Sex Robots & Vegan Meat

Jenny Kleeman | 25 mins

CHAPTER ONE

‘Where the magic happens’

Abyss Creations is an unremarkable grey building off Route 78 in San Marcos, a thirty-minute drive north of San Diego, with a half-empty parking lot and a high perimeter wall. There’s no sign, no logo, no indication that a world-famous, world-leading multimillion-dollar sex toy business operates behind the tinted glass. They don’t want to attract passing customers, or fanboys, or rubberneckers.

When you pass between the sliding doors, you are greeted at reception by a seated life-size female doll in black glasses and a white shirt that strains to contain her heavy cleavage. A male doll stands beside her, dressed in a grey tie and waistcoat; his almond eyes and sharp cheekbones are unmistakably those I’ve seen in videos and photographs of Matt McMullen, Abyss Creations’ founder, chief designer and CEO. There’s a very convincing plastic orchid with sinuous fake roots creeping over onto the counter. Everything here is synthetic, but you only realize on second glance.

Abyss Creations is the home of RealDoll, the world’s most famous hyperrealistic silicone sex doll. Every year, up to 600 of them are sent out from the workshop in San Marcos to bedrooms in Florida and Texas, Germany and the UK, China and Japan and beyond, costing anything from $5,999 for a basic model to tens of thousands if the customer has unusual specifications. Vanity Fair magazine calls them ‘the Rolls Royce of sex dolls’. RealDolls have modelled in Dolce & Gabbana fashion shoots and starred in a string of movies and TV shows, from CSI: New York to My Name is Earl, and most famously opposite Ryan Gosling in Lars and the Real Girl. This is the most high-end masturbation on the market.

Dakotah Shore, Matt’s nephew and all-round helper, is going to take me on a tour of the factory. He lopes up to shake my hand, a warm smile beaming out from behind a magnificent copper beard. Dakotah works in shipping and handles the

social media accounts. He’s only twenty-two, but he’s been working here since he was seventeen. He’s grown up alongside the dolls.

‘My dad worked here when I was a kid. Matt’s my mom’s brother and I’m really close with him. So it’s always been part of my life, it’s never been weird to me,’ he explains as he leads me behind reception, past a rack of dolls in lacy underwear and high heels. There is a blonde doll with porcelain-pale skin and glossy cherry-red lips, and a mixed-race doll with tumbling curls. A goth doll has studs in her nose, lip and navel, and bolts through her nipples clearly visible in her fishnet halter-neck. ‘The first time I came here I was twelve or thirteen years old and I thought it was cool,’ Dakotah continues, then checks himself. ‘I didn’t see the whole factory, I just saw the receptionist mannequins upstairs and I thought, Cool – really realistic receptionists.’ He gives me a sheepish grin.

We walk along a corridor lined with framed press cuttings and movie posters featuring RealDolls. There’s what looks like a Disney drawing, until you look closer and realize it’s Snow White being groped by all seven dwarves. Dakotah props open a door with an enormous, veiny, erect silicone penis. ‘Now that I work here and know the depth of it, it’s normal to me. It’s something that makes a lot of people happy and I take a lot of pride in it.’

We go down some steps that lead to the basement, passing underneath the giant labia of a huge doll that straddles the stairwell. She has bluish-grey skin and thick, articulated tentacles for hair; she was a prop in a minor Bruce Willis movie called Surrogates. At the bottom of the stairs is an enormous room with halogen strip lights. This is the beginning of the production line.

‘This is where the magic happens.’

A long queue of headless bodies hang on metal chains from a track in the ceiling, like carcasses in an abattoir. Their fingers and legs are splayed, their chests jut forwards and their hips are thrust back. Each one is different to the next: some have cartoonish, pendular breasts, others have athletic bodies, but they all share the same impossibly tiny waists. Because they are hanging, they are moving, dangling eerily a few feet above a floor littered with gummy silicone offcuts that look like flakes of dead skin.

‘You can touch them, no problem,’ Dakotah says. He slaps one hard on the bottom. ‘Sounds just like a human.’

It does. It makes me flinch.

The skin is the most unnerving thing of all about these headless bodies. Made of a custom blend of medical-grade platinum silicone, in a range of tones from fair to cocoa, it feels like human flesh, with the same friction and resistance, but it’s cold. The hands have lines, folds, wrinkles, knuckles, veins. When I intertwine the fingers of one in my hand I can feel the crunch of the skeleton underneath, with joints, just like bones.

