Beyond sex robots: the real sex tech revolution

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Goldsmiths press office Pete Wilton interviewed Dr Kate Devlin ahead of Sex Tech Hack II, where experts gather at Goldsmiths to discuss and make new kinds of intimate technology.


Sex robots are all over the news but is the technology as advanced as some suggest or could the real sex tech revolution look very different? This Friday (24 November 2017) Sex Tech Hack II will see experts gather at Goldsmiths, University of London to discuss and make new kinds of intimate technology.

Ahead of the event I talked to Dr Kate Devlin, Senior Lecturer in Computing at Goldsmiths, who is researching a new book about sex robots and was recently named on the Evening Standard’s Progress 1000 list, about how to separate scientific reality from electric wet dreams…

Pete Wilton: What myths about ‘sex robots’ need debunking?

Kate Devlin: That they exist. They don’t really, despite the flurry of media stories. There are mechanised sex dolls with some chatbot AI, but that’s about it. But they are being developed, and they currently extend the sex doll market, rather than looking at new or innovative forms. Like much technology, it’s very hetereonormative: these tend to be dolls made by men, for men. The hypersexualised female form is presented as the default.

PW: Which sex tech developments should we be most concerned or hopeful about?

KD: Sex tech has great potential to bring people happiness, whether it’s by enhancing pleasure and fun or providing a sex life for someone who – for psychological or physiological reasons – might face difficulties otherwise. It’s an industry estimated at around $30 billion worldwide and climbing.

New technologies can forge new forms of intimacy. Smart toys can be connected via the Internet, helping long distance relationships, for example, or changing the landscape of sex work, such as the cam industry. That said, there are areas that need close attention: security and privacy issues are key. The past year has seen at least three security and privacy vulnerabilities in smart sex toys.

PW: What are the major challenges to advancing this area of technology?

KD: Funding is problematic: in industry, venture capitalists don’t tend to fund sex tech as they have vice clauses that prohibit them from investing in adult ventures. Start-ups are reliant on angel investors.

Academia doesn’t fare much better: it seems that the best way of funding research into sex is to spin it from a health point of view. There’s also an attitude that research into sex and intimacy is trivial, which seems odd as for many people it’s such an intrinsic part of being human.

PW: How can initiatives like ADA-AI help to change the Artificial Intelligence agenda?

KD: ADA-AI is a new international non-profit organisation focused on evaluating, developing and lobbying around AI policy and regulation. I am one of 25 advisors and we look at how to ensure AI can contribute positively to society, especially for marginalised and underrepresented groups.

The current threat of AI is not superintelligence and a robot takeover; instead, it’s the unconscious bias in datasets and the lack of diversity being perpetuated and reinforced by systems that are now integrated into our lives.

PW: What do you hope will result from Sex Tech Hack II?

KD: Last year’s Sex Tech Hack was a great success and 50 people made 14 wonderful new examples of intimate technology. This year we have more people attending, plus a discussion day on Friday 24 November, with industry and academic experts giving talks and leading break-out sessions.

Hacksmiths, the SU tech society, have done an amazing job bringing it all together. We’ve ended up with an incredibly diverse group of attendees all set to make accessible, fair, fun prototypes. This year’s challenges are: “intimacy”, “accessibility”, and “personalisation”.

PW: How is work on your upcoming book going? What topics will it cover?

KD: The book (Turned On: The Science of the Sex Robot) continues and the deadline approaches – I wish I could say I’m as close to finishing as I should be! It’s a popular science book about sex robots – the origins of the narratives, which go right back to Greek myth, through to the sci-fi portrayals in films today. I’m writing about artificial intelligence, robotics, attachment, love, ethics and law. Send me your bad puns.


First published in Goldsmiths News, 21 November 2017

Mick Grierson becomes a professor

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Goldsmiths academic Mick Grierson has recently been honoured with a professorship in the Department of Computing. Here’s what he said…


Goldsmiths’ commitment to interdisciplinarity has made it the perfect place for me to develop as an academic. In the late 1990s, my obsession with experimental film and video led me to undertake a PhD across two departments, analysing and producing work through computation, in an attempt to progress the sci-art fusion that inspired the earliest computer art.

The idea of programming computers to analyse and create art was considered unfashionable by many at the time. But thanks to academics such as Janis Jefferies, Robert Zimmer, Michael Casey and later, Mark d’Inverno, this wasn’t the case at Goldsmiths. So I came.

I joined Goldsmiths from Kent University’s Film Studies Department in 2006, bringing with me an interdisciplinary AHRC Creative Fellowship in interactive filmmaking, computation and cognitive science. Although I was originally in Music, I soon found myself taking a permanent job in the relatively embryonic Computing department, as the director of the newly launched Creative Computing BSc programme.

