A vibrator can’t mow the lawn: On the ethics of sex robots


Niska was definitely my favourite character in Channel 4’s recent sci-fi drama, Humans. She was the beautiful but terrifyingly violent synthetic lifeform who applied her emergent consciousness to wreak dreadful retribution on the more sadistic and perverted homo sapiens.

Her victims had not been abusing other people, but insentient ‘synths’. Nonetheless it was hard to resist cheering as she beat seven shades out of the customers at a ‘smash club’, who had paid hard cash to physically brutalise synthetic humans or the customer in a neo-brothel who wanted her to adopt the persona of a small child while he raped her.
I thought of Niska when reading about the launch of the Campaign Against Sex Robots. Initiated by academic ethicist Dr Kathleen Richardson of Leicester’s De Montfort University, the campaign asserts that: “robots are a product of human consciousness and creativity and human power relationships are reflected in the production, design and proposed uses of these robots. As a result, we oppose any efforts to develop robots that will contribute to gender inequalities in society.”

Most science fiction in this realm, from Westworld and Blade Runner to Humans, focuses on the development of artificial consciousness, a prospect which remains so distant as to be almost irrelevant. However the development of sex robots which simulate consciousness and human interaction is already with us, albeit in rough and ready early stages. A company is already manufactiuring ‘Roxxxy’ – marketed as the world’s first sex robot, and claims the order book is full already. It is this type of development, Richardson argues, which may bolster traditional gender stereotypes of women as a ‘sex class’ as radical feminist theory would posit.

This may seem far fetched. There is, after all, no obvious moral demarcation between the synthetic robot, the rubber sex doll and the humble vibrator. Some will argue that the hi-tech sex robot is nothing more than an expensive masturbation aid and therefore harmless if not outright healthy. This argument begins to crumble when one considers the ethics of a sex robot with the appearance and mannerisms of a young child. I’m sure I am not alone in finding that concept repulsive and distressing. Why? Because these issues are not just simply utilitarian, but cut to the essence of our sense of self. It is precisely our ability to exercise restraint and responsibility which, in large part, comprises our shared humanity. The argument against sex robots is less to do with how we abuse an inanimate object than in how we risk degrading ourselves in the process.

That said, I have some serious concerns with the positions set out by Richardson and her colleagues. Central to her argument is that the development of sex robots replicates the dynamics of prostitution. The problem with asserting that a sex robot is akin to a prostitute is the corollary – it implies that a sex worker is little more than a robot, devoid of agency or, crucially, the ability to consent. This will not only be considered deeply offensive and ignorant by sex workers themselves, but strikes me as a profoundly dangerous line of thinking when there are still those around who seem to believe a sex worker cannot withdraw consent or be raped.

It is rarely wise or effective to reach for a legal ban when considering new frontiers of technology and human sexuality. I won’t be signing up to the Campaign Against Sex Robots any time soon. Nonetheless I am grateful there are those wrestling with the ethics of these developments while the lovely Niska resides safely in fiction.

Comments

  1. That Guy says

    I saw the report about this on the BBC-

    I find myself struggling with the whole affair- perhaps because of the way I interpreted the tone.

    something about the way it is presented as a gendered issue irritates me- the way it is presented in the ‘weird science’ mould where it’s obviously only going to be used by lonely socially awkward men and sold in the shape of beautiful women. Given the prevalence of ann Summers on the high-street, I’m not sure this would be true. I can easily imagine a world with a market for the latest ClooneyBot, or the ZaynDroid or whatever.
    (I’ve felt over the past ten years that popular culture in the UK perceives female sexuality as a beautiful thing to celebrate, and male sexuality a dirty thing to be hidden. I am not sure if this is true now, but obviously it wasn’t in the past- so I’m suspicious of myself on this)

    Following that- I’m not sure I 100% follow your argument, Ally. Thinking about your example of a child robot- I find it distressing primarily because of the possibility of it promoting this kind of behaviour towards real children. Is this what you mean about it cutting to our sense of self, restraint and responsibility?

    There already exist a number of things that I feel sit in similar social spaces that could do with thinking about rather than sexbots- for instance, sexually explicit cartoons depicting underage persons- this has been brought up in court here before. Possession of such images in themselves doesn’t harm anyone, as no children were harmed in their making- but objections are still raised as above. Similarly- there exist vibrators and other aids in the shape of animal’s anatomy.

    Are these equally degrading? you said yourself that there is no clear demarcation between vibrators and XXXbotMK69- and none of the above are (to my understanding) particularly gendered, and are real things you can go on the internet and buy now.

    I’m not even certain that this kind of logic is particular to ‘sex stuff’- are violent video games equally demeaning?(I would say there are some definite examples) Are weight watchers chocolate cakes degrading because you can eat as many as you like without any repercussions?

    I’m not really sure I see the pressing concern with robots in particular- and I’m still kind of confused about all this high-level thinking- it smells a little bit like luddite mixed with puritanism to me- but maybe I’m just not getting it.