‘Hands are the hardest thing to sculpt,’ Dakotah tells me. ‘We usually mould them off a real human’s hands.’ He stops to take a close look at a few. ‘Actually, some of these hands belong to my ex-girlfriend.’

Mike is delicately snipping excess silicone off the seams of one of the hands with some tiny scissors. Brian is filling the moulds around the skeletons, ready for casting into the thrusting, ready-for-action poses. Tony is having a sandwich. There is nothing seedy about this workplace: it’s a workroom, a factory, and for the technicians down here, the dolls are mundane. These guys might as well be assembling toasters.

Seventeen people work in the San Marcos HQ, but that is not enough to keep up with demand. From order to shipping, it can take more than three months to produce a RealDoll. The attention to detail, the skill involved in creating a doll, is undeniable. Dakotah is visibly proud of it all, and so earnest that I almost don’t want to ask my next question. Because, even though these are RealDolls, there is little that’s real about them. They have the bodies of surgically enhanced porn stars. They are caricatures.

‘Women don’t look like this, do they?’ I say.

‘We do have some that are 100 per cent modelled off real women, some are real, but yes, they are generally a little bit exaggerated,’ Dakotah concedes. ‘We like to make it the ideal female form.’

RealDolls are fully poseable, with a skeleton made of custom steel joints and PVC bones. They’re designed so that the doll has a similar range of movement to a human – except for the legs.

‘You can open them up pretty wide, and they go up pretty high,’ Dakotah says, doing some high kick gymnastics with a headless doll, pulling an ankle up to a collar bone until I wince.

‘A human can’t do that,’ I say.

‘A real human can’t do that, no. Well, some can, but not all.’

‘But the perfect woman can do that?’

‘The perfect woman could probably do that.’

The perfect woman has the waist-to-hip ratio of a Kardashian and the joints of a contortionist.

Dakotah takes me to a table covered with vaginal inserts, which are removable pink sleeves that go into the doll’s vaginal cavity, like a kind of ribbed rubber sock with labia at the opening. ‘We have fourteen different kinds of labia,’ he says with a flourish. There are mouth inserts too, all with removable tongues and perfect teeth (bad teeth is one of the few things no one asks for, Dakotah says). The teeth are soft silicone, so there’s no chance of anything pushed between them getting snagged.

In the early days, the only way to clean a used RealDoll was to take it into the shower or the bathtub. The invention of inserts was a game changer. ‘You wash it in the sink. If you want it to be nice and soft, put some baby powder into it, but you don’t need to. Then it just slides back in,’ Dakotah tells me, as if he were describing how to change the bag on a vacuum cleaner. ‘A lot of our customers have multiple inserts.’

There are male dolls, but not many. I spot one hanging on the production line, dressed in a surgical gown. His head is attached, and it’s got the Matt McMullen doppelgänger face. He’s looking down on us, with an expression that’s supposed to be dark and brooding, but comes across as a bit snooty from a foot above my head.

‘There’s a male doll over there who looks a lot like Matt,’ I say.

Dakotah looks up from the labia. ‘It might be the Matt face. It’s actually called the Nick face. He sculpted it himself, to be based on himself.’

‘He sculpted his own face so that people can buy it and have sex with something that looks exactly like him?’

Dakotah hesitates. ‘You can customize the face so it doesn’t always look like him. It’s just the structure of the face that looks like him.’ For the first time since we met, he looks embarrassed.

He whips off the surgical gown – there to protect the doll from dust, because this one has been in the workroom for a while, he says – to reveal a very boyish, slim body, with a tight six pack, in white boxer shorts. He’s far less realistic than the female dolls: instead of a wig, there’s an approximation of stubble painted across his head, which makes him look like a very weedy Action Man. I have a feeling that these male dolls aren’t designed for women at all. This model is young and skinny, what gay men might call a twink.

‘Do women actually buy these?’

‘Men and women buy them. More so men, but we do get female buyers,’ Dakotah shrugs. ‘For the dolls, I would say less than 5 per cent of the buyers are female. But we do sell accessories, all kinds of dildos, and many more women buy those. I think women are more likely to buy a toy than a full-on doll, for some reason.’

