Sachin Raoul, Bachelor of Arts and Master of Philosophy, studied at University College London and the University of Cambridge. Personal experience and careful market observation prompted him to found the sex therapy platform Blueheart. He found the perfect ally in co-founder Robbie Coomber, a computer scien- tist and software engineer.
With Blueheart, you two founders dare to tackle a socially controversial, sometimes even taboo topic: sex therapy via smartphone. How has that worked?
Sachin: There is a huge cultural shift going on at the moment, people are opening up about mental health and therapy, but there’s still one important area left in the dark. If someone has a sexual problem, where can they turn? That’s where we come in. I had personal experience with this problem in South Africa. When my relationship ended, I started having sexual problems. Being an extremely conservative nation, the range of different therapies available in South Africa was limited. Here in London, people are a bit more open-minded, but the help is still hard to find, and often means joining a long waiting list. When I saw more and more forms of therapy coming onto the digital market, I asked myself:
Why can’t this be applied to sex therapy as well?
Robbie: We are trying to solve two problems. The first one is access. Sex therapy is very expensive. The second is shame.
A third of all men with erectile dysfunction are more likely to end their relationship than talk to a doctor about it. We can overcome both obstacles with our solution.
Three minutes are enough for the app to assess the problem and then create a therapy plan tailored to the user’s needs. With the help of a range of exercises specifically designed by experts, people with sexual or relationship issues can regain confidence in their bodies and overcome anxieties. On top of that, everything is entirely anonymous and highly secure. Our users have the right to delete, view, and restrict the processing of the data we store.
Is our society ready for mobile sex therapy?
Sachin: We believe that this will be an integral part of our future social life and collective well-being. People are already using therapy apps on their smartphones in all kinds of areas. Blueheart will become the first point of contact for people with sexual dysfunctions and other relationship problems. We want to be part of this change and make therapy a normal, rewarding experience, free from condemnation and stigma. And above all, free from the idea that you need a psychologist in the room to do it.
Speaking of the future: What will sexuality look like in the future? How will we manage relationships?
Robbie: That’s a very big question. A lot of things will change. There are already so many more people openly committed to the LGBTQI+ movement, for example. Those experimenting with other types of relationships outside traditional monogamy, such as polyamory, are also part of a growing community in places like London.
And I believe that with the help of technology this acceptance can spread even further to those who may not have otherwise discovered it in
their peer group — they can find belonging online.
More than anything, I hope that in the future people will communicate more effectively with each other and learn to deal with their anxieties. We have to accept and better understand the significance of sexuality in our lives. As far as research is concerned, we haven’t even scratched the surface. Traditional sex therapies that originated in the 1970s are still being practiced today. Imagine the potential scientific and social advancement now that we are able to collect anonymous data. We currently have around 2,000 people using our assessment platform. In a few years, we will have millions of data points that will help us determine what better (sexual) relationships look like.
Speaking of data points about relationships: Have you seen the movie Her? Do you think the plot, in which a person falls in love with an invisible artificial intelligence, is a realistic vision of the future?
Sachin: This is already happening now. Let me tell you a story: A woman named Rose works as a concierge at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas. She is incredibly charming and flirty. She’s also a chatbot, but because she’s so well designed, some people don’t realize they are communicating with an AI and may even have a crush on "her." And frankly, that’s okay. People fall in love with cars, with donkeys, anatomically realistic dolls and, if technology makes it possible, with an AI.
Robbie: I love that film. If it actually becomes real, I am totally okay with it. Sachin mentioned that some of this is already happening and I immediately thought: Yes, of course, people are already in love with their smartphones.
Sachin: That’s right. It’s no longer unusual to maintain a relationship through virtual channels. We are already in a position to fall in love with texts that we see on a screen in a dating app, but there is still a person out there who is behind the writing. Reaction and interaction now take place in the digital space. Will it be so dramatically different if we fall in love with someone who can communicate with us in the same way but is not flesh and blood?
But can an AI ever fulfill our desires in the same way as interpersonal relationships do?
Robbie: Certainly not with today’s technology. Nowadays you can, at best, have a simple conversation with an AI. But I can imagine it will be possible in, say, 50 years. By then, I’ll be an old man, though (laughs).
All this open-mindedness aside, don’t you find such a vision of the future at least a bit scary?
Sachin: I was wondering what my parents would say if they heard what we were talking about. They would take a very clear stance: This is wrong! It means losing any human connection! I think it all depends on how you approach the following questions: What is the meaning of relationships? What is the meaning of sex? Millions of people die from loneliness.
If people are given the opportunity to be in a relationship, why does it have to be with a human being? If they are loved and desired, their sense of self is reawakened — why would that be wrong?
Would we still need therapies to treat sexual and communicative problems in relationships between humans and AI? How human can an AI become?
Sachin: I think so. The AI will hopefully be able to provide solutions for every problem. If it’s a perfect AI, it will always give the perfect
answer—based on the data it has at hand. But the question becomes whether AI is developed to replicate an autonomous and free-thinking human or is designed as the perfect companion for humans. In both cases, there will always be problems along the way, because—human or not—that's life.