Episode 21: Let’s Talk About Sex (During a Pandemic)
First Contact with Laurie Segall is a production of Dot Dot Dot Media and iHeart Radio.
Laurie Segall: When it comes to the future of intimacy there’s so much fear, I think, now around physical touch, will we see technology built specifically to replace human touch?
Bryony Cole: Yeah, Gatebox is kind of this virtual assistant, similar to Siri, or Google Home, it turns on the lights when you’re home, controls the temperature, but also sends emotional text messages, saying, “I miss you, and I can’t wait for you to get home,” and this businessman returns home and explains how, you know, it’s such a relief to come home to someone, insinuating that this technology is actually someone. So, it does enter this really grey area where technology is once sort of this thing to support us, and now is like, “Yeah, are we gonna completely just replace it?”
It’s April 2020. And much of the world’s population is now locked down in their homes to avoid spreading coronavirus. We are living in isolation. Many of us confronting this alone. And that’s because, maybe one of the hardest parts of this, is physical interaction is actually a liability.
So, what does this mean for one of humanity’s most important forms of expression – sex?
Physical intimacy is a form of communication. It’s a human need that goes beyond sexual desire, it’s about human connection. So, how can we continue to meet that desire and need for intimacy during these times?
Could there be tech that helps us combat loneliness and strengthens intimacy?
But we’ve also got to be careful. Remember, we’ve already developed these intimate relationships with our devices. And now we’re relying on them even more for human connection. Could we go too far? And where will we draw the line?
My guest, Bryony Cole, has been talking about how sexuality and technology are changing intimacy and relationships for a long time.
She’s been asking questions like could immersive technology enable you to really feel your partner even if they’re not closeby? What if Virtual Reality could teach you about consent? Could a virtual assistant become a replacement for a boyfriend or girlfriend? Sending you emotional messages throughout the day…
I know it sounds strange but let’s be honest, it’s 2020, and I’ve heard weirder. So ask yourself, what platforms will be built in this era around intimacy? Will these innovations become mainstream? Change the fabric of our society? Or what it means to be human?
So, let’s talk about sex…
I’m Laurie Segall and this is First Contact.
Laurie Segall: Bryony Cole, you are a leading voice when it comes to the future of technology and sex and, you’re the host of The Future of Sex podcast, which is super fascinating and I think everyone should listen to it. And you’re also the founder of the International Sex Tech Hackathon, which we are most certainly going to talk about. But I want to start with, like, a basic question. Uh, how are you doing?
Bryony Cole: What’s the right thing to say these days, you know?
Laurie Segall: Yeah.
Bryony Cole: I think there’s a bomb that could be let off with any, anyone saying how they’re doing in such circumstances. For me, I am waking up in Australia where things are pretty great. Um, so I don’t really have that much to complain about. If the mandate is to stay home and watch Netflix, everyone here is healthy and well on my side.
Laurie Segall: Um you know, I was interested before in, a lot of your work and talking about tech and not just, like, you know? We’ll get into what, like, sex tech is. Um, but you know, talking about the future of technology and intimacy, which I think is such an interesting topic. But I think it’s even more relevant now. Like, we’re all sitting here in self-isolation, and our means of human connection is through a computer or through a device. So technology is enabling intimacy in all these different types of ways. So I feel like your work is so interesting. It was always interesting and it’s, now it’s, like, super relevant and, that, maybe the rest of world caught up to the conversation that you were having, about sex and technology for a really long time.
Bryony Cole: Sure.
Laurie Segall: So, to start, just what is it about sex and technology that fascinates you?
Bryony Cole: Well, technology fascinates me in general just in the way it’s impacted human behavior and how much it’s changed my own life and growing up and, you know, growing up pre-internet to having internet. So I’ve always been so fascinated by the way technology sort of changes our human behavior maybe with a little bit of lag, a little bit of cultural lag in how that all intersects together. And that’s sort of my background, being at tech companies and working for governments and doing all sorts of different things always tech related, but that sort of sociology angle. And so for me, the, the biggest one that we weren’t talking about was sex. You know, sex is still so taboo and such a stigmatized um topic because it’s often relegated to this, like, dark, sleazy corner of the internet or the side of a highway or somewhere, you know, in in our minds. But in fact, you know, we all got here presumably by someone having sex. And, um, we all are sexual. You know, the way we walk in the world, the way we go about in the world is our sexuality. So I really was fascinated by the way these two, you know, forces in our life intersect. And I think you, you’re so right, Laurie, in that today we’re facing even more this sort of confronting part of technology being the gateway to connection and intimacy and what does that mean. And for me, in terms of where that’s led my work, I think what’s been really interesting is the questions I used to get before about, um, were exhaustive on the topic of, like, robots and virtual girlfriends, right? And we can talk a lot bit more about what sex tech is beyond that. But I found that people were so hung up about are we going to be replaced by, you know, virtual boyfriends and girlfriends? And what an interesting time to be living through where many people are stuck, at home and their boyfriend or girlfriend is somewhere else on the planet or even down the street right now that they can’t see. And also how much we’re realizing we need connection. Like, we actually do need human connection and it probably can’t be replaced by a robot, and physical touch and all these things that now we’re, we’re kind of, you know, realizing if we didn’t have the research before, I think now we’re, we have the, the proof that intimacy is so important and that probably can’t be replaced. But the great thing about technology is it can enhance, and solve for these needs sometimes.