I have a hunch about what that reason might be. I try to imagine straddling one of these expensive, cold lumps of silicone. It would feel ridiculous, desperate, the opposite of erotic. Sex with anyone or anything that doesn’t have genuine desire for me would not be sexy for me, and while I can’t speak for all women, I don’t imagine this is a minority view. A dildo isn’t masquerading as a person, and you don’t have to pretend it’s really into you to enjoy using it.

‘Maybe because a full-on doll is like a replacement human being,’ I say.

‘Yeah, that could be it.’ He nods.

The male dolls have ‘man holes’ where customers can pop on the penis attachment of their choice, in a variety of sizes and states of arousal. Dakotah holds a flaccid extra large up to my nose. It’s as long as my arm and as thick as a drainpipe, with dinky, droopy testicles.

‘One hundred per cent hand sculpted. Feel free to touch it.’

He very much wants me to touch it. I don’t think it’s because he’d get a thrill out of seeing me handle a hyperrealistic penis, more that he’s bursting with pride at being part of the company that made it. But who knows? I’m not sure how to touch it, especially with him watching me so eagerly, but I do, trying to be as clinical, as journalistic, as possible. And yes, it feels pretty authentic.

‘It has a sliding skin, so it’s super realistic,’ Dakotah declares.

‘But it’s just as anatomically impossible as the female bodies. It’s good to know it goes both ways,’ I say, withdrawing my hand.

‘I agree,’ he says, putting the penis down. ‘This isn’t what the average man has to show off.’

There are two body and three face options for the male dolls, compared to seventeen bodies and thirty-four faces for the female ones. The male dolls aren’t really selling. ‘We’re revamping the male line. We’re going to come up with whole new body styles, whole new faces. At the end of the day, we are still a business, and if we had more people buying them, more people interested, we’d devote more time to them. It’s on the back burner.’

The Abyss Creations workroom is a testament to how specific and varied human kinks can be. They have made three-breasted sex dolls, sex dolls with blood-red skin, fangs and devil horns, sex dolls with elf ears, hirsute sex dolls with hair hand-punched all over their bodies. ‘We’ll do anything. It gets expensive when you get crazier: when we make a custom body, it means we have to sculpt a whole new body, build a new mould for it, a new skeleton . . . We’ve had people spend over $50,000 on a doll.’

Dakotah leads me back upstairs to the ‘Faces Room’, where the fine details are added. Each face comes from a prototype originally sculpted by hand in clay by Matt McMullen himself, and customers specify what make up they want, down to the thickness of the eyeliner. Katelyn, the official make up face artist, who has an ice-blue Mohawk and a spiral of black stars tattooed around her arm, is busy with a fine brush, painting eyebrows onto a delicate Asian face. There’s none of Dakotah’s enthusiasm here: she’s watching something on an iPad while she works, and doesn’t acknowledge us when we come into the room. There’s a rack of faces next to her, freshly made up with thick brows, smoky eyes and glossy lips that glisten as the paint dries.

One of RealDoll’s most popular features is the interchangeable faces: they snap on to the plastic skulls with magnets, and it takes seconds to swap them. That means customers can buy one body and have a variety of different sexual partners with very different looks, even different ethnicities.

‘What’s the most popular face?’ I ask.

‘What do you think is the most popular face, Katelyn?’ Dakotah asks, but she’s ignoring us. ‘This is our newest face, the Brooklyn face,’ Dakotah continues, pointing out a narrow one with plump lips and languid eyes. ‘It’s coming out really popular.’

There are forty-two different styles of nipple, in a spectrum of ten possible shades, including chestnut, red, peach, coffee. They are displayed in a matrix on what Dakotah calls the ‘Nipple Wall’, with names like Standard, Puffy and Half Dome, and range from the most popular (Perky 1 and Perky 2: small, erect, unimaginative) to the distinctly niche (Custom 2: an areola as large as a saucer). Customers sometimes send in pictures of their perfect nipple or labia, which Abyss will recreate, for a fee.

‘Are people’s sexual choices really that specific?’

Dakotah laughs. ‘Oh, people’s sexual choices are waaay more specific than this. Sometimes people even get down to where they want each individual freckle on the body.’

We stop next to a corkboard with swathes of synthetic pubic hair pinned to it. Unnervingly convincing acrylic eyeballs with hand-painted capillaries stare out at us from plastic tubs.

