He and Cheok’s “I-Friends” will have a sophisticated module which will endow the software with emotions, personality and moods.They aim to tailor the software to any required persona, for example a girlfriend or boyfriend who will be able to take part in continual and varied sexually-charged conversations.“There will be body warmth, synthesised speech, moving limbs.

The project, named I-Friend, will be based on artificial intelligence software that won Levy and his team the Loebner prize for a second time in 2009.

“It will be one of the most realistic artificial chat agents when the project is finished,” says Cheok.

Levy is keen to stress the versatility of the software they’re developing.

The I-Friend, he says, can be configured for any embodiment and persona that the market requires.“It could, for example, be an upmarket toy such as a furry animal or a creature from another planet; or a web avatar that repeatedly turns the conversation to discuss a company and its products; or a mobile app such as a virtual girlfriend or boyfriend.” Cheok adds: “In the first instance, it could probably replace all the phone sex for which people for some reason pay very high rates.” Ultimately, however, the aim would be for it to be “used in robots for artificial love and sex chat”. “I believe it is going to be perfectly normal that people will be friends with robots, and that people will have sex with robots,” says Cheok.

“The very first chatbot was the famous ELIZA program written at MIT in the 1960s, named after Eliza Dolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion,’’ says Levy.

“ELIZA did very little but caused a stir at the time and is well documented in the Artificial Intelligence literature.

It explores the details of internet-linked devices that transmit real physical contact. He is the only person to win the Loebner prize – an annual competition to determine which chat software is the most realistic – in two separate decades, first in 1997 and again in 2009.

It was while researching his 2003 book, , that he first became interested in the subject.

“All media will touch humanity.” There is already a market for realistic-looking life-sized dolls made from a durable high elastometer silicone material. In time, Levy predicts, it will be quite normal for people to buy robots as companions and lovers.