2018 / 14 January

With VR and Neurotech, the Future of Sex May Be Just as Disturbing as the Present


I don’t watch fiction, and I don’t read fiction, almost as a rule.

While I respect it as a medium, and consider it valuable in fleshing out future scenarios that humanity should consider (which David Brin referred to as “finding quicksand” in an interview I conducted with him in early 2015), I generally find history more edifying, philosophy more valuable intellectually (from Bacon to Bostrom, there’s no shortage of ideas to consider no the future of sentience and intelligence), and business more pressing. I spent my middle and high school years mired in movies and video games, and in part, my distain for that past life (and eagerness to make the most of the one I have now) keeps me from burning a few hours watching fiction.

But I’ve had friends keep telling me that I should watch the Netflix original series Black Mirror.

I’ve had some of my closest friends – friends who know me and know that I hate wasting time more than anything in the world – tell me that I outright need to watch Black Mirror.

This weekend I relented, and I watched the episode titled The Entire History of You – about a future when people have an implanted neural chip (referred to as a “grain” for it’s tiny rice grain size) that constantly records their memories – allowing them to be played back at any time – either on a TV-live screen, or in the user’s own mind.

About half way into the episode there’s a scene where the couple is having sex… but really they’re watching memories of themselves (or other people, it’s not clear) having. In physical reality, they’re just spooning lightly and in their virtual experience (apparently projected into the inside of their retinas), they are watching wild and passionate sex, vicariously experiencing fond or ideal memories.

The only YouTube video that I could find of the scene is from a YouTuber’s analysis of the episode, so I’ve embedded the video at the point where this “sex” scene comes on. No worries, there is no actual nudity shown, and the clip itself is all of 45 second long:

The YouTuber aptly states – and I concur – that this is the most tragic part of the episode. It’s stomach-churning.

My emotional response was the same as the directors probably intended:

I felt sick.

I felt sorry for them.

I felt that it was depraved, dishonest… and such a cold way to treat each other.

I felt also a sense of fear that this may be what the future holds – and that I might live to experience a world like that. Like I might lose real experience with people I care about. Not just sex, but something other than now. That – if we had access to them instantly – reliving a more ideal moment might almost always be more compelling than the present. That new times with friends, with my wife, with anyone – could just be overrun by something better that I could access just by thinking of it.

I also felt something that the directors may not have intended at all:

I felt that maybe my revulsion may be arbitrary.

I felt that maybe my grandmother (now dead for nearly 10 years) would look at today’s world of dating with a similar revulsion. I reflect on a few mainstays of sex and dating today:

  • Tinder “swiping” on a palm device, with the mutual goal of “hooking up”
  • Ubiquitous sex before marriage
  • Massive prevalence of divorce, and absence of religious significance to marriage (she was a Catholic)
  • Letting a computer “match” people based on someone else’ definition of “compatibility” on Match.com / etc
  • Social acceptance of sodomy, bisexuality, or even marriage in a Catholic church to two people of the same sex
  • Ubiquitous pornography of every conceivable nature (VR pornography, no less)

Though I’ve never used Tinder or Match.com (and was fortunate enough to meet my wife by walking up to her cold at a Starbucks), and though I have no VR headset, all of the aforementioned bullet points seem like perfectly normal mainstays of millennial sex lives. None of it makes me feel like the world is coming to an end. In fact, maybe it feels naturally freeing and maybe even objectively “better” than sex and relationship life in my grandmother’s day. She was in her teens before 1930.

To my grandmother, I am near certain these would be tear-jerking realities to accept, a clear sign of the world going to hell. She’d pity young people today, she’d feel sorry for them, and she might even be a bit angry that they’d let life come to such a depraved state. She’d feel much the same way almost any millennial would feel watching this sex scene from “A Whole History of You.”

The future may yield all kinds of changes to the present state of relationships and sex. The following all seem at least theoretically possible within our lifetimes:

  • Some couples may choose optimized VR experiences for their sex lives, leaving relationships solely for intellectual connection, companionship, and more modest forms of affection
  • Some people may choose to forego romantic relationships (or maybe even friendship) in real life – choosing instead to enjoy programmatically generated AI “personas” built to their liking (the perfect friend, the perfect mentor, the perfect religious leader, the perfect lover… all calibrated to cater directly to the needs of the user)
  • Polygamy via virtual partners (who we never meet in person) may become normal, and viewed as a relief from what is seen as the primitive “bondage” of marriage
  • Some people may choose to remove their sex drive entirely with a brain procedure that might either muffle the sexual urge, or overtly channel its energy elsewhere

None of these possibilities seem remotely viable in the next 5 years, but I believe that within 25-40 years many of them will be viable.

Were I forced to guess, I would suspect that most people living through these changes would see them as completely normal, maybe outright desirable (or at minimum, worthy of being tolerated as a personal choice), the same way that millennials see Tinder, VR pornography, and homosexual marriage today. Liberating, progressive, freeing, positive. Surely they could be seen as hellish (and just writing them, I can’t help but feel that they’d be inevitably tragic) – but so could the state of today’s norms for sex and relationships when seen in light of the standards of 50 or 60 years ago.

Already we see young people in Japan deliberately abstaining from relationships and sex in exchange for video games and other kinds of gratification – with over 40% of Japanese millennials claiming never to have had sex at all. Already, Europe’s population would be decreasing if it wasn’t for immigration, and this may be a perfectly normal first world “phase.” The way we relate will likely change – for better or for worse – and sex will evolve with it.

The future of romantic relationships will alter with time, technologies, new social norms, and possible alterations to our bodies and (much more importantly) our brains. Love in real world may, frankly, just not be as compelling, interesting, fulfilling, or rewarding as other kinds of VR experiences in the future. From my present vantage point it seems to be something to stave off, but when I step back, I’m not sure how much more disgusting it would be than the present.

My fingers are crossed that these changes are gradual enough for us to adjust as the technologies become available.

All in all I may actually end up watching other episodes of Black Mirror.