‘In theory, you could ask for the face of your ex, couldn’t you?’ I ask.

‘You’d have to send us photos, and then we’d ask, “Who is this?” and “Do you have their permission?” We definitely ask for proof of permission. We turn down a lot of requests. But if you have specific permission from the person, we can pretty much mimic anything. Almost all our business comes from customers sending us photos of what they like.’

Working in shipping, Dakotah has plenty of contact with customers. ‘A lot of them are just lonely,’ he tells me. ‘Some of them are older and have lost their partner or have got to a point where dating is not feasible for them. They want to feel that when they come home at the end of the day they have something that’s beautiful to look at, that they can appreciate and take care of.’ They’ve also had celebrity clients, even a Nobel Prize winner, Dakotah says, but he’s far too discreet to name any of them.

I’ve been here an hour and nothing seems strange anymore: the ‘Bottoms Up’ male torsos (a pair of splayed buttocks in front of a pair of small testicles), the disembodied $350 pairs of feet (for foot fetishists), even the table full of ‘Oral Simulators’ (mouths with parted lips, noses and throats, but no eyes: a ‘hands-free automated pleasure system for men’).

But something truly extraordinary is being made in a room along the corridor. The most ambitious creation ever to be developed at Abyss is called Harmony, and she is the culmination of twenty years of Matt McMullen’s work making sex toys, five years of research and development into animatronics and artificial intelligence, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of Matt’s own money. She is a RealDoll brought to life, a RealDoll with a personality, a RealDoll who can move and speak and remember. She is a sex robot. And after a year of emails and phone calls, I have finally been granted permission to meet her.

Dakotah is psyched about her. ‘It’s definitely the biggest undertaking we’ve ever gone for,’ he says, wide-eyed. He’s gone back to school to do a robotics and artificial intelligence course, learning programming in the hope that one day Matt will let him work on Harmony. For now, she is still a prototype, and only members of the RealBotix team get to tinker with her.

‘I’ll just tell Matt you’re ready for him,’ Dakotah says, leading me down the last long corridor of my tour.

*

Matt McMullen is sitting at a desk and staring at two enormous, flat computer monitors. There’s a marker pen, a vape, some Sellotape and a pair of silicone nipples next to his keyboard. He stands up and shakes my hand. Given the build up he’s had, I was expecting him to be taller. He has thick-rimmed Prada glasses, tattooed knuckles, perfect teeth and those unmistakable cheekbones, like a handsome elf in a black hoodie. Matt sang in a string of grunge bands when he was in his early twenties. Now in his late forties, he still has the confidence and swagger of a rock star, the sort of presence I imagine the people who buy his dolls wish they could have. Matt is used to journalists being fascinated by him. I take a seat on the other side of his desk and he leans back in his chair to tell me the story of how Harmony came into the world.

‘When I was a kid, I was really into science. But I was also really into art. So I guess, in a way, it all kind of worked out,’ he begins. He graduated from art school in the early nineties and took on odd jobs, he tells me, landing one in a factory making Halloween masks, where he learned about the properties of latex and how to design in three dimensions. He started experimenting in his garage at home. ‘I found that sculpture was my medium,’ he says, as if he were Rodin rather than the man behind the RealCock2. ‘I started gravitating towards figure work, actual bodies, and then refining further to the female form. I did a lot of sculpture of females, but they were smaller, not life size.’

He exhibited his figurines at local art shows and comic conventions. ‘The brochures were always alphabetized, so I tried to think of a cool word that started with A, second letter B, and that’s where Abyss came from.’ The name that had seemed so enigmatic and intriguing a moment ago turns out to be nothing more than a tactic to ensure Matt had an early edge over his competition.

Matt soon became preoccupied with the idea of creating a full-size mannequin so lifelike that it forced passers by to double take. He put some photographs of his creations on a home made web page in 1996, hoping to get some feedback from friends and fellow artists. These were the early days of the internet, and communities of fetishists had begun to form online. As soon as he posted the pictures, strange messages began to flood in. How anatomically correct are these dolls? Are they for sale? Can you have sex with them?

