HERE'S an early pitch for the biggest buzzword of 2018 – teledildonics, actually coined in 1991 by cultural theorist Howard Rheinghold in an academic article about virtual reality, but only now, two decades into the 21st century, coming off the page and into the bedroom.

Not just the bedroom either, Teledildonics refers to the ability to operate a sex toy remotely using wi-fi and a smartphone app, which means it could just as easily be used in any room and, in theory, at any distance. DIY telephone sex over a crackling landline? That's so 1990s. What teledildonics offers is the sensation of a partner's touch, even if that partner is hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away.

“Just as you can control your heating at home, so you can control the behaviour of a dildo on the other side of the planet,” says Professor David Benyon of Edinburgh Napier University's Institute for Informatics and Digital Innovation. “These things already exist in various quite exotic forms, with lots of electro-mechanical functions to go with the internet-enabled aspect.”

And how. Lovehoney, an American company with an office in Bath, is one firm capitalising on the trend and now offers over 30 app-based products ranging from the £84.99 Vibease Bluetooth Knicker Vibrator (for her) to the £499 CyberSkin Twerking Butt. For him, presumably.

"Cyberdildonics is not years away, it's happening now," says a spokesperson for Lovehoney. "Increasing numbers of couples are making use of this technology to enhance their sexual happiness when they are apart."

According to company figures, around 10 per cent of couples who enjoy using sex toys together are taking advantage of teledildonics and Lovehoney expects this number to increase as more sophisticated products come on to the market.

Of course the technology isn't perfect. Wi-fi is notoriously patchy in some areas, and you wouldn't want it going down at the wrong moment. There are plenty of cautionary tales too. Under the strapline “The search for a secure wireless sex toy continues”, technology website Motherboard reported how late last year an internet security researcher was able to hack a teledildonic device, in this case a “butt plug” in Lovense's Hush range. The same company was also forced to apologise for a “minor bug” in its remote control vibrator app after a user published an account on Reddit of how the app had made an audio file of her as she was using it. And in March 2017, the Canadian firm which owns the We-Vibe teledildonics app paid £2.65 million to settle a class action in the US over an allegation that it had been gathering private information.

Despite that, teledildonics is set to be one of the biggest sex trends of 2018 according to Women's Health magazine. Sexologist Bryony Cole, blogger and author of the Future Sex podcast series, has devoted an entire episode to the subject and says that where previously teledildonics was seen as a novelty, it's now fast gaining in popularity.

But what does that mean for old-fashioned-style human intimacy? Kathleen Richardson is Professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI at De Montfort University. To her mind, teledildonics is basically “Facebook for vibrators”.

“I think we have to take into account that in our society there has been a lot of dislocation,” she says. “People often don't work in the same place they were born in, couples are separated by distance, people form relationships through the web and may not be physically present in the same space. So you can see how you create this technology where you and your partner are distant in space, and you want to create a sensual experience together.”

Just don't call it sex, though. Users, she says, “are having some communication with each other, but what's happening to their bodies is a disconnected experience. I wouldn't say they were having sex with a teledildonic device. You're only having sex with people you are present with.”

There are dangers, too. On the face of it, teledildonics is relatively benign. But as part of a wider technological movement that encompasses robotics, developments in artificial intelligence, the ability to view porn on any handheld device and the advent of the so-called “Internet of Things”, Professor Richardson sees it as contributing to a process which is ultimately malign. “We've become so alienated from sex as an experience between people that we're now extrapolating it into all these fantastic artefacts,” she says. Sex robots – basically high-tech blow-up dolls – are a particular concern of hers, so much so that she is the founder and leader of the Campaign Against Sex Robots.

“We're living in a society, a culture, that's trying to convince us as human beings that our relationships with each other are optional and if we can't find other human beings as adults we can have machines to take their place,” she says. “And I think what we're storing up is a catastrophic, profound breakdown in human relations if this idea takes off”.

The form of the dolls, meanwhile, “feeds into some misogynistic ideas we have today about women. Because we can't isolate sex robots and sex dolls from a real commercial industry that exists, which is primarily men going into the world and buying access to female bodies.”

Others, however, are more sanguine about technology and its effect on human sexuality because the strongest defence against sex robots and app-enabled remote sex innovations such as teledildonics is that nothing can ever be more intimate than flesh on flesh – and our brains, often said to be the largest sexual organ, know it at a chemical level.

So says Janet Lieberman, a mechanical engineer and co-founder of the Dame Products sex toy company. “As sexual beings, we like the contact,” she says in an interview on the Future Sex podcast. “Not all of sex is about orgasms. What we want out of sex is human connection, is intimacy. Those elements are still important and I think it might say something that these products that are focusing on intimacy seem to be more successful maybe than the products which are focusing on teledildonics … that has benefits for long-distance couples and that's great. But I don't know that it will ever be able to replace the feeling of being able to have sex with another human being, and the chemicals that get released that create stronger bonds.”