Over the past decade, it’s been immensely satisfying to see the department develop into one that is as successful as it is interdisciplinary. I’ve been fortunate to be able to continue my funded research in Creative Technologies throughout this period, whilst helping to launch and maintain a number of academic programmes, including Creative Computing, MA/MFA in Computational Arts, Music Computing (with the Music Department), Digital Arts Computing (with the Art Department), and the PhD in Arts and Computational Technology.

Goldsmiths is now one of the UK’s leading institutions for creative code, attracting the finest academics in the field, whilst producing world-renowned research in interaction, creativity and machine learning. I’d like to think I’ve played a part in that transformation, and hope I can continue to do so.​

Mick Grierson and Matthew Yee-King ask how computer science can benefit from art school approaches to learning.

Mick Grierson’s website


This article was first published on the Goldsmiths staff intranet.

What do @goldcomputing academics do when they’re not teaching?

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When they are not teaching or marking, it’s easy to imagine that our academics just sit quietly in low-power mode, like the A.I. child in Stephen Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence.

But apparently they do something called research.

To investigate this phenomena, we invite you to join us every Wednesday afternoon, when one Goldsmiths Computing academic will talk about the stuff they are researching.


3pm-4pm Wednesday 11 October / LG02, Professor Stuart Hall Building
Dr Sarah Wiseman: The world’s tiniest, most important design problem
Sarah is a lecturer whose research focuses on Human Computer Interaction. Her research interests include: medical interfaces, citizen science recruitment and haptic technologies for users with visual impairments. She is also involved in public engagement and science communication work, which includes performing stand-up comedy about her research, as well as giving talks at the Royal Institution and Science Museum. swiseman.co.uk


3pm-4pm Wednesday 18 October / LG02, Professor Stuart Hall Building
Dr Kate Devlin: NSFW: HCI, AI and sex tech
Kate Devlin is a senior lecturer who works in the fields of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), investigating how people interact with and react to technology, to understand how emerging and future technologies will affect us and the society in which we live. She is currently focusing on cognition, sex, gender and sexuality and how these might be incorporated into cognitive systems such as sexual companion robots. http://doc.gold.ac.uk/~mas01kd


3pm-4pm Wednesday 25 October / Room 342, 2nd floor, Richard Hoggart Building
Saskia Freeke: Creating artwork every day
Saskia Freeke is lecturer in Physical Computing. as well as an artist, creative coder, interaction designer, visual designer and educator. A big part of her artistic practice is her ongoing daily art project that she started January 2015, in which she explores and experiments with generative patterns and animations. www.sasj.nl


3pm-4pm Wednesday 1 November / LG02, Professor Stuart Hall Building
Dr Sorrel Harriet: Using data to improve the learning and teaching of coding
Sorrel teaches on topics related to databases, data programming and web application development. Over the past ten years, Sorrel has been involved in professional web development, both inside and out of academia. Most recently she worked alongside Matthew Yee-King at Goldsmiths helping to develop the Music Circle platform. gold.ac.uk/computing/people/harriet-sorrel


Music Computing students explore the sounds of Millennium Bridge

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Goldsmiths Music Computing students have released Where Everything is Music, their first album of 2017.

In early October, course leader Dr Freida Abtan took her first year Music Computing students for a soundwalk across the Millennium Bridge, which spans the Thames between St Paul’s Cathedral and Tate Modern.

Students take recordings and then make pieces of music from only these sound sources. The project is only given a one-week from walk to release.

Over the next three years, these students will be immersed in performance, composition, musicology, design, psychoacoustics, digital signal processing and computer science – and we’ll be listening to the results. Subscribe to this blog (enter your email into the ‘subscribe’ widget on our homepage) for regular updates on how our students progress.

Goldsmiths academics develop groundbreaking online courses in Virtual Reality

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Coursera, the global leader in online education and learning, has launched its first series of courses on Virtual Reality, developed by Goldsmiths Computing lecturers.

The VR Specialisation, comprising five course modules, has been developed by Dr Sylvia Pan and Dr Marco Gillies, based on a combined 25 years’ experience in some of the world’s most prominent Virtual Reality research labs.

Their expertise in Virtual Reality centres on the generation of interactive and engaging virtual characters, one of the focus areas in the new Specialisation they teach on Coursera.

“Many of the mistakes made by Virtual Reality content creators come from not understanding the psychology of how VR works and what it means for how we create content, which is an important feature of this Specialisation,” said Dr Marco Gillies.