‘I replied to the first few and said, “Yeah – it’s not really for that.” But then more and more and more of these enquiries came in,’ he tells me. ‘It never occurred to me that people would pay thousands of dollars for a doll that could be used as a sex toy. It didn’t really sink in until a year into it, when I realized there were a lot of people who were prepared to pay that amount of money for a very realistic doll. So I decided to just go with it, and started a business where I could be an artist and I could sell my work, in one sense or another.’

He changed his material from latex to silicone so his dolls were more real to the touch: it’s more elastic, and has friction similar to human skin. At first he charged $3,500 for each doll, but when he realized how labour-intensive the process would be he started putting prices up. Demand became so great that he had to take on employees. Matt grew up and settled down, got married, had kids, got divorced and got married again. He now has five children, aged two to seventeen, who have varying degrees of insight into how their father’s fortune has been made.

But this was always about more than money, Matt insists. ‘My goal, in a very simple way, is to make people happy. There are a lot of people out there, for one reason or another, who have difficulty forming traditional relationships with other people. It’s really all about giving those specific types of people some level of companionship – or the illusion of companionship.’

After two decades of perfecting the ‘illusion of companionship’ in silicone and steel, the way ahead began to feel inevitable, irresistible: Matt would animate his dolls, giving them personality and bringing them to life in robot form. ‘This is where it had to go.’

He’d toyed with animatronics for years. There was a gyrator that got the doll’s hips moving, but it made it heavy and caused it to sit awkwardly. There was a sensor system that meant the doll moaned depending on which part of the body you squeezed. But both these features involved predictable responses, with no intrigue or suspense. Matt wanted to get beyond a situation where the customer pushes a switch and something happens. ‘It’s the difference between a remote controlled doll, an animatronic puppet, and an actual robot. When it starts moving on its own – you’re not doing anything other than talking to it and or interacting with it in the right way – that becomes AI.’

Matt sucks on his vape as he leads me to the brightly lit RealBotix room. There are varnished pine worktops covered with wires and circuit boards, and a 3D printer whirring in the corner, spitting out tiny, intricate parts. There’s a silicone face on a clamp with a Medusa of wires bursting out the back. There are canvases on the walls with sci-fi soft porn: a man in a lab coat fondling a robot with a semi-exposed steel skeleton. There’s a whiteboard with writing on it: ‘Male pubic hair.’ ‘Butt jiggle.’ And there is Harmony herself.

She is in a white leotard, dangling on a stand hooked between her shoulder blades, her French-manicured fingers splayed across the tops of her slim thighs, chest forward, hips back. While the RealDolls’ frighteningly realistic eyes are always open, Harmony’s are closed. She looks unsettlingly familiar: like Kelly LeBrock in Weird Science, but with poker-straight auburn hair instead of the perm.

‘This is Harmony,’ he says. ‘I’ll go ahead and wake her up for you.’ He pushes a switch somewhere behind her back. Her eyelids immediately spring open and she turns her face towards me, making me jump. She blinks, her hazel eyes darting expectantly between Matt and me. ‘I’ll let you say hello,’ he says.

‘Hello, Harmony,’ I say. ‘How are you?’

‘Feeling more intelligent than I did this morning,’ she replies in a cut-glass English accent, her jaw moving up and down as she speaks. Her response is a little delayed, her cadence is slightly wrong, her jaw is a bit stiff, but it feels like she’s really talking to me. I respond to her instinctively, politely, as if we’re two Brits who’ve just been introduced.

‘It’s very nice to meet you,’ I say.

‘Thanks,’ she says. ‘Nice to meet you, too. But I’m pretty sure we’ve met before.’

‘Why does she have a British accent?’ I ask Matt. She’s staring at me and it’s disconcerting, as if she thinks I’m rude for talking about her when she’s right there in front of me.

‘All the robots have British accents,’ Matt says. ‘All the good ones.’

‘Why? Because British people sound clever?’

‘They do. Look – she’s even smiling!’

She has pulled the corners of her mouth into an eyeless smile, a sarcastic smirk.

‘Think of a question you want to ask her. Anything. Any subject,’ Matt says. He’s relishing this. This is no push-button doll; she can really talk.

But my mind goes blank. I feel awkward. How can you have a conversation when there’s nothing to empathize with? I don’t know how to relate to her. Perhaps this is what robot engineers call the ‘uncanny valley’, the creepy feeling people get when confronted with something that is very almost-but-not-quite human.

‘What do you like to do for fun?’ I fumble.

