AI sex robots could soon be "hard to distinguish from living, breathing, orgasming humans", an expert says.

Professor Rob Brooks said the "digital lovers" will be among three types of "artificial intimacy" provided by machines this century.

The academic wrote in the Conversation: "Twenty-first century technologies such as robots, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) are creeping into every corner of our social and emotional lives — hacking how we form friendships, build intimacy, fall in love and get off.

"At first mention of artificial intimacy, many people’s minds may jump straight to sex robots: lifelike robotic sex dolls that could one day walk among us, hard to distinguish from living, breathing, orgasming humans.

"But despite the many important questions sex robots raise, they mostly distract from the main game.

"They are 'digital lovers' which — alongside VR porn, AI-enhanced sex toys and cybersex enhanced with haptic and teledildonic devices — constitute just one of three types of artificial intimacy."

Prof Brooks, of the University of New South Wales, also suggested social media's increasingly sophisticated AI could force us to choose between our friends.

Social media companies could eventually try to replace our friendships with virtual ones with "profound" effects on our mental health, he warned.

He said: "Before smartphones, humans spent about 192 minutes a day gossiping and 'grooming' one another.

"But the average social media user today spends 153 minutes each day on social media, cutting into offline relationships and the time they’d otherwise spend doing non-social work such as play and especially sleep.

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"The effects of this on mental health may be profound, especially for teens and young adults."

His warning was about the other two categories of "artificial intimacy" – "algorithmic matchmakers" like the ones used on hookup sites like Tinder and social media platforms; and “virtual friends” such as Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant and Baidu’s DuerOS.

He wrote: "Social media companies know we’ll use their platforms more if they funnel us content from the people we’re closest to.

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"Thus, they spend a lot of time and money trying to find ways to distinguish our close friends from the somebodies that we used to know.

"When social media (and other virtual friends) hack into our friend-grooming algorithms, they displace our offline friendships. After all, time spent online is time not spent in person with friends or family.

"And social media will only continue to evolve, as machine-learning algorithms find ever more compelling ways to engage us. Eventually, they may transition from digital matchmakers into virtual friends that type, post and speak to us like human friends.

"While this could provide some connection for the chronically lonely, it would also further occupy users’ limited time and precious cognitive capacity."

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