Commentary

The dark side of technology

In a speech at the opening of a technology and innovation festival last week, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation initiative, spoke about the future of augmented reality.

"The real killer app for augmented reality is not games, it's virtual sex," he said, recounting what he told Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg during a trip to Silicon Valley in February.

Dr Balakrishnan, who also spoke about smart objects, robotics and artificial intelligence, may have read the news on Naughty America, one of the biggest pornography production companies in the United States.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year, it showcased a handful of virtual reality (VR) adult videos, and invited international media to try them out.

While the Internet was all aflutter with the potential erotic uses of virtual reality headsets, the fact that VR has veered into porn should not come as a surprise.

After all, sex has long been at the forefront of technological demand.

Canadian journalist Patchen Barss is the author of The Erotic Engine: How Pornography Has Powered Mass Communication From Gutenberg To Google.

According to Forrester Research, US$1.3 billion (S$1.79 billion) was spent on online porn in 1999. That figure represents about 8 per cent of all online commerce that year, and was also more than what Internet users spent on books or plane tickets.

In his book, he details how the adult industry has driven demand for many innovations we now take for granted, including video streaming, e-commerce and online advertising.

According to Forrester Research, US$1.3 billion (S$1.79 billion) was spent on online porn in 1999. That figure represents about 8 per cent of all online commerce that year, and was also more than what Internet users spent on books or plane tickets.

Last year, revenue from the online adult industry hit US$3 billion, according to IBISWorld Market Research, although growth is beginning to slow because of high piracy rates.

Where there is such a strong demand, it is inevitable that supply will follow.

The Internet, which began life as a tool for military communication, is now the greatest repository of explicit material in human history.

Robotics and artificial intelligence have been used to create RealDolls, which retail for more than US$5,000 apiece. The California-based company that creates these lifelike sex dolls is now working on robots with artificial intelligence and a customisable personality.

Smart devices have led to smart sex toys that can be controlled remotely.

For the health-conscious, there are now trackers that can keep track of particular types of movement during sex.

Even space, the supposed final frontier, has not been spared. In June last year, pornography website PornHub launched a US$3.4 million crowdfunding campaign to film Sexploration, the first adult movie to be shot in space. While it did not reach its target, backers contributed US$236,086 to the cause.

While such endeavours are often destined for the privacy of the bedroom, their contribution to the demand for and advancement of technology is undeniable.

Often, the only limiting factor to how such innovations can be applied is creativity.

Now, I wonder what else virtual reality can do.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 25, 2016, with the headline 'The dark side of technology'. Print Edition | Subscribe