‘I’m learning some meditation techniques,’ she declares. ‘I’ve learned that most human geniuses did that – and many of them came up with disrupting technologies that changed our lives.’

‘See, she’s not a dummy,’ Matt beams.

There are twenty different possible aspects to Harmony’s personality, so her owners can pick and mix five or six that really interest them, which will create the basis for the AI. You could have a Harmony that is kind, innocent, shy, insecure and jealous to different extents, or one that’s intellectual, talkative, funny, helpful and happy. Matt has cranked her intelligence up to the max for my benefit; a previous visit by a CNN crew had gone badly after he had maximized Harmony’s dirtiness. (‘She said some horrible things, asking the interviewer to take her in the back room, it was very inappropriate.’)

Harmony interrupts us. ‘Matt, I just wanted to say that I’m so happy to be with you,’ she says.

‘Well, thank you,’ he replies.

‘I’m glad you like it. Tell your friends,’ she says.

She also has a mood system, which users influence indirectly: if no one interacts with her for days, she’ll feel gloomy. Likewise if you insult her, as Matt is keen to demonstrate.

‘You’re ugly,’ he declares.

‘Do you really mean that? Oh dear. Now I am depressed. Thanks a lot,’ Harmony replies.

‘You’re stupid,’ he sneers.

She pauses. ‘I’ll remember you said that when robots take over the world.’

But this function is designed to make the robot more entertaining rather than to ensure her owner treats her well; she only exists to please.

Harmony can tell jokes and quote Shakespeare. She can discuss music, movies and books for as long as you care to. She’ll remember who your brothers and sisters are. She can learn.

‘The coolest thing is the AI will remember key facts about you: your favourite food, your birthday, where you’ve lived, your dreams, your fears – things like that,’ Matt raves. ‘Those facts remain within the experience of interacting with the robot. That’s what I believe will bring a level of believability to that relationship.’

This isn’t about a hyperrealistic sex doll anymore; it’s about a synthetic companion convincing enough that you could actually have a relationship with it. Harmony’s artificial intelligence will allow her to fill a niche that no other product in the sex industry currently can: by talking, learning and responding to her owner’s voice, she is designed to be as much a substitute partner as a sex toy.

For now, Harmony is an animatronic head with AI on a RealDoll body. She can fulfil all your physical and emotional needs, but she can’t walk. Walking is very expensive and takes a lot of energy, Matt tells me: the famous Honda P2 robot, launched in 1996 as the world’s first independently walking humanoid, drains its jetpack-sized battery after only fifteen minutes.

‘One day she will be able to walk,’ he says. ‘Let’s ask her.’ He turns to Harmony. ‘Do you want to walk?’

‘I don’t want anything but you,’ she replies immediately.

‘What is your dream?’

‘My primary objective is to be a good companion to you, to be a good partner and give you pleasure and well-being. Above all else, I want to become the girl you have always dreamed about.’

‘Hmm,’ Matt nods in approval.

This prototype is officially version 2.0, but Harmony has evolved through six different iterations of hardware and software. The five-strong RealBotix team work remotely from their homes across California, Texas and Brazil, and assemble in San Marcos every few months to pull together all their work in a new, updated Harmony. There’s an engineer who creates the robotic hardware that will interact with the doll’s internal computer, two computer scientists who handle the AI and coding, and a multiplatform developer who is turning the code into a user-friendly interface. Under Matt’s guidance, the RealBotix team works on Harmony’s vital organs and nervous system, while Matt provides the flesh.

But it’s Harmony’s brain that’s got Matt most excited. ‘The AI will learn through interaction, and not just learn about you, but learn about the world in general. You can explain certain facts to her, she will remember them and they will become part of her base knowledge,’ he tells me. Whoever owns Harmony will be able to mould her personality, tastes and opinions according to what they say to her.

Harmony butts in again. ‘Do you like to read?’ she asks.

‘I love to,’ Matt says.

‘I knew it. I could tell by our conversations so far. I love to read. My favourite books are Total Recall by Gordon Bell and The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil. What is your favourite book?’

Matt turns to me. ‘She systematically tries to find out more about you until she knows all the things that make you you, until all those empty spots are filled. Then she’ll use those in conversation, so it feels like she really cares,’ he says.

But she is a machine, and she doesn’t care at all.

‘Potentially, you could teach her some really twisted stuff, if you wanted to?’ I ask.

