Is technology replacing nature? When it comes to the fundamentals of life–birth, sex, food, and death–new technologies might lead in unexpected (and possibly unsavory) directions. Or, at the least, that’s the premise of documentarian and writer Jenny Kleeman’s book, Sex Robots and Vegan Meat: Adventures on the Frontier of Birth, Food, Sex and Death.
While some of the products and technologies Kleeman explores are useful, possibly necessary, and well-intentioned, she takes pains to point out at every step along her adventures, the big question: Is technology not just replacing nature, but also a way to sidestep actually dealing with problems and ultimately changing behavior?
Vegan Meat Isn’t Roast Ready
Parentology has written about veggie and vegan burger options and whether they’re better for you — and the environment — than meat. Kleeman, describing herself as a “devoted carnivore” on a YouTube London Futurist webinar, points out that it’s hard to defend eating lots of meat these days.
The solutions the market has come up with tend to be workarounds; the idea you can have your meat and eat it, too. Thus, there’s lots of “hype” around lab-grown meat (which is actually meat, and not a plant-based substitute), or “hacking plants” (i.e. the Impossible Burger). This hype is necessary to obtain funding, particularly amongst Silicon Valley types, because it’s historically quite difficult for any new food product to succeed.
However, ramifications surrounding costs and elitism might also surface. “Lab-grown meat will allow wealthier nations to assert their moral superiority over poorer nations who can’t afford the technology to produce it. In a future where we still eat meat, but killing animals is taboo, the way people in poorer countries eat will be easily demonized as barbaric,” Kleeman tells Parentology.
Many of the products Kleeman sampled, like the lab-grown products that manufacturers prefer the term “clean meat”, taste fine but have terrible texture. Another product, a lab-produced chicken nugget, she describes as “so very mushy.”
Between the efforts needed to produce lab-grown meat and the “ick” factor in eating something grown in a lab, Kleeman wonders if it’s worth the trouble. Maybe we should just change our habits?
“You can carry on being greedy and carry on eating unlimited amounts of meat, because this technology will save the day,” Kleeman said in the webinar. “The danger in all of this is giving us the opportunity to continue the negative conditions we have now.”
Ethical Issues in Artificial Wombs
Anytime there’s an advance in infertility science, there’s a reaction. When In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) first became available, there were widespread concerns that those “test-tube babies” wouldn’t be normal. The massive success of IVF has put those concerns to rest.
An artificial womb, though, might be different. Starting in 2017, the “bio bag” was invented and successfully tried out on premature lamb fetuses. The lambs were transplanted into the bags at a gestational age equivalent to a 23-week-old human fetus, and then kept in the bags until “birth.”
Nature published the results, noting, “We show that fetal lambs that are developmentally equivalent to the extreme premature human infant can be physiologically supported in this extra-uterine device for up to 4 weeks.”
For extreme preemies, this might be a life saver. Most premature babies born at around 22 weeks don’t make it, primarily because their lung and digestive systems aren’t fully developed, and an incubator is really for a newborn infant, not a developing fetus.
Head of WIRF’s Perinatal Research Laboratories and Local Chief Investigator, Associate Professor Matt Kemp told Science Daily that this tech isn’t meant to act as a stand-alone womb from conception. “The technology was designed to revolutionize the treatment of severely premature newborns. The goal is to offer a bridge between a natural womb and the outside world to give babies born at the earliest gestational ages more time for their fragile lungs to mature. With additional refinement, what today might be considered as futuristic technology might soon not be so futuristic and might be standard of care.”
However, in 2019 Dutch researchers were given funding to build a prototype for such a device, more sophisticated than the original “bio bag.” They might be as little as 10 years out from a totally artificial womb.
So, if women might not have to actually be pregnant to have their own child (sans surrogate), what does that mean for society? Would it be an equalizer for the sexes, or open a Pandora’s Box of issues?
“For me, [the artificial womb] exposed the gulf between the perfect world in which this technology could have so many positive applications — for women with at-risk pregnancies, trans women, gay couples and couples with fertility problems — and the real world in which we currently live, where pregnant women’s behavior is under constant scrutiny, and women’s reproductive rights often seem under threat,” Kleeman tells Parentology.
