Technology is transforming how we communicate love and closeness, it also carries enormous potential to help us in developing deeper emotional and personal connections. AI specifically, has shifted what we think is possible with sex, adding more options for those who have a difficult time with intimacy.
Unfortunately, due to systemic bias in technology, current developments in AI and intimacy tend to not reflect the needs of women.
This is where the categories of femtech and sextech come in. Femtech encompasses the usage of digital applications (software, medicines, products and services) to improve women’s overall well-being, with sextech being more specific to sexual wellness and pleasure. Today, these fast-growing fields are being led by women inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs addressing issues in every facet of women’s lives — including intimate relationships.
Much of the current coverage regarding AI’s impact on intimacy is reflective of male perspectives from male-led companies. To balance this, I reached out to eight of femtech and sextech’s most influential female voices to get their side of the story.
Founder, Loly ADRYENN ASHLEY
Adryenn Ashley, founder of new blockchain and AI-based dating app Loly is a serial entrepreneur and sought after startup advisor that was recently named as one of the Top 45 over 45, and she has no intention of slowing down.
With Loly, she's now pioneering a blockchain and AI dating app that matches people by orgasmic compatibility, rather than only photo and geolocation. Ashley wants to redefine the notion of consent and make hookups safer, better, and more frequent. I asked her the pros and cons of dating in an AI-enabled world.
In traditional dating apps, you present the best version of yourself, which never leads to the best match. Using AI you can be more truthful and tell the app what you want, secretly really want. AI can even find the perfect match without the user feeling like they’ve disclosed something private to another person. AI enables matching without human intervention.
Also, with machine learning, we can learn about the user and identify potential matching facets of personality they would never have thought of that could be their secret keys to finding love.
What are the negative hazards of AI and dating?
AI is only as smart as the parents that train it, the data scientists. That can lead to bias in the underlying programming that will come out and that’s where we have to be careful. Imagine the AI is a toddler — if you only feed it ice cream, it will never likely eat broccoli. In dating depending on who is doing the programming, that person may or may not have an inherent racist bias, which may determine that mixed-race matching is not good.
In your view, what are the most interesting advancements in AI?
Researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory recently used AI to go through years of scientific papers. The AI was able to come up with scientific breakthroughs in a fraction of the time it had taken humans and also developed new scientific breakthroughs that hadn’t yet been discovered — simply because of AI’s ability to organize data and pattern match on levels humans could never. For sex, this could help women that are not having orgasms by using scientific research to help them, this is something I am very excited by!
Lidia Bonilla PAVAN CARTER
Lidia Bonilla is a coach and pleasure advocate, committed to women having lives full of power, pleasure and intimacy. She is also the founder of House of Plume, an intimate lifestyle brand that provides elegant storage options for sex toys. She is the co-founder of Women of Sex Tech, an organization dedicated to merging sex and technology.
What do you see as positive about AI integrated sex tech? What do you see as negative?
The great thing is that AI can expand the realm of possibility of female orgasm. Companies that cater to satisfying women can use AI in amazing ways to help women be more sexually satisfied.
What concerns me is that relying on sex toys to figure out what makes you feel good can lessen your ability to communicate effectively about your body, which is a must for a great sustained sex life.
No matter the technological advances, our bodies still need human touch. AI can counterbalance some of the effects of loneliness and help those who have a difficult time connecting with others. However, we have not evolved to the point where humans don’t need each other.
kindestCup MEL SCHOLZ
Mel Scholz is a breastfeeding mom with a Ph.D. in biomechanics. She developed kindestCup, a multifunctional breastfeeding cup for hand expression, while on maternity leave with her second child.
As a femtech inventor who chose a non-technical route to solve a problem, what is your perspective on the digitization of intimacy?
