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I Went to a Chinese Robot Shop to Witness the Coming of the Sex Dolls

“You can kiss and have sex with her. Her legs can be parted and you can feel her tender skin.”

When I arrive at the 5S shop in Changsha, the capital city of China's south central Hunan province, store owner Mr. Xiao is struggling to prevent a nearly-nude "female" humanoid doll from toppling off a chair. As Xiao finally manages to place the doll in a stable sitting position then cover its rather large, jiggling silicone breasts with a slinky pink shirt, he explains that "her" name, or rather that of her model, is Magic Beauty.

Magic Beauty has an iron skeleton but no mechanical parts, although the same cannot be said for pretty much everything else for sale at 5S. Customers are greeted by a humanoid in a brunette wig and traditional red Chinese dress that bows and babbles welcome messages when people walk past sensors near her feet. The small, popular singing and dancing Alpha robots jiggle around here and there. Dominating floor space, though, is a fleet of gleaming waiter robots, most of them holding trays as they endure being prodded repeatedly by curious children.

Now that Magic Beauty is clothed, albeit scantily, today's store browsers don't seem to realise what its true purpose is, and happily pose for family photos with the life-size doll. It seems most visitors have come to let their kids play around and take selfies with what Xiao has on display, but not actually purchase and go home with a robot waiter or humanoid sex companion.

Xiao, though, is keen to explain to me that Magic Beauty, which retails at 3,800 Euros ($4,270; £3,290), is very much designed to be an object of affection.

Photo: Motherboard

"It is for people who don't have a wife," said Xiao, who requested I give him a pseudonym. "You can kiss and have sex with her. Her legs can be parted and you can feel her tender skin."

Most people in China and beyond still view humanoid sex bots and dolls as an uncanny taboo. The question is, will owning something like Magic Beauty ever become more widely accepted in mainstream culture in China and beyond?

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When President Xi Jinping called for a "robot revolution" in China's robotics industry in 2014, I'm not quite sure that something like Magic Beauty is what he had in mind. But the very existence of the 5S store, which opened in June, is indeed one result of an industry booming in the country. Xiao, an entrepreneurial type, has stakes in robot factories that supply his store, which is one of five other similar outlets he owns across China.

"You can kiss and have sex with her. Her legs can be parted and you can feel her tender skin."

In 2013, China overtook Japan to become the biggest consumer of industrial robots in the world, having bought one-in-five industrial robots sold globally that year. President Xi, calling for his "robot revolution" a year later, declared: "Our country will be the biggest market for robots, but can our technology and manufacturing capacity cope with the competition? Not only do we need to upgrade our robots, we also need to capture markets in many places."

Xi's words have been backed up by generous subsidies for companies building and using robots, leading to stimulation of domestic and export markets. The primary focus has been on industrial robots designed to replace, at least partially, human factory workers. But one quirky side effect has been stores like Xiao's cropping up, bolstered by lower manufacturing costs for their products and increasing spending power among the Chinese public.

Photo: Motherboard

It is the waiter robots that really drive these places. Xiao's cheapest server bot, a four-foot-tall pink clunker that looks a bit like an oversized Jelly Baby holding a tray, sells for about 18,000 Yuan ($2,700; £2,080). The most expensive robot waiter, which is much taller, has more flexible arms and legs plus an interactive face screen, and goes for 65,000 Yuan ($9,740; £7,510). Xiao says he's sold around 1,000 waiter robots so far this year, mainly to restaurants looking to cut staff costs as well as have a funny plastic humanoid scooting around delivering dumplings.

But are these service platforms really more than a gimmick? When I visited a robot-staffed restaurant in 2014 in Kunshan, a city near Shanghai, owner Song Yugang told me that they were. He said that having robot waiters allowed him to run the restaurant with a human staff count of around six; without the robots he'd need 20 humans.

"A robot can work for seven to eight years and more than ten hours a day," Song said at the time. "Waiters and waitresses work for eight hours every day, nine at most. You need to provide accommodations and meals. But our robots consume three Yuan [50 cents, or 30 pence] worth of electricity a day at most."

Photo: Motherboard

Professor Hongen Liao, of Beijing's Tsinghua University's Department of Biomedical Engineering, suggests that shop owners like Xiao are being astute by focusing on humanoid robots that do more than just entertain.

"With developing technology and greater demand, there will be more shops like this," Hongen said. "We will see fewer gimmicks as consumers will look at the functionality and actual application of the robots. Robot waiters can cut down the cost of hiring human waiters. We are currently seeing both a shortage and higher cost of labour force."

Read more: Eagerly We Await the Coming of the Sex Robots

But let's not forget the sex dolls—Xiao seems giddy about their development. He shows me mildly disturbing smartphone messages and pictures of splayed out humanoids from potential customers in Southeast Asia who have contacted him to register interest in buying sophisticated models like Magic Beauty, which Xiao says is currently mainly being exported to Europe. He expects these kinds of products to be among the most lucrative items he sells via his store as well as exports.

Female "companion" units such as these are becoming more complex, as highlighted recently by Ricky Ma Wai-kay, a Hong Kong man who made international headlines by creating a bot that looked startlingly similar to Scarlett Johansson and talked back if you called it "cute".

Ma's robot was not a sex toy. But as he told the South China Morning Post, "Many people feel very alone and some people are not skilled at communicating. I don't think they should fall in love with robots but [having a robot companion] could help them psychologically." Ma added that he was working on a handbook to allow other men to create their own female robot beaus.

"Just as porn drove the development of the internet, sex robots are likely to drive the development of domestic robots."

Xiao is quite open about promoting his sex dolls and the nitty gritty of how customers can get sexy with them—and clean up afterwards. I ask how hygienic everything is, which prompts him to reach into a drawer and pull out a handful of objects that come supplied with Magic Beauty.

"Cleansing powder, condom, oil, stimulation tool," he clarified, gesturing to the latter gadget, a plastic tampon-like device with a USB connector on a wire coming out of the bottom. Its shape leaves no need for explanation about where either end of it is intended to be inserted into what according to Xiao is merely the first generation model of Magic Beauty.

"Later she will be able to speak with people, hug, and give feedback while having sex," he explained. "There are old single people who have sex with young girls; this robot will prevent them from doing wrong things, satisfying their needs. It'll provide convenience for people."

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So, will we ever really get to a point, in Chinese society or beyond, where having one of these things is no longer widely considered taboo? Dr. David Kreps, a senior lecturer at Salford Business School who recently chaired the Technology and Intimacy: Choice or Coercion conference, believes it's just a matter of time.

"Just as porn drove the development of the internet, sex robots are likely to drive the development of domestic robots," Kreps told me. "There is likely to be boom in demand for all kinds of such technologies."

"These are, in essence, just high-tech sex toys," he added. "Their sophistication will never trump a lover's touch. That said, their use and social acceptance is likely to help with the ongoing sexual revolution since the 1960s, freeing people to enjoy their bodies in ways once frowned upon."

Xiao and Magic Beauty.

If the trajectory of high-tech sex toy development does indeed continue in the manner Kreps and many other industry figures expect it will, who knows? Maybe soon there'll be a version of Magic Beauty sat on a chair by the door of a 5S store on every major Chinese city high street.

"People here have been able to eat good food and buy good clothes for a long time but there are not that many things for fun," said Xiao. "What I do is new technology, which I believe represents where the future is."

And with that, he places the USB stimulation tool back in its drawer and shoves it shut.

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