Laurie Segall: And so kind of taking a step back. How do you define sex tech? Like, this is a term, uh, we throw around. And I thought it was interesting what you said about, like, when people think of like sex tech, they think like VR porn and robot sex. And, um, what your work does, which is really interesting, is it just kind of is, like, okay, there’s so much more. You know? So how do you define sex tech?
Bryony Cole: Yeah. So the, the definition I use is sex tech is any technology designed to enhance intimacy. And when I talk about sex tech in that way, what I’m really talking about is not just sex the physical act, but sexuality, so this big umbrella topic that encompasses everything that we think about when we think about sexuality; education, health, crime and violence reporting, medicine, gender identity. These are things as well as of course, intimacy and relationships, and actually having sex, that encompass the sex side of sex tech. And then on the technology side, you know all the, the sexy stuff like the robots and virtual reality, but also um, sort of the fairly mundane technology that we already use that we don’t even think is technology. That could be our hands, it could be the, you know, stone dildo that was found in a cave 35,000 years ago in Germany, which was the first discovery of a dildo. But yeah, just thinking about this in a broader sense. So when we think about technology, and how that intersects with sexuality, then we start to get some really interesting results, even if it’s just like apps or chatbots for sex education, or interesting new products for painful sex. I think we often go oh, sex is all about like, pleasure, and it’s hedonism, but sometimes there’s things like what about a STI problem globally? Or, you know, issues with painful sex, or premature ejaculation? Those issues can also benefit from interesting technologies that may be able to help solve them.
Laurie Segall: So, I’ve been covering tech for a minute, right? And we both know it’s like a predominantly male industry. It must have been interesting being you and being in the rooms. Like you worked at places like, like Microsoft, right? Like you worked in all these different places, you know, with this point of view on sex and technology, and- and kind of the future.
Bryony Cole: Yeah. I mean, I’d always had an interest in technology. I find it fascinating to be on the edge of the things, and had always sort of been that kid that was like looking at the new thing, or if people are like, “What’s the new app coming out?” They’d always be like, “Oh, Bryony’ll know that.” So that’s sort of is the common I think, theme in my work life, is always looking at future-focused things really. But underneath all of that I think, was this feeling that you know, growing up, having a fairly sort of average childhood, fantastic childhood, the average childhood in Australia, but we don’t really talk about sex um, uh, in much detail, right? You go to school, and you get somewhat of an anatomy lesson. Sex education, I think we can agree is pretty crappy everywhere in the world anyway. So I didn’t have any language to describe my sexuality, and at the same time, I had an experience where again, I think it’s fairly common for women is growing up, I remember being just so excited, I was in grade 6, so must have been 12? 11 or 12 years old, and I was going to Target with my mom um, to buy my first bra, and I was so excited. I just had this sense that something big was happening, you know when you… y- you’re a kid, so you’re not fully developed mentally, but I was physically developing, and so I was just like, this is this big occasion. And I came home, and I was just elated. I was like, “Mom and Daddy, you have to take photos of me in this bra. This is amazing”. And to their credit, they were like, “Yeah, this is great, like, let’s celebrate y- you joining the Womanhood,” you know? And I- the same thing happened when I got my period, and they cracked a bottle of champagne like, they’ve just been really positive about that. And what I noticed was that was the only positive message I got about being a woman. In fact, when I went to school, and then onto university and work, a lot of the messages were more about being small, and you know, making my voice small, but also being physically small. I always felt like I didn’t really understand, especially as a twelve-year-old, why something was a bit wrong about what was happening to me, but it always felt like I had to be smaller. So, that, that was sort of the thread I think that really led me when I found sex tech, and I thought, “Hey, I know how to talk about technology,” and sexuality has been such a silent influence in my life um, in the way I’ve you know, matured as a woman. I think this is really important, and if I could go back in time and tell that 12-year-old girl, you know, being a woman that’s going to be part of your strength, and that’s going to lead you on to all these other things, I think I would have gone a lot further in the work world, and you know, in studies and everything faster, if I’d embrace my womanhood. So I got involved in this through some research on the nightlife project, and found these guys talking about virtual reality, you know, simulations with models in hot tubs, and sort of the cliché-
Laurie Segall: You were working with Absolut, right? And you had to go around a- and you wanted to look at the future of like nightclubs, so you went and actually interviewed a bunch of different executives about it, and this is what you heard, right?