Breastfeeding, although not sexual, is an intimate relationship between a parent and child. These days, however, many mothers use breast pumps. As a breastfeeding mom and a lover of tech gadgets, I was initially excited to shop for a swanky new breast pump! Unfortunately, my excitement quickly faded once I started using one. Pumping feels nothing like breastfeeding. It's uncomfortable and made me feel like something was wrong with me.
Before I gave up, I stumbled across hand expression. Hand expression is an ancient skill/technique where you use your own hands to remove breast milk from your breasts. Regularly touching my breasts not only helped me manage my milk supply but also allowed me to get to know them and integrate them back into my body (instead of being alienated from them), thereby becoming more accepting of my postpartum body.
While technological solutions may seem like progress, sometimes referring to organic solutions — especially when it comes to the human body — is key.
Founder of Chakrubs VANESSA CUCCIA
Vanessa Cuccia is the founder of Chakrubs, “the original crystal sex toy company.” In addition to being featured in New York Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, and nominated for Sex Toy of the Year by Xbiz, Chakrubs has a dedicated, passionate following — even touted as a “life changer” by some of its users.
Do you see a future where partners are replaced by computers or code, as some futurists have predicted?
Sextech is exciting because it can create solutions for people with disabilities and help the sex toy industry become more inclusive. What is interesting is that no matter how technologically advanced the industry becomes there remains a desire for human connection and emotional support.
With AI, we don't know yet if it will be able to offer emotional intimacy. However, I do think the possibilities of solving certain problems within the sex lives of many is quite intriguing.
Founder of Ohnut EMILY SAUER
Emily Sauer is the founder of Ohnut — an intimate health wearable for painful sex, that allows you to customize the depth of penetration. She also co-founded the Lady Bits League, a monthly roundtable of empowering women, co-creating a deeper understanding of how sexual identity informs our collective lives.
You regularly attend events on the topic of sex education and intimacy — what are some “red flags” you have noticed that demonstrate the existing biases in AI?
When a sexual surrogate company shows up at a renowned conference for sex therapists, with pink wig clad “rehabilitation” dolls that have long French manicures and breasts larger than your head — we have a problem.
As the founder of Ohnut, a sexual health wearable that facilitates human re-connection, I am particularly appalled that much of rehab specific AI ignores human progress and is instead dominated by male fantasy. Smart Sextech has the potential to educate and connect us offline, but the topic of 'rehabilitation' will continue to devolve into 'gratification' as long as toxic masculine company leadership dominates innovation in the field. We need more women in Sextech ASAP.
Dame Products JANET LIEBERMAN-LU
Janet Lieberman-Lu is the CTO of Dame Products. When she created Dame with Alexandra Fine in 2014, Lieberman utilized her MIT education and deep knowledge of 3D printers to create Dame’s first product Eva, a hands-free vibrator for women.
In your view, what are some of the most interesting advancements in AI?
I think there are interesting opportunities for enhanced self-knowledge and bio-reactivity, building off of the kind of work that Lioness is doing. These are tools that can learn from you and react in kind. I think there's a big potential for educational tools.
There are a lot of questions about sex that are hard to ask, and people often lack the vocabulary to even ask them. I also find the opportunity to add another source of information and variety into relationships without adding the variable of another person to be intriguing.
Do you find the way we discuss pleasure and sex within the context of AI to be problematic?
The uncanny valley is real. Sex dolls and sex robots are a pretty niche interest. They've been around for a long time, and while I don't believe there should be a stigma around buying or using them, no one should be worried that 20 or 50 years from now, they'll have replaced all human sexual interaction. If that were true, they'd already be more popular.
I've rarely seen an article touch on the disaster that is cleaning a regularly used sex doll. Most experts agree that the AI/sextech integration of the future will be more in line with wearables than sex dolls, but that's not what the discussion seems to revolve around.
The history of objects and products for sex has always been about enhancing intimacy. As you watch pornography move from a cave wall to the printing press to streaming video, each step is getting more intimate. But nothing replaces human touch. We have chemical responses to human interaction and touch, and the need for that isn't going away any time soon.
