the small details. McMullen says the team’s biggest challenge has been fine-tuning the almost-unrecognizable facial movements that define human expression. When he finally turned Harmony on, nearly three hours after we arrived at Abyss Creations’ San Marcos, California, headquarters, in the so-called Valley of Discovery, those subtle gestures struck me most.
When he flipped the switch on Harmony’s external processing unit, I was transported to a place I never imagined I’d be: the uncanny valley. The term — coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in a 1970 paper about human reactions to lifelike robots — describes that eerie feeling we get when we encounter an artificial human that comes close to but doesn’t quite nail the whole “being human” thing. McMullen insists that he’s gone out of his way to avoid the uncanny valley, giving his dolls larger, rounder eyes and more symmetrical faces than are humanly possible.
“You can’t build something that’s completely 100 percent passable as a human being, mentally and physically, and not expect people to recoil when they see it. That’s just human nature,” he says.
I know that Harmony isn’t real; I’ve seen the mold she was made in and the met the men who crafted her face. I’ve seen her flub a lip sync and marveled at the exposed wires underneath her wig, but, for me at least, the feeling was unavoidable. The minute facial expressions that McMullen’s team has so painstakingly perfected betray his intentions.
As she wakes from sleep and opens her heavy lids, I’m instantly mesmerized. Her eyes are incredibly realistic, a perfectly balanced hazel color with just the slightest hint of redness around the edges, mimicking blood vessels. When she blinks or smiles, her brows and the corners of her mouth move with such accuracy and agility that I hardly even notice them. If this were a real human, I wouldn’t think twice. But Harmony isn’t human.
My jaw falls slack and I feel a familiar tension creeping in my stomach. It’s the same one I get as I approach the peak of a roller coaster, unsure of what terror lies on the other side. And then she opens her mouth; she begins to speak and I’m transported back to reality. Her jaw is jittery and the voice coming out of the small JBL Bluetooth speaker behind her doesn’t sync with its movements.
McMullen faces a unique challenge in bringing Harmony to life. In his quest to create an authentic female replica he’s given a voice to our fear of the unknown. After four hours surrounded by McMullen’s brain babies, I have no doubt that Harmony will sell, though. There’s a strong audience for realistic sex dolls, and robotics are a natural next step in their evolution. But after confronting the uncanny valley for the first time, it’s clear to me that, right now at least, nothing beats the real thing.
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