Bryony Cole: Yeah, and so I found, I guess what I tho- what I thought I would find about sex tech is I found, you know, these guys designing um, virtual reality scent releasers, and you know, when I was asked them, “What’s the craziest thing you’re working on?” They said, “Oh, we’re designing scent releasers so we can simulate being in a hot tub with three supermodels on a Saturday night.” And to me that was kind of like, “Oh man, no! No, that can’t be true.” You know, that’s every sci-fi film we’ve ever seen of like the dudes in their garage making their virtual girlfriends. Um, and it really prompted me to think about, how do I- how do I turn this research, into something else that’s much more focused in on sex, and with this- this story underneath of like, I think this is really important, like this is something I’ve been missing, which, evolved into the Future of Sex Podcast. And what I had found after the first few episodes is, there is a whole community of women working in sex tech, which I had no idea about.
Laurie Segall: Which is super interesting, right? Because if you even like look at like products, and a lot of like the sex stores, they seem seedy and dark, and this and that. And I remember interviewing a woman named Polly from Unbound like years ago, um, who was saying, “Oh, there’s like a huge market for sex toys that women actually want, and you know, and something that is created by women, that feels different, that doesn’t have the same, you know, that has like a different feel to it. So I think it seems like an opportunity to some degree.
Bryony Cole: Yeah, I think it was, and you know, I think there’s an even bigger opportunity now I think. And so since I started the podcast, I’ve noticed this growing, you know, interest and excitement with female entrepreneurs entering this space, designing something for themselves, and designing something that aesthetically looks beautiful, that can live on your bedside table, and not hidden away and shameful. And also works for their bodies. What I think is interesting now looking to the future is, I think there’s going to be a more inclusive wave, where we’re designing for all different bodies, including men, right? Because male sex toys, that’s still very taboo. But I think there’s going to be new opportunities opening up there after this sort of wave of female-led innovation.
Ok we’ve got to take a quick break to hear from our sponsors, more with my guest after the break.
Laurie Segall: I want to go um, to this moment, because this moment is so uh, specific, that you know, we’re in this moment where in many cases, it’s actually dangerous to touch each other. Like, what role will technology play in redefining intimacy in the COVID era?
Bryony Cole: Yeah, so if we think about intimacy, touch is sort of the first thing that comes to mind. It’s such a big dimension of intimacy, but I think what technology is doing today and enabling outside of touch, is these other dimensions to intimacy: emotional intimacy, intellectual intimacy, and like, shared experiences, whether that’s spiritual or like, shared connections, or doing things online. So, physical’s a really tough one unless you’re, you know, got haptic technology, or you’ve got teledildonics, which you know, I think that’s becoming increasingly interesting. And for those that have never heard of teledildonics before, teledildonics are sex toys enabled by a wifi or Bluetooth connection, so that you could um, say, have sex, whatever your definition of sex is, but use them with your partner um, wherever they are in the world. So I think that’s kind of helping with the physical touch aspect of intimacy, but really, what technology’s facilitating is conversations and connections. So emotional connections and being able to understand that, and also understand yourself, you know? Not only through Zoom calls, but through learning, right? Like Esther Perel’s doing amazing webinars at the moment. Um, there’s so many resources online that are coming to the fore now, whether that’s O.school, which is kind of like your Netflix for sex education, for adult sex education, or OMGyes, or more um sort of adult, like kennethplay.com, who has his sex hacker series. So there’s all these ways that’s opening up conversations around sex, around how you’re feeling, and also these intellectual conversations I think as well. I think people are looking for guidance, and they’re also looking for play. If they can’t do that with the person that’s in the same room, how does that happen through the internet? I think people are going to be a lot better at phone sex, and FaceTime sex out of necessity.
Laurie Segall: It’ll be interesting. You talked about like haptic technology too… like, do you think we’ll see platforms built on this moment, like people have been talking about haptic technology for a while… Because we can’t physically be with each other, and there’s going to be a lot of fear for a while, maybe until they find like a, you know, a vaccine for this, but especially for folks who are single, will we see tech companies trying out new technology more technology, more haptic technology, or that kind of thing?
Bryony Cole: Yeah, so haptic technology e- essentially is transmitting the sense of touch. And I think there’s some really interesting players that are starting to do it, that probably, as you’re saying this, I’m thinking they’re definitely speeding up their innovation and time to market to get these things out, um, whether that’s gloves that you’re putting on that will be able to transmit the sense of touch, to connected sex toys and sex toys that have that haptic technology. So I do. I think that will happen. I haven’t heard of anyone coming out yet, but we’re still very early, saying we’re going this direction. What I do know is that people are buying sex toys like they’re buying food and alcohol right now. So it’s, it’s becoming a somewhat essential item.