There's also a straight/male skew to how we talk about AI integrated sex tech, whereas most of the people I know doing work in sextech are women or non-binary. Men are more likely to use pornography as a sexual aid; women are more likely to use toys. So the focus on how AI is going to affect men's toys misses the broader market implications.
Make Love Not Porn CINDY GALLOP
Where are we now with AI and sex tech?
Sex is the area most devoid of research and data, because just as sextech startups battle to get funded, research into sex also faces funding challenges. There are very few research studies, and therefore data, about sex and sexuality are simply not valid for a wide swathe of humanity. The studies that do exist are massively subject to confirmation bias. Until we welcome and fund many more forms of research into human sexuality and improve the availability and validity of data regarding sex, any form of AI applied to this part of life cannot be trusted.
For your fund, All The Sky, what would be a female-founded AI intimacy venture that would pique your interest as an investor?
First, it has to be an AI coupled with human intelligence. My advice to any female founder who wants to develop an AI startup is that their technology has to learn from and be filtered through human intelligence, as well as through as diverse a human intelligence lens as possible.
The second thing would be to use AI with the aim of making good things happen in the real world. That requires bringing real creativity to whatever your concept is. There is a real tendency to want to remove human interaction from our lives. For example, the way that for young people today nobody is talking on the phone, only texting. Nobody wants to engage face-to-face.
It is very tempting to default to the virtual, and in many ways, this just furthers problems rather than solving them. I’m all about using sextech to bring people closer together in the real world which is the aim of MakeLoveNotPorn —, and we need many, many more AI and sextech ventures that do that.
Founder of Lips ANNIE BROWN
Annie Brown is the founder of Lips, a sharing platform for women and the LGBTQ+ communities marginalized by existing sharing platforms, with their track-record of problems with privacy, censorship and harassment. Brown’s platform (which will begin beta testing this fall) is unique in that it will directly address issues of algorithmic bias affecting women, queer persons and people of color by incorporating intersectional feminist philosophy at the root of their platform’s algorithmic AI.
Why incorporate philosophy into an AI algorithm?
It's tough to identify our own biases and, thus, extremely tricky to spot and prevent biases in AI technology. If there is an answer to the problem, it lies in the data and people behind the machines. If you're not conscious of the biases in the training data, then you won’t be able to prevent the replication of those patterns on a larger, algorithmic scale. Racial, gender or other biases in the data or coding of the algorithm can have a serious impact on the lives of already disadvantaged groups.
For example, Instagram’s latest algorithm update scans for “suggestive” posts to delete or shadowban — yet, “suggestive” is defined by who writes and approves the code. As a result of these uninterrogated and unacknowledged perspectives, biased algorithms systematically affect women, queer, POC, plus sized and disabled bodied content creators.
In order to address existing biases in AI, we at Lips are building a diverse team familiar with intersectional feminism (how different aspects of social and political discrimination overlap) to lead the development of AI algorithms for the platform.
Arguably, the fastest developing technology, Artificial Intelligence as we know it today is only the beginning. We are currently building the foundation of what AI of the future will be. A strong foundation requires an AI that is not only equipped with sufficient research that accounts for and eliminates human bias (most effectively done through the diversification of teams building AI), but also one that understands the singularity of the human experience.
As these founders eloquently explained, a diverse human element is especially important when it comes to the most human of experiences — love and intimacy.
Sandra Ponce de Leon is a corporate and startup podcaster and co-host of Popping the Bubbl. Sandra is a long time Silicon Valley tech veteran, marketer, cofounder and lover of scintillating conversation. Popping the Bubbl offers a team of professional marketers and podcasters who collectively have recorded over 150 podcasts over the last 3 years, and 15 years of high tech and startup marketing experience. Sandra's partner, Pete A. Turner, is an Iraq war veteran and former army intelligence officer who helps corporations gain insights into cultural issues and solutions to improve their businesses.