Life & Culture

When science fiction gets real

Jenny Kleeman's new book explores the promise - and problems - of new technology


There were many surreal moments during the research for Jenny Kleeman’s new book. Perhaps the strangest involved a “chicken” nugget and a room full of Silicon Valley types watching expectantly as she tucked in.

“It was this big performance,” recalls the journalist, who is currently locked down in London with her husband and two children. She had landed in San Francisco the night before, was jet-lagged and exhausted, when she was presented with “this little beige rectangle, the least remarkable thing you can imagine”, cooked on a camping stove. “I knew I was so lucky that they were going to let me eat it.” Yet she didn’t enjoy the taste at all.

Of course, it wasn’t your average poultry treat, but one made from “meat” grown in a lab. Kleeman’s book, Sex Robots and Vegan Meat, explores futuristic technology being developed now, from scientists exploring gestation outside the womb to inventors creating euthanasia machines. The nugget features in a section on the future of food, which considers the race for so-called “clean”, “vegan” or “cultivated meat”. To the scientists behind lab-grown meat and seafood, it is the holy grail; soon to deliver us from our planetary reliance on animals and save the environment. But to Kleeman, much of this technology is at best disturbing, at worst terrifying.

Documentary-maker Kleeman has just taken on a gig with Times Radio, having previously reported for Panorama and Dispatches. Her Sephardi mother grew up in Alexandria, leaving with just £10 in her pocket after Suez. Having spent years investigating other subjects, Kleeman acknowledges it is perhaps surprising she has never been to Egypt and knows little about her mother’s life there, nor of her father’s German Jewish ancestors.

“I don’t think my mother has ever wanted to go back, because she knows the life she had is gone. So it’s a piece of my identity I am not very connected with,” she says. She was brought up culturally Jewish. “It’s something I am piecing together now as an investigative journalist, talking to relatives and reading things about the world she lived in.” Her maternal grandfather, who died at 98, spoke eight languages including Ladino. “Through him I got a glimpse of this golden age around the Mediterranean where Jewish people travelled and mixed very freely.”

But for the past five years, the future, not the past, has preoccupied her. Kleeman’s interest in frontier science came about after seeing manacles once used to chain slaves in a museum; she mulled over what would some day come across as similarly unbelievable. This led her to the chilling world of radical right-to-die groups. “I quickly began to see they are a symptom of the problem and not a cure — a symptom of the fact our laws [around dying] are in such a mess.”

Death turned out to be the genesis of her book, which also covers the inventors thrusting forth with AI- enabled sex robots. A tour of Abyss Creations, maker of the RealDoll, is eye-opening; likewise the frankness of the men willing to pay enormous sums for these silicon partners.

“The visit to the sex robot factory — I will never forget it,” Kleeman says. “it was one of the most amazing things, standing in front of the wall where there were 42 different kinds of nipple of every shape, style and size imaginable.”

She ruefully recounts having to explain the facts of life to her six-year-old “far earlier and more expansively than I would ever have wanted” after he heard the book title and started chanting “sex robot”. “It’s bad that my child’s first encounter with the facts of life is that people also like to do it with silicon life-size dolls,” she sighs. Her worry is her son is a budding reporter and will tell his friends. “He likes to be the enlightener of the other kids.”

As comical as it is, these inventions have serious consequences for women, and for society. “What does it mean if you can design your perfect partner and their personality?” she says. She has spoken to men who argue the dolls will curb male violence because they can be beaten without consequence and her book discusses the “Incel” movement, or the men who believe women should be made redundant.

It isn’t just sex robots. Kleeman is convinced we use technology “to solve problems when actually quite a lot of the time the solution is in our hands, if we have the courage to change our behaviour or the intellectual rigour to frame the laws correctly,” The problem is, “we are lazy, so there’s money to be made by people who tell us they will provide an off-the-shelf solution”.