“In Virtual Reality users need to physically interact so they feel present in the surrounding environment. This means other characters must respond in the same way they would in the real world. These courses combine theory – the basic psychology of how VR works – with practical production skills. All the time learners are doing the practical work, they are also having to think about the psychology behind it.”

“Another important part of this Specialisation is Social VR. Social interactions in Virtual Reality are such a powerful experience; Users are sharing the space with someone who is life size, so the body language works in a way it doesn’t on a regular screen.”

Learners will get hands-on experience using many of the leading technology tools for Virtual Reality content development, and in particular the world leading game development project Unity.

“The potential for Virtual Reality to change the way we work, learn, and play is significant, but we need more people educated in VR technologies and design to get there,” said Jessica Lindl, Unity’s Global Head of Education.

“This series of courses from the University of London is a great example of a credential that can really help anyone interested in applying Virtual Reality in the work that they do.”

Dr Sylvia Pan, lecturer in graphics at Goldsmiths, said: “The launch of the Virtual Reality Specialisation presents a real opportunity to use online learning to grow the number of people equipped with the skills required to become VR content creators. Learners will take the skills developed in each of the preceding courses and put these into practice to develop their own Virtual Reality game.”

“The development of Virtual Reality courses is pivotal to cementing the role the technology will play in everyday life and across enterprises. The creative industry has naturally become the first sector to integrate Virtual Reality. However, the potential applications range across many industries, including healthcare, engineering, online collaboration, and more. The medium of Virtual Reality is developing rapidly and those making content now are creating the fundamentals of the technology. We are really excited that our learners will be able to contribute to the future of Virtual Reality.”

The specialisation comes in five courses that will be released starting on 25 September 2017.

  1. Introduction to Virtual Reality
  2. 3D Models for Virtual Reality
  3. 3D Interaction Design in Virtual Reality
  4. Building Interactive 3D Characters and Social VR
  5. Creating Your First Virtual Reality Game

Unlock molecular secrets with BioBlox VR

BioBlox, a VR game which tackles how biological molecules fit together, exhibits at this year’s New Scientist Live.

BioBlox is the result of a collaboration between researchers at Imperial College London and Goldsmiths, University of London. It turns the science of how proteins fit together (or ‘dock’) with smaller molecules, such as medicines and vitamins, into a Tetris-style puzzle game and quiz. Players manipulate and dock molecules into proteins to score points and earn bonus powers in a race against time.

First launched as a 2D mobile game, Bioblox is now available as a 3D desktop game and Virtual Reality experience – which exhibits at New Scientist Live 2017.

Where: New Scientist Live, ExCel Centre, London E16 1XL
When: 28 September – 1 October 2017
Tickets and info


How molecules dock onto proteins is the key to understanding processes in the cell, and in particular to designing new drugs to treat conditions such as cancer and Alzheimer’s. The complex 3D forms of such molecules – resembling the bumpy surface of an asteroid full of pits and craters – make understanding how they fit together extremely challenging.

The researchers designed the game to be fun but also to help players learn about protein research and it could be used in schools to teach chemistry and biology. The quiz asks players to name a biological molecule from its description – for example asking them to name the molecule that is used by our cells to produce energy later identified as glucose.

Professor William Latham, from the Department of Computing at Goldsmiths, and Creative Director of the project, said: “In BioBlox2D we open the world of protein docking to the mass market casual games player, where they have fun playing our puzzle game but at the same time learn about the science.”

Professor Michael Sternberg, from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial and one of project leads, said: “We were inspired by a scientific problem to develop a fun-to-play game where players can experience the challenges of matching both shapes and electrical charges, which is central to how life works.”

The researchers say the block-slotting gameplay is given an original twist as players also have to match positively charged blocks with negatively charged ones – a reference to the binding mechanisms of real proteins. Successfully clearing blocks unlocks information and bonuses such as slowing time and automatically completing a level.

The team have also released a 3D version at the same time as the 2D version, and hope to make it possible to crowdsource the protein docking problem through citizen science challenges.

The intention with BioBlox3D and BioBloxVR is to simulate the protein docking problem with far greater realism in 3D and potentially solve real-world problems. At the moment, the pre-set models in the game come from an existing protein database, but players will soon have the ability to upload their own protein data and experiment in 3D and VR.

Frederic Fol Leymarie, Professor of Computing at Goldsmiths and co-lead on the project, said: “It is hoped this will provide the building blocks for people to create citizen science challenges to, for instance, crowdsource the search for new drug molecules.”

The project was supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).


This article was written in June 2017 by Pete Wilton and originally posted in Goldsmiths News. It was updated on 21 September 2017 to include news of Bioblox VR at New Scientist Live.