The Blood and the Bloodless

This post tempts me with the possibilities for all sorts of terrible puns, but I’ll try to keep them to a minimum.

I want to tell you about two lectures I recorded recently at Observatory.    One had to do with the history of blood transfusions and inter-species transfusion, and the other was about sex with machines.  (I could contrast the two lectures as “The Vibrant Pulse and the Vibrating Pulse-less”.  Or “Trading Blood and Not Trading Juices”?  Sorry.)

Holly Tucker is a French studies professor at Vanderbilt University, but she’s also huge medical history nut.  Her book “Blood Work” just came out this Spring.   She starts out by explaining just how poor of an idea 17th Century Europeans had of how blood works in the body.  When William Harvey proposed the idea in 1628 that blood circulates, the medical community was outraged.  The mostly widely agreed upon idea was that our bodies turned food into blood, then the heart acted as a furnace using up the blood.   Doctors confirmed Harvey’s hypothesis by testing out transfusions in animals.  They then took the next logical step- transfusing animal blood into humans.  Why?  Animals do not lie, cheat, or steal, argued 17th century physicians, making their blood more “pure” than that of humans.  This animal-to-human transfusion thing didn’t work out very well for one Jean Denis.  In 1667 his transfusion of lamb blood into a man left him on trial for murder.  After that, France effectively banned all transfusions.

Societal fear of blood transfusion limited the practice until the late 1800’s.  Doctors didn’t discover safe and reliable methods for transfusing human blood until the last century.  This leads Dr. Tucker to ask, should society set limits on science?  And if so, how, and at what price?  Safe blood transfusions could have saved countless lives had they been permitted hundreds of years ago.  In a modern day example, George W. Bush called for a ban on “interspecies research”, which gives many people a chill.  Yet his mother Barbara Bush lives today thanks to a pig heart valve.

Laura G. Duncan presented the other lecture, “Hey, Where’s My Robot Girlfriend? An Exploration of Sexual Robotics, Teledildonics and Carnal Technology.”

Ms. Duncan’s a sex researcher.  A few years ago, much to the amusement of her friends, she became fascinated with sexual robotics.  She tells me sex machines are a great staging ground for taking “high academic study” of sex and rooting it in what people are actually doing.  For the past two years she’s developed a bit of a following by taking her interest in front of audiences, giving mulimedia lectures on sexual robotics and teledildonics, “Sex robots have given me more opportunities than anything else,” she confided to me over the phone before her talk.

Ms. Duncan told me that through doing this research,  she’s come to realize that almost all technology is sex-driven.  People have emotional connections to machines, and she’s pretty that for any given machine there’s someone out there who’s asked, “Can I have sex with it?”

One interesting topic she brought up in her talk was the roles of human-like robots on film and television.  She pointed out that female robots tend to be highly sexualized, young, white, and attractive.  Male robots seem to have more leeway as to the characters they depict.

Ms. Duncan also brought up one huge barrier to the success of sex robots.  It’s a concept called the “uncanny valley.”  People show a preference for creatures with human qualities, but creatures that fall just shy of human creep us out.  Just look at Real Dolls.   It kind of makes me doubt the possibility of mainstream success for such sex robots, but human simulation technology may surprise us yet.

She ended her talk with a slideshow of the zany sex machines created by amateur inventors (see the F***zilla above).  Ms. Duncan suggested the appeal of such machines may lie in the control they give the user over their own sexual experience.