Laurie Segall: Well, um, it was the- the New York Health Department, their guidelines said the safest sex is sex with yourself, so I mean, it- it’s been written. And it’s interesting that you’ve talked a little bit about, is it Kissinger? Is that what it is?
Bryony Cole: Oh yeah, okay right.
Laurie Segall: I think that’s a- that’s a- it’s a good example of haptic technology for folks who don’t understand, right? Like,, I always like to go a teeny bit Black Mirror, but not too much Black Mirror, in like what could the world look like? But can you explain what Kissinger is? Is that how you even say it? Is that… right? Sorry.
Bryony Cole: Yes, good catch, good catch. The Kissinger had left my- my mind. I don’t have one, but maybe I should get one right now. Um, to like give my mom a kiss on the cheek. So the Kissinger is developed in Singapore I believe, and it um, transmits your kiss. It looks very much like, like almost like a phone charger, like a smartphone charger dock that you would… like a little cot that you would put your phone in. But instead, it’s sort of fitted with these sensors around the phone that you can kiss. It almost looks like… it doesn’t look like lips, it looks like something you’d put your lips on. And that transmits the kiss to the other person who, you know, who has the Kissinger who’s holding it up to their mouth too. So, I thought they- that it was such an interesting product in that it wasn’t also talking about intimacy, um, which I think is true now of- of intimacy between partners, but intimacy between family members, and also of course, between you know, you and a celebrity, or perhaps more like cam sites, those sorts of things where we’re already seeing teledildonics being used. It’s like, what would it mean to be able to kiss Brad Pitt?
Laurie Segall: Yeah, I mean, it’s like these technologies that we all thought were kind of weird, and a little bit strange. Um, something like this happens, and there’s a use case, right? Like, we’re using haptic technology, that feels a little far out. But then you think about the fact that maybe you have a boyfriend somewhere else a- around the world, or you have your family back in another place, and you can’t physically go be around them. I mean, it actually creates an interesting um, use case for this type of stuff. I- I think it’ll be interesting to see.
Bryony Cole: Yeah, I do. And the- the other one that’s less sexual, but is kind of cute is the heartbeat pillow where, you know, it’s- y- you have the heartbeat, you have a little bracelet on that tracks your heartbeat, and it transmits it to um, something that you can put under your pillow on the other end so you can hear you lover’s heartbeat, which kind of sounds soothing.
Laurie Segall: Wow. Yeah. I mean, especially in these times, right? You’ve talked a little bit about teenagers losing their FaceTime virginity, children accessing porn as young as something like five years old, loneliness on the rise. The journalist in me looks at this era of coronavirus and says like, all of these things that you’ve talked about could only be magnified, right? By increased usage of online activity, being home, loneliness. You know, walk us through that, like and first of all, talk to us a little bit about… you talk about teens losing their FaceTime virginity. What- what are you talking about? And then also, is this a moment? Do we need to be really careful right now that as we’ve gone all in, that you know, we don’t go too far?
Bryony Cole: Mmm. Yeah. I mean to that last bit, I just feel so strongly that people are really craving connection in a human sense now that I feel like people are getting the sense that, “Oh yeah, like we don’t want to just live on the internet after this, especially.” That’s my sense. But for FaceTime virginity, when we’re talking about that, that’s something totally… I had no idea about till six months ago, but kids talk about losing their FaceTime virginity the same way we used to talk about our first kiss, and that is really like, “Oh, who’d you, you know, lose your FaceTime virginity to?” Um, meaning, who did you have you know, FaceTime, like, sex on FaceTime, or masturbate on FaceTime with? And that seems to be a trend in anecdotally who I talked to, which are young kids about sex, and you know, how they’re using technology. The other thing I’ve noticed, because my partner is a teacher, and is doing all his classes remotely now, is that kids are really sad, that kids really miss their friends. So, I wonder if they will also realize that physical touch is actually really much more important than sex on FaceTime.
I go back to- There’s like a group of people in Japan, I don’t know if you’ve heard of them, that millions of them have like socially withdrawn. It’s called a hikikomori they live a full-on digital existence. This was all before coronavirus, and um, they’ve been linked to depression, and psychiatric conditions, and all sorts of stuff, and the cure for them is physical connection, and being around people, and, and whatnot, and, and so I worry that, we are all going, we’re going all in digitally, um, you know, do, like what do we need to keep in mind? Yeah.
Bryony Cole: I think about that too, I mean I think there’s going to be, you know, three types of people that emerge from this, the people that are just ready to get out as soon as, you know, things are lifted, and, and life sort of seems to return to being able to go outside and socialize, then there’ll be the people that are a little bit hesitant that won’t be going to the football games till everything’s good, and that delayed like that-
Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm.
