An expert tells us 5 things that are going to happen to intimacy in the 21st century.

Vivid Ideas Sydney
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Less than five years ago, the concept of being able to pleasure a partner by operating their sex toy from the other side of the planet was the stuff of wild imagination.

Less than 10 years ago, the idea of having sex with a stranger you met on the Internet was considered as desperate as it was dangerous.

Less than 20 years ago, the thought that you could access pornography, for free, from a device that lives in your pocket, was beyond comprehension.

Sex technology has, in the blink of an eye, revolutionised how we have sex, where we have sex and who we have sex with – so much so that elements of our sexuality would be entirely unrecognisable to our ancestors.

So, what’s next?

With the rise of sex robots, VR, and apps that counsel us through heartbreak, how is sex going to look for the generations that succeed us?

Bryony Cole, the world’s leading authority on sex tech and host of podcast Future of Sexwho will be speaking at Sydney event Vivid Ideas on Saturday May 25, has a pretty good idea.

In her research, which involves interviewing technologists, entertainers and sex therapists, she ultimately asks the question: What can we expect?

We won’t be overrun by sex robots

While sex robots are in development, and are in a lot of ways an exciting advancement, Cole can’t see them becoming mainstream anytime soon.

Cole believes they’ll be instrumental in helping people through sexual trauma, and perhaps as a tool to “make us better lovers”.

But, she tells Mamamia, “I certainly don’t think every family is going to have one of these as a replacement lover.”


“What makes humans great is creativity and our imagination and our mystery… all things that technology can’t do that well.

“Technology is great at algorithms and rationalism. Those things aren’t necessarily great in the bedroom.”

Virtual reality is going to be big

“I think it’s sort of obvious when Apple starts putting AR [augmented reality] sensors into their phones,” the Australian-born, US-based researcher says.

According to a new report from Ming-Chi Kuo, the company has been working on an augmented reality headset. The launch of the device is believed to be coming as soon as the end of this year, and will be available to consumers by early 2020.

“Mixed media is coming whether we like it or not. Those are the sorts of technologies that will become more mainstream,” Cole explains.

“That’s far easier than if you need to go out and buy the proper virtual reality kit and get the proper experience. VR will be transformational.”

The glasses being manufactured by Apple will provide you with information (from reading to pornography) right in front of your eyes.

The concern is that these technologies that facilitate sexual experiences with technology, could be as satisfying, if not more satisfying, than relationships with human partners.

Could people begin to derive partnership from virtual environments, and what impact does that have on intimacy?

We really need to talk about Gate Box

And that brings us to Gate Box, a holographic version of Google Home or Alexa which is big in Japan.

“She is in a glass cylinder,” Cole describes, “but she’s like a blue cartoon teenage girl, and as well as controlling the lights in your home, she’ll also send you text messages. She’ll say things like ‘I miss you, come home’.


“It’s marketed to men as a replacement girlfriend… and there’s an emotionality to it.

“It’s eerily close to the movie Her.”

Gate Box. Image via Gate Box.

Gate Box is particularly popular to men who are often referred to as 'herbivore men'; that is, a demographic in Japan that has no interest whatsoever in sex or dating.

It has led to what has recently been referred to as 'the virginity crisis', whereby men well into their 30s are not engaging in sexual intercourse. Japan's government see it as one contributing factor to the declining birth rate.


"It could be completely frightening," Cole says.

But, she adds, "Say people are going to marry their technology, there's a bit of evolution there. They're not going to have kids. The people who will survive are probably the ones who are going to form human relationships."

Apps that will mend a broken heart

"I think there's a number of examples that exist today of how AI [artificial intelligence] is enhancing couples and making relationships better," Cole says.

She cited an app called 'Mend', specifically designed for breakups.

"It uses AI to track your mood and it asks how you're feeling. Every day it has a new lesson tailored to where you're at in the stage of your breakup.

"It tracks everything from your exercise to the way you use social media, your breathing, your sleeping. It's one of those applications that is highly empathetic. It uses the tools in the right way, and uses technology to make us more human."

A future with less judgement and shame

Her first insight is that most people working in the fields of sex and technology hope for a future where sex is "more open" and less judgemental.

"Those answers have nothing to do with technology," Cole says"and everything to do with being human and I think that's the insight that's really powerful."

Cole considers the age we live in to still be overwhelmingly puritanical, with talk about sex being confined to anonymous online environments.


"The future of sex," as Cole sees it, "is a place where we can have these conversations normalised and people feel like they're not going to be judged.

"Pretty much everyone has sex," she adds. "That's how we all got here."


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So, while our fear is that sex tech will 'replace' us, Cole does not see that as likely.

"I think we're in the midst of a crisis of culture, rather than a crisis of sex," she says.

"There's this really weird period called 'cultural lag' - where we  still don't know how to use the technology, we're probably abusing it, and then it reaches this point where it's become the new normal."


According to Cole, we're getting there.

As long as sex tech includes education around sex and erotic technology - then our sexual relationships should become better, not worse.

She does say, however, that there is one rather ubiquitous question that's always plagued our sex lives.

"Am I normal?"

Quoting US rocker Ashley Purdy, she says, "You know what normal is? A setting on a washing machine. No-one wants to be that."

It turns out, no-one really thinks they're having 'normal' sex, which can be a source of great anxiety.

"We're all searching for the best sex ever... but there's no guide book except you're own body," she says.

"We might not be having better or worse sex, but we're certainly talking about it now."

Bryony Cole will talk about the frontiers of sex tech as part of the New Horizons series at Vivid Ideas 2019 on May 25, from 4pm to 5.30pm at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Cole will also join SBS' The Feed host Marc Fennell and producer Claire Aird for a conversation about their documentary, Sex in Japan: Dying for Company, on May 26, from 4pm to 5.30pm at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

For more of the Vivid Ideas 2019 program, including the popular Vivid Art After Hours, visit

Vivid Sydney runs from May 24 to June 15, 2019.

Vivid Ideas Sydney

Vivid Ideas brings you 23 days and nights of future-facing talks, hands-on workshops and industry-shaping forums. The Mark Colvin Conversation: Net Worth asks what price we’ll pay for our constant digital distraction. In New Horizons, tune in to experts on sextech, co-living, dying for company, digital farewells and the dark web. Citizens of the World workshops unlock essential skills for a better informed and engaged life. Vivid Art After Hours combines free talks by creative thinkers, mindfulness training, art activities and live music. Seek out bright sparks. Find new collaborators. Come up with new ways of thinking and maybe even try a new way of being.