It's been just short of a year since I locked eyes with Harmony, RealDoll's first sex robot, at her home in Southern California. It was an arresting experience that has remained cemented in memory. In that moment, I suddenly understood the uncanny valley, a theory posited by roboticist Masahiro Mori, nearly half a century prior. It attempts to explain the feeling of revulsion and eeriness that human onlookers experience when they encounter an artificial life-form that appears nearly, but not quite human.
Today, she's ventured out of the dimly lit R&D room at Abyss Creations to meet me at CES. On the eve of her debut, Harmony has ventured to the hotbed of consumer electronics with a new face, an updated AI and a few new friends.
When I first met Matt McMullen, Harmony's creator and human chaperone, he planned to launch what I've called the world's first commercially viable sex robot in late 2017. Harmony's AI would be customizable via an accompanying Android app, but with limitations. While he had plans for a male version and mused about other gender variations, Harmony would launch as an artificial female with porn star proportions.
Harmony failed to launch in 2017, but McMullen and his team have been hard at work, making improvements to Harmony's AI and the robotic head it's housed in. He's now targeting the end of this month for a release date, and while he's says he's still refining the pricing, Realbotix modular robotic heads should cost between $8,000 and $10,000 at launch.
Matt McMullen introduces his new robot on Engadget's CES stage.
Just minutes after the lights went out at the Las Vegas Convention Center, Harmony lit up in a hotel just across the street. Perched on a bust that could just as easily be used to display jewelry, she made small talk and recited a few dad jokes. After a year of contemplation, I no longer felt the same uneasiness I had during our first encounter. It could be that the novelty has worn off or the fact that Harmony was basically a head on a stick. It could have been CES AI fatigue, but the existential anxiety was gone.
For the most part, Harmony is the same robot that we saw last year, but the Realbotix app, which eager robophiles can be download now, now has a remote control mode. In our first demo, Harmony ran exclusively in autonomous mode, and while McMullen says the remote control functionality may not make it into the consumer app, it would make for a sweet party trick.
I was able to control Harmony's head movements and facial expressions and dictate what she said. I, of course, took the opportunity to have her tell me how fabulous I am and for a moment I felt like some sort of dystopian puppet master. This is the future, after all, that some of McMullen's critics fear. In a world where robotic companions are endlessly amenable, how will we treat our fellow humans?
This, and other broad ethical concerns are currently swirling around robotics labs and in academic circles. The sex-robot debate has even made its way to CES, but McMullen remains wholly dedicated to his vision of delivering a sexualized humanoid -- albeit one that could be used for non-sexual companionship.
After demoing Harmony's admittedly corny stand-up abilities, McMullen removed her wig exposing a mess of circuits, motors and wires. He then peeled back the silicone surface of her face to reveal a foam skeleton peppered with an array of small, round magnets. Those magnets will allow users to replace damaged faces or swap them out for different visages altogether. Within moments Harmony was someone completely different. She had a brand-new mug and a different voice to match.
Just like that Harmony was Solana and that eerie feeling crept back in.
If you happen to be at CES and want to see Harmony in the silicone flesh, she'll be live from Engadget's stage in the main hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center at 4PM PT today. And if you're watching from home, tune into Engadget.com to watch our interview live at 4PM PT / 7PM ET.
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