Bryony Cole: … longer pause, and then as you say, will there be people where they think, “I’m not coming out of isolation, I’m thriving in isolation.”? And we think, “What? Whatever happened to Melissa, where did she go?” Which is also an interesting setting for a SciFi book, but it’s, uh, life right now and I, I think it’s so, it’s so early to, to know, um, we see a lot of stuff now, you know, on the internet saying, you know, make sure you, you know, turn off the screens, and move for 30 minutes, and all these sort of recipes for success in isolation, but the truth is I don’t think anyone really knows yet.
Laurie Segall: Right. What do you think intimacy will look like in the virtual world? You’ve done a lot of work on VR and what the future will look like, I don’t know if we’ll all have headsets by the time this is over, but, but what do you think it’ll look like?
Bryony Cole: Yeah. In the VR world, um, you know, it still feels in the sex space kind of clunky, I have so many hopes and aspirations for VR because it’s such an intimate and interactive immersive experience, when it’s great, like when you’ve done amazing things in VR it’s sort of like y- your brain’s changed and you’re just like, “I c- I can imagine all the possibilities,” and for me they came out of thinking about education, because it is such a global issue, um, such a problem, I think such an opportunity right now as well especially with parents at home being able to kind of monitor their kids somewhat, um, or understand how, how much they’re using technology, I think, “Wow! Wouldn’t it be amazing if we had VR sex education.” And I think that will come soon as it has for like other subjects like history, and science in VR-
Laurie Segall: Hmm
Bryony Cole: … why not have something like education, and because it’s so personal too, you know, going back to that version of yourself that’s 12 or 13 years old, and all these things happening to your body, being able to ask someone in the privacy of VR, but also that immersive experience, or, you know, talk to someone about STIs, and really have that, you know, practice too, you know, even, you know, we talked-
Laurie Segall: Yeah.
Bryony Cole: … previously about the sex education apps in VR that are being trialed, you know, games that allow you to go through night clubs, and practice saying no.
Laurie Segall: That’s so interesting, like what does that even look like? I, I mean, by the way, like may, everyone learn more about consent, but this idea of consent and VR is such an interesting concept.
Bryony Cole: Yeah, I think, you know, people are really trying to crack the consent code, like how do we teach something that is always ongoing, you know? Like it’s always ongoing and so, so nuanced, a- and, um, people have tried sex tech before for consent in the blockchain, I don’t know if you saw that at all, um, but it didn’t work, right? ‘Cause it’s not like you can sign a contract and you’ve got consent, but the idea of practically learning about consent by going through scenarios in VR to allow you to practice saying no, or asking for consent is actually a really great idea, and so there’s been a couple of games developed, we had one developed at the last hackathon in Melbourne, there’s a couple of years ago, there was one, um, developed in the States as well, that one was really interesting, it was geared towards college-aged women going through a night club and practicing saying no. The idea being, once you get out into the real world it’s a lot easier if you’ve practiced being in an uncomfortable situation to go there again, just like you practice for like- a job interview, um, so I thought that was really neat, and, um it’s inevitable, right? That these sort of educational practical learnings should appear in VR as soon as we all catch up, which maybe is now.
Ok we’ve got to take a quick break to hear from our sponsors, more with my guest after the break.
Laurie Segall God, I remember doing an interview with a woman, we did it in the virtual world for like in VR we did the interview about, um, she said she was sexually harassed in the virtual world, um, someone kept touching her, and it was his real voice, and she could hear him, but she couldn’t … there was no button, in the game for her to push him away, and it was such a fascinating, um, concept, and she said she had been sexually harassed in the real world, and it gave, it gave her the same feeling, because the idea of VR is it’s supposed to make you feel like it’s real, um, and then we’ll add haptics one day, and it will feel real, right? So like it was this really interesting ethical conversation around like what does even consent actually look like in the virtual world and gaming too, and, and a lot of it is, you know, these, these games weren’t necessarily built by women who will be experiencing some of this.
Bryony Cole: Yeah, it’s a, it is often an afterthought, and, um, I thought her experience was, yeah, so fascinating, and kind of mirrors what we would think about today with revenge porn, and other ways that technology’s-
Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm.
Bryony Cole: … being used to harass people, and how terrible it even feels if you’ve ever received a creepy email, or a creepy DM-
Laurie Segall: Right.
Bryony Cole: … or, dick pics, all those sorts of things are often an afterthought, or just the unintended consequence of developing …this technology, and so, yeah, an ethical committee for sex tech globally i- is that what we need?