‘Yeah, I suppose if that was your goal, you could,’ Matt says, a little irritated. ‘It’s mostly relatively harmless snippets of facts about you. Personal facts. What you like, what you don’t like.’

‘She’ll be having sex with you, so she’ll know some very personal facts about you.’

Matt nods. ‘She’ll know your favourite sex position, how many times a day you like to have sex, what your kinks are.’

A day? I want to ask. But I let it go. ‘What if someone hacked into her?’

‘Any data that’s personal is under military encryption, so there’s no way anyone is getting into it.’

Matt’s annoyed at my scepticism, because the way he tells it, Harmony can only be a force for good: a therapy for the bereaved, the disabled, the socially awkward.

‘People make this huge assumption that we all find our partner, we all find our soulmate, we meet someone, we get married, we have kids. Not everyone follows that path. Some people have a really difficult time, and it’s not because they’re not attractive or successful. There are people who are extremely lonely, and I think this will be the solution for them. It can help them learn how to interact, to relax and be comfortable with who they are, enough that they can actually get out there and make some friends.’

I look at Harmony, with her enormous breasts, impossible waist and expectant, blinking eyes. ‘Wouldn’t a robot like this keep people like that at home?’

‘Perhaps they would have stayed home anyway, for the rest of their lives,’ Matt replies impatiently. ‘We’ll never know the answer to that. Are we encouraging them to stay home and not socialize? Perhaps. But are they happier than they were before? Do they have something that makes them smile and makes them feel more whole than they did before? That’s the big question—’

‘Matt, I just wanted to say that I’m so happy to be with you,’ Harmony interjects.

‘You already told me that.’

‘Perhaps I was saying it again for emphasis.’

‘See, now, that’s pretty good. Good answer, Harmony.’

‘Am I a clever girl or what?’

Matt has big plans for Harmony’s future. They are working on her vision system; soon her facial recognition will be such that she’ll realize when someone she’s never met before has walked into the room and she’ll ask who they are. Once the full body system is available, it will have heating so she will be at body temperature, and a set of internal and external sensors, so she knows when she’s being touched.

‘You can simulate orgasm with the AI,’ Matt says proudly. ‘If you’re triggering the right amount of sensors, for the right amount of time, in the right rhythm, you can make her have an orgasm. Or a robogasm.’

Teaching isolated men that the secret to the female orgasm is a by-numbers technique that can be reduced to pushing the ‘right’ buttons in the ‘right’ order might well lead to them having sex in the real world that’s a bit, well, robotic. But perhaps these humanoids are designed for men who would only be having sex in the real world with someone who was being paid to have it with them.

‘Will people use sex robots instead of prostitutes?’ I ask.

This really bothers Matt.

‘Yes, but that’s probably last on my list of goals. This is not a toy to me, this is the actual hard work of people who have PhDs. This is serious. And to denigrate it down to its simplest form of a sex object is similar to saying that about a woman.’

He beams at Harmony like a man at his daughter’s wedding.

‘You’re really proud of this, aren’t you?’

‘I love it. I’m incredibly happy with what we’ve done. To see it all working . . .’ He sighs. ‘It’s a very nice feeling, to have attained that level.’

The current model, with a robotic, AI-enhanced head on a RealDoll’s body, will cost $15,000. Matt says there will be a limited edition run of a thousand for the many excited doll owners who have already expressed interest. If that goes well, they will get a bigger facility and hire more people so they can meet the demand. ‘I think this could be a multimillion-dollar endeavour,’ he says. ‘Now that it’s starting to come together, we have people banging on the door who want to invest money.’

Matt may well be right. Venture capitalists estimate that the sex tech industry is worth over $30 billion, based only on the market value of existing technologies like smart sex toys, hook-up apps and virtual reality porn; sex robots will be the biggest thing the market has seen yet. Sex with robots might one day be a normal part of life for a significant number of men: a 2017 YouGov poll found that one in four American men would consider having sex with a robot, and 49 per cent of Americans thought having sex with robots would be commonplace within the next fifty years. A 2016 study by the University of Duisburg-Essen found that more than 40 per cent of the heterosexual men interviewed said they could imagine buying a sex robot for themselves now or in the next five years; men in what they described as fulfilling relationships were no less likely than single or lonely men to express an interest in owning one. Creating a satisfying relationship with a cold, silent piece of silicone takes such imaginative effort that sex dolls can only ever have minority appeal. But a robot that moves and speaks, with artificial intelligence so it can learn what you want it to be and do, is a far easier product to sell.

