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She makes love just like a real woman, yes she does

'WE USE Hollywood special effects technology to produce the most realistic love doll in the world. Our dolls feature completely articulated skeletons which allow for anatomically correct positioning, an exclusive blend of the best silicone rubbers for an ultra flesh-like feel, and each doll is custom-made to your specifications, all the way down to the make-up and fingernail colours. If you've ever dreamed of creating your ideal partner, then you have come to the right place," boasts realdoll.com.

When controversial futurologist Ian Yeoman recently predicted the possibility of "robot prostitutes", many shrugged it off alongside his idea of self-cleaning hotel rooms. But the development of a robot-like sexual partner is already well under way.

In his book Love and Sex with Robots, artificial intelligence expert Dave Levy predicts robots will provide "great sex on tap for everyone, 24/7". He argues that technology is not far from creating "sexbots" who will not only satisfy our physical desires, but also our emotional needs.

"For all those many humans who have no-one to love and no-one to love them, having a robot surrogate will definitely be a lifestyle upgrade, creating happiness where before there was misery," he says.

Realdolls.com doesn't produce robots, but it does sell life-size, disturbingly realistic "love" dolls. It recently dispatched one of its $5,990 dolls, complete with sexy lingerie, from California to a customer in Ireland. The blow-up doll is dead. Men are looking for the "real" thing -- and the more realistic, the more money they're willing to pay.

"We've been very busy lately, we get requests from all over the world. A lot of customers want their dolls to look like celebrities. And we've certainly had lots of enquiries from Ireland," Amanda at Real Dolls tells me. "The No 2 'curvaceous and athletic' body (34in breast, 23in waist, 32in hip) with the No 14 face is the most popular order."

Customers can upgrade breast size, pay extra for pubic hair styles and -- should their doll get a little knackered from wear -- nipple touch-up kits, extra tongues, eyelashes and even second-hand doll repair kits are all available.

"I've had a lot of calls asking whether we stock these dolls. Customers don't want your bog standard blow-up doll anymore. They've done their research, and they want to invest in a real lifelike doll," says Justin Parr, owner of Ms Fantasia in Dublin. "We don't stock them at the moment but I wouldn't rule it out, judging by the demand."

According to Parr, Irish people have become much more adventurous sexually and are no longer afraid to seek out specific sex toys. The "Sybian" has been very popular with Irish women. "It's basically a guaranteed orgasm machine. It's €1,500, but feedback is that it's worth it."

So sex with machines is already a reality, at least for women, and available on the high street. On a Tuesday afternoon, the Ann Summers outlet on Dublin's O'Connell Street is bustling. A lady in office wear is surveying the fantasy outfits, a couple at the counter are discussing their needs with the sales assistant, and I wander into a closed circle inside which is an altar-like presentation of vibrators in different colours, shapes and sizes -- lined up like mobile phones, with their technical specifications next to them: speeds, measurements, pulse patterns, button control etc -- some of them near-perfect replicas of male genitalia.

A man wanders into the circle while I continue to examine the phallic objects with minimal embarrassment, and it occurs to me that, were these vibrators replaced by anatomically correct vibrating vaginas, it would feel like a much seedier affair. It seems the female sexual organ is still taboo for the high street.

Men searching for their equivalent of the Rampant Rabbit will have to take themselves to much more hardcore venues. Shauna's adult store on Capel Street doesn't stock high-end real dolls, but it does sell the "next best thing", the shop assistant tells me. Pointing at a vagina in a box, he says, "This is the most popular, reduced, only €100." On the box is a picture of a naked blonde named Ashleigh who is "built for love and raw sex, with the added benefit of an ultra-realistic vagina".

While women appear to be satisfied by the socially acceptable Sybian or the Rampant Rabbit, men are seeking out an entirely different experience -- not only sexual, but emotional. The market for "sexbots" is truly burgeoning. With the adult entertainment business worth more than $57bn a year, the industry is responding to increasing demand. In Japan, sex dolls have become so popular that one escort agency has started using them instead of real women. In Korea, there is a hotel that provides sex dolls with every room.

Dolls with vibrating parts, grinding hips, sensors that react when caressed, and speech to reassure doll-loving men ("i-dollators") of their performance, are already in production.

While David Levy sees the sexbot as an overwhelmingly positive development -- with the potential to reduce sexually transmitted infections and the power to free shy, lonely, and unattractive men from their frustration -- not everyone agrees.

"Such relationships could have a negative effect on human behaviour," warns psychosexual therapist Dr Glyn Hudson-Allez. "The more time you spend with an unresponsive partner, the less you can cope with someone who does respond. It's no surprise then that sex dolls and robots are going to appeal to those who can't form satisfying human relationships. They cater mostly for men with low self-esteem, or men who want to objectify and control. He can perform any sexual position without complaint, and the doll never has a headache and never nags."

Love dolls have already broken into the mainstream. American shock jock Howard Stern reportedly had sex with a doll live on air, claiming she was better than his wife. They've appeared on popular American TV shows, Nip/Tuck and Boston Legal, and the 2007 film Lars and the Real Girl was an Oscar-nominated portrait of one lonely man's love for his silent partner.

The majority of women I spoke to were sickened by the thought of a man keeping a doll. "It's just sick and perverted," commented a friend. "I mean, I'd actually be more freaked out if my boyfriend bought one of them than if he went to a prostitute."

It's remarkable that we consider pornography and vibrators part of a healthy adult sex life, yet a realistic replica is a total no-no. But, like it or not, the sexbot is on the way.

Levy foresees sexbots playing an important role. "Couples who enjoy threesomes will use robots," he predicts.

Manufacturers, engineers and designers are racing to create the perfect partner equipped with the latest artificial intelligence. So serious are they about this, "robo-ethics" has become increasingly significant.

Technology experts have warned that mankind should think before rushing into a world of robots as their development outpaces the ethical and legal issues surrounding their use. Questions like, would prostitution be legal with robots?

In the meantime, the orders keep rolling in. Andree Scultz, owner of www. mechadoll.co.uk, tells me his business has grown 35 per cent in the last year. His customers are satisfied with the latest "super jiggly buttocks and advanced interiors made from medical grade silicone" technology.

I show a male friend a selection of "love dolls" on- line. "Jesus, they're freaky, they're so real. I think you'd need to be a bit of a weirdo to spend all that money on one -- although she's not bad now," he says, examining a Britney Spears lookalike.

I tell him that in the future she will be able to converse, react, and even learn what his sexual preferences are.

"Well, I might have a go," he says. "I mean, it wouldn't really be cheating if she's not real, would it?"