Laurie Segall: You heard it here first. Um, I mean, especially as the world goes I think more digital, and even I think this moment will be interesting because people will be experimenting more with, with intimacy over Zoom, I mean, my God, don’t take your clothes off on Zoom, like the- there’s so many hacking issues, you know? I, I mean, things that people like don’t even think, “This could lead to a rise in revenge porn.” I don’t think people even have really thought too far ahead, so it’s just things you begin to think about when you’re looking at it through this current lens of this pandemic…
Bryony Cole: Absolutely. I think there’s a whole, there to be, to be told around safe sex virtually, you know, what does that even look like that we haven’t even touched yet.
Laurie Segall: Yeah, what does that look like? You’re, you’re my sex expert, what does safe sex in the virtual pandemic era look like? We know that they’ve said the safest sex is with yourself, but what is safe sex in the virtual pandemic-hacking world look like?
Bryony Cole: Yeah, maybe like turn off Zoom, you know, or remove… all the metadata from your sext photos, you know? The- there’s so many different things that we, the majority of us are not aware of how to sext safely, or have sex safely online, to your point about zoom, or like what, what platform is really safe. I think the safest thing is not to be on video online, but that’s not realistic, especially in this time. So it’s realizing, yeah, well if you do that maybe you wanna remove your head completely from that experience so that y- you know, you’re not doing it, maybe you’re comfortable maybe you’re using another tool, I don’t have the, the knowledge to know which is the safest one, but I actually think it’s a great idea for someone, for an entrepreneur that’s out there to think about creating a, a comprehensive education program around how to do this all safely, you know, and we have such troubles even like, uh, with online predators, with …
Laurie Segall: Yeah.
Bryony Cole: … children now as well. Sorry I-
Laurie Segall: Yeah.
Bryony Cole: … don’t have a more comprehensive answer for you.
Laurie Segall: No, I, but I thi- I think it’s interesting though, and, and even speaking of entrepreneurs, like when it comes to the future of intimacy there’s so much fear, I think, now around physical touch, will we see technology built specifically to replace human touch?
Bryony Cole: Oh, don’t break my heart.
Laurie Segall: But it could happen.
Bryony Cole: I know, I just really hope not. I saw this interesting art installation, thank goodness it wasn’t a real real product yet, um, but it’s called the end of life machine, have you seen this?
Laurie Segall: mm-mm.
Bryony Cole: So, it’s, it was developed, um, in Asia and it’s a soothing, calming robot for when your family can’t be there at the end- of your life, which in these days is so sad that that’s a reality, and the the robot strokes you, so it strokes you on the arm, or wherever y- you want to be touched, and, um, speaks to you in a calming voice and tells you it’s gonna be okay, and that your family love you, and that, you know, you’re gonna-
Laurie Segall: Ooh.
Bryony Cole: … be fine, and then, I’ll send you the video, anyone can look it up on YouTube, the end of life care machine, and then once the person has passed, all the life support equipment is turned off, and it, and then the robot tells them like, “Yeah, well they’ve gone now, and, you know, it’s done. This person is dead at this time.”
Laurie Segall: Wow…
Bryony Cole: So those sorts of things are replacing touch at a time when it, you know, is, that is such an intimate critical moment, if not the most, right? At your time of death, when you want to be comforted. Perhaps it will become more than an art project, perhaps that is something that will need to be developed.
Laurie Segall: Yeah. God, I can’t even, I mean, it just, that feels so raw right now with, um you know, one of the most visceral things about this moment is people who have loved ones who are dying and they’re not able to be there with them, the idea of dying alone without physically being around people, it’s just heartbreaking. Um I wonder, um, w- if this is a weird one, but I promise I’m gonna go somewhere with this, um …
Bryony Cole: Be weird.
Laurie Segall: You know, we’re all spending, we’re all spending more and more time at home, and we were already attached to our devices, and, and technology was already getting more human, do you worry that people will start developing relationships, with machines? Or like, or, uh, maybe like put it this, do you, do you worry that people will start developing feelings for machines?
Bryony Cole: There’s a lot of memes going around where people are, and they’re relating to it, right? You know?
Laurie Segall: Right.
Bryony Cole: Like, day, day 13 of quarantine, and they’re talking back to Siri, or you know, getting into a relationship-with machines, perhaps, you know, our tendency is to anthropomorphize things that almost look like it, and behave like humans but aren’t quite humans. I don’t worry about it right now, but, you know, talk to me in a month and maybe I will, but right now what I’m seeing is people going, “Ugh, I need so much more than, than this.” Like I’m realizing that technology is not the answer to everything, and, you know, there’s …
Laurie Segall: Yeah.
Bryony Cole: … Zoom fatigue, and hangovers using technology, and people going, “Yeah, well what else can I do?”
Laurie Segall: Well, it’s interesting I, I, we had a woman on, um, who has a company called Replika, which I don’t know if you’ve heard of, it’s like, um, they do companion bots, so like-
Bryony Cole: Hmm, hmm.