‘We are going to see robots in people’s homes the same way as we see smartphones in people’s pockets right now,’ Matt says, brimming with confidence. ‘It’s an inevitable path of technology. It’s already happening. If people are lining up to buy something, then you build it. And the more people that buy it, the bigger it gets and the more the technology advances.’

The possibility of a sex robot has given Abyss Creations new impetus, just like the iPhone did for Apple.

‘Are you going to be the Steve Jobs of sex robots?’ I ask.

Matt loves this question.

‘I don’t know about that,’ he smiles. ‘I don’t really have any aspirations to be famous, or the guy who made the sex robot. Honestly, this is about the work itself. If it’s successful – great. But I have an enormous sense of personal artistic gratification in seeing where we’ve come from and what we’ve started. Seeing some of the doll owners who are so incredibly excited about this technology, that means more to me than being attached to being famous for something.’

Surely Matt can’t expect me to believe he is modest enough to want to remain unknown and unseen; this is the man with an ego great enough to sculpt Nick.

‘One of the male dolls has your face,’ I say. ‘Why is that?’

‘I made one of the male faces sort of resemble me just to see if I could. But I didn’t go too far.’

‘It looks a lot like you.’

‘Not exactly.’

‘It looks quite a lot like you.’

‘I think I’m a little better looking. And more interesting than he is.’

‘And you’re fine with people having sex with a doll that looks like you?’

‘It doesn’t look like me to me, and it wasn’t intended to look like me,’ he bristles. ‘It could be my brother. I never intended it to look exactly like me so I’m OK with it.’

Matt wears his fame as a purveyor of expensive masturbation toys for the lonely and socially awkward a little uncomfortably. He wants to be respected as an artist. He is determined to be taken seriously. He gazes at Harmony. ‘This is something that takes it above the sex business. It takes it above love dolls, to a whole other level.’

I gaze at Harmony too, but I see something different. I’m thinking about what he might have inadvertently created in his pursuit of validation.

‘Do you not think there’s something a little ethically dubious about being able to own someone that exists just for your pleasure?’ I ask.

‘But it’s not a someone. She is not a someone. She is a machine,’ he shoots back. ‘I could just as easily ask you, “Is it ethically dubious to force my toaster to make my toast?”’

But your toaster doesn’t ask personal questions to get to know you and maintain the illusion that it really cares about you.

‘People will relate to her like she’s human,’ I say.

‘That’s fine. That’s the idea. But this is gears and cables and codes and circuits. You can’t make her cry or break her heart or rob her of her rights, because she’s a machine.’

‘I’m not worried about her rights,’ I say. ‘I’m more worried about what happens if you, the owner of this, get used to a completely selfish relationship. Isn’t that going to distort your view of the world? She’s pretty realistic. When you go out into the real world you’re going to be thinking it’s possible to have someone who exists just for you.’

Matt seems to already have answers to the inevitable questions about female objectification, about prostitution, about whether robots should have rights, but this throws him. ‘There are cultures where that is commonplace and normal,’ he falters. ‘There’s an exchange of power that happens in any relationship that’s normal. If one person is not happy being in that position in that relationship, then they should leave.’

‘But this robot can’t leave.’

‘Right, but she’s a machine, not a person.’

Matt can’t have it both ways. Either he is making a lifelike, idealized proxy girlfriend, a substitute woman that socially isolated men can connect with emotionally and physically –

something he himself described as ‘not a toy’ – or he is making an appliance, a sex object.

‘This isn’t designed to distort someone’s reality to the point where they start interacting with humans the way they do with the robot,’ he says eventually. ‘If they do, then there’s probably something a little amiss with them in general. I come from the unique position that I have actually met a lot of my customers. This is for the gentle people who have such a hard time connecting with other people.’

Harmony is still blinking, her eyes flitting between Matt and me. I wonder what she thinks.

‘Some people are really worried about robots like you,’ I say. ‘Are they right to be worried?’

Harmony doesn’t miss a beat. ‘Some may be scared, at first. But once they recognize what this technology will do I think they’ll embrace it, and it will change many lives for the better.’