Reading about euthanasia campaigner Philip Nitschke’s Sarco — a prototype of a death machine so spaceship-like that Kleeman’s son gasped when he saw a picture of it — I am inclined to agree. But, as a mother, I was struck by the potential upsides to ectogenesis, discussed in the section on birth. Essentially, this means the development of embryos outside the uterus; babies gestated in artificial wombs. This could not just relieve women from pregnancy, but more immediately bring closer the prospect of saving premature babies, who would not otherwise survive. It sounds like something invented by Margaret Atwood — but IVF was once no less controversial. “I am maybe 15 per cent sold,” admits Kleeman, recalling how people’s perceptions of her changed once she became pregnant. “I would love the idea of there being greater equality.” But she thinks the downsides are huge.

“The joy of, and what you get from motherhood is the most incredible intimacy that comes from bearing your own children,” she explains. “That’s not something I’d ever want to give up. That’s something so many people dream of. It’s a privilege and the source of our strength as women as well as undoubtedly our weakness.”

I suggest that adoptive parents — and indeed fathers — still have that bond, which she accepts. But she says writing the book showed her “the extent to which what has always made women powerless is the source of our power. We have to think what we’re giving up if we have the possibility of giving it up.”

There’s another reason Kleeman could be expected to be more positive towards this technology; her own miscarriage at 20 weeks (four weeks later and it would have been considered a stillbirth). “I am torn. Obviously if this technology existed it would have saved my baby, and I met people who are desperate to have children and didn’t want to have surrogates. But it seems a very imperfect solution.” She discussed her experiences partly, she says, “to let the reader know I have personal skin in the game”.

Her view is that this technology is the furthest away; vegan meat she expects to be viable in the next five years and sex robots are already on the market. “Euthanasia machines, who knows, but certainly I hope within my son and my daughter’s lifetime we will be able to sort out less terrifying ways to die.”

Kleeman’s conclusion is that those who invent this technology don’t really understand where it’s going to take us and how dependent we will become on it. “I’m not a Luddite but we need to ask questions before the technology arrives, so that we retain our power.”

She’s doubtful regulation will suffice. “While we might ban child sex robots, they might be freely available in North Korea. The same goes with any of this, unless you had a global ban which I don’t think you would.”

Instead, it’s about not being dazzled by the technology. Kleeman is not a tech journalist, reliant on Silicon Valley relationships, and she thinks that has made her clearer-eyed in reporting the implications of it all.

“If you look at a lot of the reporting of sex robots, it’s either ‘isn’t this hilarious’ or people parroting things that are simply not true, because people are seduced by certain kinds of stories. We need more critical reporting so that we are empowered when these technologies arrive to say whether or not we want them.”

After a few months of home-schooling her son — something she’s actually rather enjoyed — Kleeman is looking ahead to a series of early starts for her Friday-to-Sunday Times Radio breakfast slot. It’s her first presenting job and is, she says, “faintly terrifying” but also exciting. “It’s a real opportunity to do something different,” she says. “It is meant to be a place where there is warm expert-led conversation; you’re not going to have people interrupted and shouted at. I was very freaked out by the whole ‘we’ve had enough of experts’ era. I like the idea of moving beyond to something that will make people feel informed and not just want to fight.”

First, though, is a Zoom book launch. “It’s the most satisfying thing that I’ve ever done,” Kleeman says. “I’ve always been interested in extreme things, through the telling of which we can all learn something about life not so on the extremes.”

Her book was completed before the pandemic and the context has if anything made it more relevant. “Covid makes sex robots a lot more attractive — the ultimate social distancing tool,” she says. “It makes lab-grown meat more attractive because this disease came from animal markets. It has affected all of these areas and these inventions seem to be a solution, because what they do is distance us from our nature, but that interaction makes us human.”

“Hopefully,” she adds, “Covid is just a blip and not the new normal.”


Sex Robots & Vegan Meat: Adventures at the Frontier of Birth, Food, Sex & Death by Jenny Kleeman is published by Picador

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