CES disqualified this women's sex toy for not being a robot. Is it?

It was a huge blunder on the part of CES organizers. Does CTA's flimsy technical reasoning hold up?

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If you've paid any attention to CES 2019, one story has probably stuck out. Shortly after the show opened, Lora Haddock, founder and CEO of sex tech company Lora DiCarlo, published an open letter to the tech community decrying another in a long history of examples of gender bias and exclusion at CES.

Lora DiCarlo makes a sex toy designed to mimic human touch. It looks like a vibrator but it doesn't actually vibrate. Instead it "caresses like a real partner, with a come-hither motion."

Everything we do at Lora DiCarlo is rooted in sex-positivity and inclusion. We don't hide what we do, and we firmly believe that women, non-binary, gender non-conforming, and LGBTQI folks should be vocally claiming our space in pleasure and tech -- both of which are still heavily dominated by male-CEOs and executives. We also believe that society needs to drop the taboo around sex and sexuality -- it's a part of life and health that absolutely should be part of mainstream discourse. No shaming, no embarrassment, just the comfort and freedom to be yourself and enjoy your own body.

That's why we submitted our first ever product, Osé, for the CES Innovation Awards -- one of the most coveted awards in tech and the perfect example of a space that needs to be shaken up and diversified ...

And you know what? WE WON

Specifically, Lora DiCarlo's product was awarded a 2019 CES Innovation Award in the Robotics & Drone category. It's important to note here that the awards are vetted and administered by CTA, the organization that owns and produces CES, but voted on by a panel of independent judges deemed expert in each of the award categories.

According to Haddock in her open letter, the Lora DiCarlo team was overjoyed by the 2019 CES Innovation Award, until CES revoked it.

My team rejoiced and celebrated. A month later our excitement and preparations were cut short when we were unexpectedly informed that the administrators at CES and CTA were rescinding our award and subsequently that we would not be allowed to showcase Osé, or even exhibit at CES 2019.

Initially, Haddock says, the reasons cited had to do with the alleged obscenity of the device.

The CTA has been extremely cagey on why they took away the award. Their first excuse was to cite this rule buried in their legalese:

Entries deemed by CTA in their sole discretion to be immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with CTA's image will be disqualified. CTA reserves the right in its sole discretion to disqualify any entry at any time which, in CTA's opinion, endangers the safety or well being of any person, or fails to comply with these Official Rules.

It's frankly astounding that an organization that's become the standard-bearer of the tech sector at large, a community that's grappling very publicly with deep-rooted gender bias, would be so daft as to cite obscenity rules as a reason to bar a device that has such obvious symbolic resonance, but there you go. Lora DiCarlo's packaging and marketing, it should be noted, is not obscene by any contemporary measure. If anything, the female-led company's website is understated.

And as Haddock rightly points out, CES has been home to sex dolls for men and VR porn experiences, so, um ... whoops. 

Also: Robots rising: 5 trends driving the robotics sector in 2019 

CTA spokesperson Sarah Brown has responded to press by email citing a different reason. She told TechCrunch that Lora DiCarlo's award was revoked "because they don't fit a product category." According to Haddock, she was told the same thing by none other than CTA president and CEO Gary Shapiro. 

In other words, CTA is saying that Osé isn't a robot

It's pretty clear in the aftermath of all this that CTA's decision was ill-advised at best, pig-headed and indicative of huge problems in tech at worst. The gender issue is impossible to table in any post-mortem of what happened, but what caught my attention was that CTA seems comfortable policing what is and isn't a robot, a debate that's raged in grad labs and on barstools for years.

WHAT IS A ROBOT?

The unsatisfying answer is that it's tricky. Is your washing machine a robot? Is a modern high-end car, which engages in thousands of processes outside the driver's direct control? There are good cases on both sides. 

In general, a robot is a programmable machine that physically interacts with the world around it and is capable of carrying out a complex series of actions autonomously or semi-autonomously.

Also: Robotics in business: Everything humans need to know

So is the Lora DiCarlo device a robot? I reached out to Lola Vars, the company's Technical Director, for some insight. Vars was tight-lipped about the specific technology powering the device, but she did shed some relevant light on the subject. 

"I can say that our product has been developed utilizing mechanical actuation systems from traditional robotics including, but not limited to, linkages and air pumps," Vars told me over email. "We also utilize a microprocessor and logic that can only be described as a human robotic interface."

Indeed, the device was designed in partnership with Oregon State University, which is a robotics powerhouse. 

One thing the device doesn't do, at least in its current iteration, is autonomously make decisions. 

"This current version does not have decision making beyond a little bit of digital circuit monitoring," Vars told me, "but a learning machine platform is certainly on our product roadmap. It does conform to different body types currently and those confirmations are both user mediated and material science mitigated."

So is it a robot? It doesn't have autonomy yet, which has to be a consideration. Then again, by the definition I gave it's not clearcut that a robot needs to autonomously make decisions. Many teleoperated robots, for example, are controlled by users, and drones are frequently lumped in with robots, including by CES in this Innovation Awards category. 

Also: Robots have a diversity problem. This Swedish startup could change that

What makes a machine a robot, then, seems to be the complexity of its movements and actuation, an ill-defined threshold at best. Given the actuation methods used in the Lora DiCarlo device, it seems to pass that test (most dildos don't use air pumps, after all).

It's also worth taking a step back and looking at other products allowed in the category, which includes drones. One award winner was a "robotic" skateboard, which is controlled by users.

The point is that even CTA's amended reasoning is flimsy. If you're going to create a broad category that includes drones and robots, and if you're not going to specify in clear language what does and doesn't qualify, you shouldn't be arbitrating independently-selected winners after the fact. CTA's decision seems reactive, and certainly short-sighted.

In one fell swoop, the organization has managed to incur the ire of several groups ... including, maybe, roboticists.