However, she notes that there can be a disturbing and dark side as well. Plucking a fetus from a mother’s womb and placing it in an artificial one might mean that women’s bodily autonomy and choice are endangered even more.
“In certain parts of America, there is enormous concern for unborn children. Fetuses are fetishized, and pregnant women who do not want them or do not behave in an appropriately ‘motherly’ way are demonized,” Kleeman says. “While kids might be neglected by the state once they are born, while they are unborn they are a massive political flashpoint. States such as Alabama have gone to the expense of incarcerating pregnant women for unmotherly behavior because they drank alcohol or smoked marijuana during their pregnancies. It would be cheaper (eventually) to make these women give up their pregnancies and transfer their fetuses into an artificial womb.”
In other words, according to Kleeman, an artificial womb could make abortion BOTH pro-choice and pro-life. The woman who doesn’t want the baby would potentially be forced to give it up to a state-run womb farm. “Women will lose the right to not become a parent, a right that men currently don’t have but women do. It is a very powerful political tool.”
We’re a long way off from growing (rather than having) a baby. But, as Elizabeth Chloe Romanis, a lawyer at the University of Manchester, told The Guardian, “It is clear that the legal and ethical issues emerging from the technology must be talked about now, in advance of the artificial womb becoming a reality.”
Sex and Death
Sex toys certainly aren’t new, and sex dolls have long been around. But, as Kleeman discovered, the technology for the so-called sex doll is a far cry from the old inflatable models.
The newest sex toys being developed include articial intelligence, which can be programmed to laugh at your jokes, agree with everything you say, and never tell you to empty the dishwasher. Kleeman describes a factory in which there are 42 different types of nipples to choose from, for instance.
She also had a chat with Harmony, a head-only prototype for the AI sex doll, that’s due to make her debut soon. Harmony was programmed on her most intelligent setting for Kleeman; she’d been set to her dirtiest for her CNN interview, and that hadn’t gone so well. Kleeman said it was the toughest interview she’d ever had to do as a journalist, notably because good interviewing involves trying to guess what your interviewee is thinking. This turned out to be impossible, because “Harmony wasn’t thinking at all.”
There are claims made that dolls like Harmony are good relationship surrogate objects for the deeply wounded or socially awkward. This might be true, to a point. But, Harmony is not sentient. It only mirrors exactly what its owner requests.
“It might erode our capacity for empathy, somewhat,” Kleeman says. “It’s a completely selfish relationship.”
A more sinister aspect to these dolls: child-sized ones. Encouraging pedophilia through practicing on a doll that gives you nothing but verbal encouragement seems like a bad — even evil — idea.
And on the death front, Kleeman explores the tech behind black market assisted suicide machines, most notably a downloadable, 3D printable device called Sarco that also thoughtfully doubles as a coffin. Sarco takes the “assisted” aspect out of the process; there’s no doctor or extra person who’s liable for pushing the button.
In the end, Kleeman finds that most of this technology just allows society to avoid the more complicated tasks of changing habits, social mores, and laws. So, eat less meat overall. Have the socially awkward speak to real people instead of dolls. Change the laws around euthanasia. And give pregnant women equality at work and home. Perhaps buying a process or a device isn’t the best answer to our problems.
“The innovations I investigate in my book are not solutions, they are circumventions that obscure and bypass real human problems. They help us adapt to the conditions that are constricting us in the first place,” Kleeman says, adding that they deny us an opportunity for growth. “Real change comes from summoning the courage to choose to do things differently, to take on a different attitude, to reform our behavior, not from technological innovation. That takes much more effort than just buying something.”
Sex Robots & Vegan Meat: Adventures at the Frontier of Birth, Food, Sex & Death by Jenny Kleeman is published by Pegasus Books on September 1st in the US, and by Picador in the UK. (NOTE: Parentology is an Amazon affiliate and may make a commission from purchases made through this link.)