Laurie Segall: … bots on your phone that are almost like your friend, or could be a, you know, replika for a relationship if you want, um… and, you know, they have, they have many, many users and, and I was speaking to her today, and people can, you know, say anything they want to these bots, they can say, “Oh, I’m afraid, I, I love you.” The bots respond with lots of empathy, they’re trained by psychologists, and so obviously this is a very high-stress moment, and she was telling me that people used to send about 55 messages or something, per day, and now they’re sending up to 80 messages per day since coronavirus stuff, more and more people are paying for premium bot features, I just, you know, I, I, it makes me wonder if, because you’ve talked a lot about loneliness, if people will be looking, um, to technology in a way, you know, to try to fill a void. Um, I know you’ve talked about, I think, Gatebox, which was a which was an interesting example of this too.
Bryony Cole: Yeah, it sounds like people are looking for relief more than reliance after this, like, you know, one would hope, but it’s so interesting thinking we, we can chat about Gatebox too, but just thinking about the chatbots, and the relief that they’re providing in this time is so interesting, and that have been developed, I, I’m not sure if I’ve talked, or you’ve talked before about Mend, which was the chatbot for heartbreak. So I think chatbots are doing interesting things like support, and relief. In the sex tech world, outside Gatebox the other one is, Slutbot, which is the, the robot that you can sext with, so you can learn how to sext using, um, Slutbot, and she texts you back, or he texts you back depending on what you want, so-
Laurie Segall: And teaches you how to sext, is that, that’s what it does?
Bryony Cole: Yeah, which is great, ’cause like who really, you know, not a lot of people know how to sext well, I think, and like …
Laurie Segall: Right.
Bryony Cole: … it’s really fun, you know, in terms of like finding new ideas, but also like getting consent, and doing it in a really fun way. I think now we’re more and more relying on all this technology to date, and to go through those early stages of relationships, where usually we’d be able to like kiss or something, so now people, from what I’ve heard, are turning to sexting really fast . My friend’s like- “I’m getting way too many dick pics.” Uh, for … you know, having just met this guy. So Slutbot, is a chatbot that you can practice sexting with, and she’ll sext back, or you can make it a guy, and he’ll sext back, um, so I thought- that was really cool, and then, you know, Gatebox is kind of this further version down the line which leans into less sex and more like intimacy. If we think about i intimacy, yes there’s this, the physical aspect, but this emotional aspect is so interesting, and where you were talking about with Replika and that idea that can, can that be replaced, that emotional support, and Gatebox is similar to Siri, or Google Home, it’s sort of this virtual assistant, turns on the lights when you’re home, controls the temperature, but also sends emotional text messages, um, saying, “I miss you, and I can’t wait for you to get home,” and, you know, the ads if you google them for Gatebox are kind of eerie, you know, this, this businessman returns home and explains how, you know, it’s such a relief to come home to someone, insinuating that this technology is actually someone, and it’s marketed as a replacement girlfriend. So, it does enter this really grey area where technology is once sort of this thing to support us, and now is like, “Yeah, are we gonna completely just replace it?” Which goes totally against what I just originally said.
Laurie Segall: Although, in all fairness, I will say if like Alexa like, oh I don’t wanna say it too loud, she’ll hear. I forget we’re doing this from my home, like everything, uh, you know, if she, if she just made sure everything was warm all the time, and then sent me nice messages, I’d probably be like, “Oh, I’m down, I get it, you’re amazing. I love you.” If she made sure, I like, I like the heat all the way up at my apartment, so if she just kept my place warm, and said like really nice things to me over text messages, I don’t know, I c- I could-
Bryony Cole: Yeah. For, for some reason I’ve always saw that, uh, but it’s, no I’m not sure we have cases where people are marrying Gatebox, right? But it seems to me that role being fulfilled is more like, yeah, of an assistant, right? Like a virtual assistant …
Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm.
Bryony Cole: … rather than a virtual lover.
Laurie Segall: Right. I just wonder what gets lost there, right? Like, what we have to be so careful about, like …
Bryony Cole: Mm-hmm.
Laurie Segall: … you know, what gets lost when you lose human connection.
Bryony Cole: Hmm, you know, yeah. This is what we’re all finding out now.
Laurie Segall: Yeah. I mean, and, and so take me to some of the hackathons you do, because you have so much interesting innovation, um, that comes out of these, so tell us about these events that you throw, and then some of the stuff that’s come out of them.
