Mention sex robots in any but a mocking, tongue-in-cheek way in nowadays, and you might find yourself excluded from polite company. To most, they no doubt seem the stuff of the creepy fantasies of the socially maladjusted. Thus they are readily brushed off in the same way video games and cryptocurrencies once were. Far removed as they still are both from the popular imagination and widespread adoption, amorous automatons nevertheless provide interesting food for thought. Of particular interest are the effects they might have on romantic relationships, and by consequence, all of the other relationships that grow out of them. In a future world of on-demand companionship, made-to-order, can the birds and bees be expected to compete?

Futurama had a humorous take on this topic, offering a cautionary tale in “I Dated a Robot”. In that episode, a warning comes in the form of a video in which teenagers are admonished not to get romantically involved with robots, lest they eschew real relationships and let civilization go to pot. Of note is the fact that the teen on whom the short is based is male, and that he rebuffs completely the increasingly desperate advances of a girl who’s eye he’s caught, preferring instead to while away his days making out with his robotic girlfriend. Putting aside the resulting overthrow of Earth by alien invaders that follows, this captures perfectly a likely outcome of easy to come by canoodling, at least in the heterosexual context. This seems especially true if we accept the commonly assumed pursuer and pursuee roles for males and females, respectively. With the reward for taking the romantic initiative already on hand in unlimited supply, it becomes the girl who strives to get the boy. This, obviously, represents a subversion of the status quo between the sexes.

In these days of deconstruction and analysis of everything ad nauseam, it’s easy to see where the creators of Futurama might be held up for ridicule. Implicit in their intentionally hokey vignette was the assumption that men only want one thing. Were that need to be satisfied fully, what use would they have for women? Perhaps worse though, is that the show’s creators ran afoul of the conventional wisdom that women want that one thing just as badly as men. Why, the incensed might wonder, wasn’t the girl at home making out with her boybot rather than pursuing an undesirable, uninterested flesh lump? In answering these questions, we may arrive at yet another. Namely: Are the gender dynamics and roles in play in our current day and age natural, or imposed by society? With an army of stand-ins prepared to provide for their needs, at least, it will be interesting to see whether men or women will consider each other worth the bother.

We hold it as gospel that sex is but one aspect of romantic relationships, with companionship and other, often intangible benefits often cited as just as important. At the same time, we’re likely much closer to crafting artificial bodies that are easy on the eyes than we are gestalt personalities that can mesh with us on an emotional and intellectual level. With sex removed from the equation as an ulterior motive, but true human connection, at least in the near term, still irreplaceable, there may still be a need for genuine friendship. At last, the declaration of a platonic relationship might be me with slightly less narrowed eyes. Then again, without the social bargaining chip of sex appeal, we might just go our separate ways. When it comes to relationships, it will be interesting to see if solving for sex obviates solving for why.