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"I'm here to see the robot strippers?"
That was me, Monday night, walking into a Las Vegas strip club in hopes of finding one of the more bizarre forms of entertainment near the Strip: A pair of pole-dancing robots I'd read about in an International Business Times article earlier that day.
The robots were an obvious gimmick during one of Las Vegas's busiest weeks of the year — the 50th Consumer Electronics Show, a massive annual tech trade show full of geeky gadgets and gizmos, from touchscreens to cars to fancy electric trashcans. The Sapphire Gentleman's Club, a strip club right off Vegas's main drag, paid to showcase the robots as a way to drum up interest from press and customers.
As a first-time CES attendee, the gimmick worked on me: What could be more CES than pole-dancing robots?
The robots were as advertised: They gyrated on a stripper pole to music from 50 Cent and Pharrell, with dollar bills scattered on the stage and the floor. A half-dozen human dancers, most of whom were dressed in tight, shiny robot costumes, repeatedly took pics in front of their metallic colleagues. (The woman greeting guests as I walked in told me that I missed a skit where the human dancers unveiled the robot dancers to Star Wars music, and then joked about them stealing their jobs.)
The robots look nothing like actual humans, thank God. They had CCTV security cameras for faces, and you could see their metal interiors and wires as they moved up and down the pole. (They were, however, wearing high heels.)
And unlike many of the big tech gimmicks you'll hear about this week from CES, the robot pole-dancers aren't courtesy of a massive multibillion-dollar corporation. They're the work of an artist named Giles Walker, a 50-year-old Brit who describes himself as a scrap metal artist with a passion for building animatronic robots. One of his other projects, The Last Supper, features 13 robots interacting around a table.
Walker says he got the idea for pole-dancing robots more than seven years ago, when he noticed the rise of CCTV cameras being used as a way to surveil people in Britain for safety purposes, what he called "mechanical peeping Toms." He was inspired by the idea of voyeurism, or watching others for pleasure, and decided to try and turn the cameras into something sexy on their own.
"There's a challenge," he said from a back table at the Sapphire Club, his robotic creations gyrating some 30 feet away. "I think if you're a painter, you might want to paint a beautiful woman and make it beautiful. I'm a sculptor, and I wanted to do something that was sexy."
His robots have become a hit, and not just at CES (this viral tweet from December certainly helped).
Walker says he'll rent them out for corporate parties — usually "full of men in shirts," he says — and referred to the robots as his "Christmas jingle," which help pay the bills in a profession where money isn't always easy to come by.
But while pole-dancing robots might have been just a silly side effect of CES a few years ago, tech's recent grappling with the industry's obvious issues of sexism and gender disparity now put stripper robots in a very different light. CES has already been called out for a lack of gender diversity, and some see dancing robots as yet another example of an chauvinist industry lacking self-awareness.
Walker, for his part, sees different concerns with his creations. The rise of human-like robots is coming, he says, and bringing them into the sex industry will be particularly problematic.
"They will invent the sex robot," Walker said. "Everyone's striving to do it. I've been approached as well, but I think it's a really dark area. I'm loath to go there."
"My worry is — and this is really crude, but it is a crude idea — if you build a robot that you can have sex with, then you can build a robot that you can rape, and you can build a child robot that you can have sex with, and it's all supposedly legal," Walker continued. "But [just] because it's legal, does that mean it's a healthy thing? The dark side of the sex industry will create some really nasty, nasty stuff, and I think, 'Is it worth it?'"
Walker is now dealing with the reality that his creations are indeed associated with sex, and while he may not like where the industry is headed, it can be difficult to get out altogether.
"I didn't build these to get involved in the sex industry. They weren't about sex, they were about voyeurism," he added. "I've been dragged into this side of things unintentionally, but I'm not complaining. It does pay the bills. I am a robot pimp in that way."