Bryony Cole: Yeah. I think the sex tech hackathons are so interesting, because you’re not just, yeah, pulling together people from the tech world, which typically is what hackathons do, right? You know, you come together for a weekend, and you hack on a project. With the sex tech hackathons, they’re largely geared towards people that don’t have that much familiarity with technology, so we’ll see, you know, educators come, moms, designers, there’s people from all different parts of, um, professions, and backgrounds, um, students, uh, usually between the ages of like 20 years old, and 40 years old, 100 people together under the one roof, and we give them challenges associated with sexuality to solve through technology. The other interesting thing about the hackathon-
Laurie Segall: Like what kind of challenges?
Bryony Cole: Um, so how do you make sex education, more accessible for teenage boys, or how do you make condoms cool, or how do you provide more sexual expression for people living with disabilities, or disabled persons, depending on how you like to phrase that. So, issue these challenges around sexuality, and then, invite people to form teams, and, and build whatever, you know, they think is gonna be the solution. So, at the end of that you’re seeing things that may be teledildonics, maybe interesting vibrators, you know, we had a sex, uh, voice-activated vibrator for people in wheelchairs, which was really cool out of the Sydney Hackathon. Um, we’ve also done them in Singapore, New York, and we just most recently did one in February, in Melbourne. And the winning team there developed a game for kids. It was a team of mothers and also, you know, entrepreneurs, but I think the mother part was relevant because they’re all struggling with talking to their kids about sex, um, and they developed this game. And that’s sort of the great, you know, innovations that come out of this is people come because they have an interest, they’re curious, and they probably have a need already for something in their life that they’re really passionate about that they want to change, whether that’s a conversation with their kids, a relationship issue, a sexual health problem. And it’s great to see that sort of grassroots innovation when so much of the industry has been driven by you know access to capital and like the tech industry, mostly male. It’s interesting to gather a lot of non-males in a room and see what comes of it.
Laurie Segall: Yeah. So you’ve created a game. Um, talk a little bit about it and what, what’s the idea behind it.
Bryony Cole: Yeah. So we created Wheel of Foreplay really to give people a space to play which wasn’t so focused on technology but was focused on themselves. And we started this with the intention of it just being for couples and now we’re moving into it being for singles for people who are dating as well. But if you go to wheelofforeplay.com, you’ll see it. It’s basically a modern version of a spin the wheel type game that offers you different ideas and inspiration around what you might like to do with your partner. If you’re at home with your partner, um, I think everyone’s fearful of, like, is my marriage going to last through this or, like, how can we still have sex in a fun way? I really just wanted to find a fun thing to do. I think other than all of the guidance and the knowledge and the tools that are out there dealing with this emotional side of intimacy in everything that we’re going, is there a lighthearted way for us to be able to connect with one another? And that’s what Wheel of Foreplay is.
Laurie Segall: I mean, what, what do you think the future of sex tech looks like?
Bryony Cole: I think it’s, for me, whenever I ask this question to people on the podcast, the resounding answer is something similar to what I would say in that it’s a future that looks more open, more accessible, shame free, less judgment, probably non-gendered if we can go there. But that’s also encapsulates this cultural social message or conversation rather than an actual technology, you know? I think, when I think about the future, it’s not actually all to do with technology and the latest innovation. It’s actually like how are our attitudes changing, and how is technology changing out attitudes. And that’s what I hope for when I talk about the future sex is less focus on, like, this cool technology is going to change the way we have sex. But actually, like, no. Our attitudes are going to be much more open to this and sex and sexuality is going to be normalized and from there amazing things will happen.
Laurie Segall: Do you think that this pandemic will be net positive for technology and intimacy or net negative?
Bryony Cole: I’m forever an optimist. So for me, I really feel strongly that people are going to find interesting ways to adapt in their relationships and that will be a positive. Whether that results in end of some relationships that just weren’t healthy to, you know, people finding love over the internet or in unexpected relationships. For me, I think this actually a great moment for us to pause and adapt the way we think about intimacy.
Okay, guys – that’s it for this week’s show.
Now, I know these are strange times.. If you’re sitting at home and listening to this… I’dlove to hear from you. How are you doing? What do you want to hear more of? Reach out to me. You can text me at 917-540-3410 –
Throughout the crisis, we’ll be hosting Zoom town halls – on a variety of issues like mental health, love, sex, leadership, productivity… With guests I think are interesting and relevant to this moment… So follow along on our social media to join us for some human-ish contact.
I’m @LaurieSegall on Twitter and Instagram. And the show is @firstcontactpodcast on Instagram and on Twitter, we’re @firstcontactpod.
First Contact is a production of Dot Dot Dot Media, executive produced by Laurie Segall and Derek Dodge. I will say we’re being creative and executive producing this from home at the moment, this episode was produced and edited by Sabine Jansen and Jack Regan. The original theme music is by Xander Singh.
I’m sending my thoughts to each and every one of you guys and so is our whole First Contact crew. During this time I hope that everyone is staying home, staying healthy, and staying human.
First Contact is a production of Dot Dot Dot Media and iHeart Radio.