    If I was a frothing at the mouth misogynist I’d say that a WOMAN is SCARED that MALE TECHNOLOGY is going to BREAKDOWN her SEXUAL GATEKEEPING. But the notion that this woman is obsessed with being treated as a sexual object in society is absurd.

    if I was overly cynical, I;d say she picked a topic outrageous enough to garner interest as an act of self-promotion. Which seems equally absurd.

    as it currently stands, I’m just kind of baffled.

  2. Mattmon666 says

    This is the same kind of logic that says that video games, TV, comic books, porn, insert new technology, etc, are bad, because they promote violence. The argument here is that sex with robots will promote rape against human women.

  3. Thil says

    Ally I don’t understand why having sex with a child shaped robot would degrade a person’s sense of “restraint and responsibility”?

    are you saying it might help to legitimise the idea of raping an actual child in their mind? because I don’t remotely buy that idea. without going into detail, I have a couple of sexual fantasies that conflict with my intellectual beliefs about gender equality. I’ve never felt any sense conflict because I’ve never felt that my fantasies need to be realistic for me to enjoy them. I don’t think we need to stop people having violent sexual fantasies, we need to stop them trying to imply them to reality.

    I’d compare to haw there’s a lot fantasy fans who like to make believe there kings or knights or whatever, but they don’t actually in any way believe we’d be better off if we reverted to medieval set up and brought back absolute monarchy

  4. smrnda says

    Before I could offer an informed opinion, I think we’d have to actually develop sex robots and then study what happens to those who use them. It’s kind of how people have claimed that any number of activities (violent video games, BDSM) will inevitably cause harmful behavior to spill out from the boundaries but there hasn’t been much evidence. I’m also kind of curious as to how many people would really use sex robots if available, or how many would use them for any sexual practices that seemed really out there or questionable.

    @That Guy – your comment about whether male sexuality is seen as dirty made me think. I tend to think less that there is such a thing as ‘male sexuality’ or ‘female sexuality’ but more ‘male sexualities’ and ‘female sexualities’ – some more socially approved than others. I can see how some people might take the view that sex robots would enable a type of anti-social, misogynistic male sexuality, but if that’s what someone really thinks, the sex robots actually seem like a solution.

    Maybe part of the objection is the general idea that any type of sex without a partner is bad or at least an inferior substitute. Some people might think there is something depressing and sad about someone who elects to use a sex robot rather than engage in sex with someone else, as if the option would hurt the users and prevent them from maybe being more outgoing and having sex with real people? But that’s based on an assumption that partnered sex is or should be a universal goal, and that any kind of solo sex is tied in with social dysfunction. Is there any reason to assume that a person who uses a sex robot is going to become a withdrawn loner? I’m wary of making that assumption.

  5. Mouguias says

    This issue reminds me of Ashley Madison: apparently there were some 35 million males trying to date some 12000 women. If you bear with me, I will show you the connection:

    Males are needy, and their need is a very profitable one. Females have taken advantage of this weekness since… Well, since we dropped from trees and learned to walk on our hind legs. There is hardly anything that a woman can`t get from a man if she is clever enough and he is needy enough, just check the list of most expensive divorces. And feminists are determined to keep this massive power in the hands of women. No wonder they hate porn so much: it is a fantasy of sex for the sake of sex, a fantasy in which men get all their needs satisfied without risking rejection, humiliation or unwanted commitment. If is a fantasy of power…Precisely because most men are powerless and it is women who decide how, when and at what price.

    Now imagine a world where men could get all their sex drive satisfied without need of facing rejection, contempt, ridicule or STDs. In theory, this seems like feminist paradise: men would not have the need to harass or molest anymore, maybe rape would drop. But then…
    Imagine if women had to bring men into commitment out of their sheer personality and attractiveness. Imagine a world in which women were not in control of sex anymore. For millenia, this was one of the pillars of female power…And it might vanish overnight. To feminists, this must look like a nightmare. Yeah, no wonder they bring out the old “objectification” BS to ban sex robots.

  6. Marduk says

    See comment #12 on the previous thread. The issues you identify are irrelevant to the politics of prostitution and hence irrelevant to robots replicating the ‘dynamics of prostitution’. Its probably closer to argue that these people wouldn’t feel differently if sex workers were robots rather than the other way around.

  7. Marduk says

    The worst thing about liberalism is that you find yourself constant defending things you find repulsive from bad arguments.

    “cut to the essence of our sense of self”
    “comprises our shared humanity”
    “we risk degrading ourselves”

    Much like sex before marriage, homosexuality, unmutiliated genitals, not marrying a virgin etc?

    You’re going to have to do better than that, the comfort you’d give to all the people who want to control everyone’s sexuality is too high a price.

  8. says

    I was just talking about this with some friends of mine on another site. The whole thing strikes me as eerily reminiscent of the old radfem arguments against porn back in the 70s and 80s–that it portrayed women as ‘sex objects’ and thus contributed to the oppression of women in society as a whole. Given the lack of success of those arguments, I’m not betting on Dr. Richardson’s campaign making much headway in this day and age.

    Looking at her campaign website itself, Dr. Richardson seems to associate the growth of internet pornography with a concomitant growth in prostitution and human trafficking; the implicit assumption is that sexbots would make this problem even worse. The relevant quote:

    https://campaignagainstsexrobots.wordpress.com/the-asymmetrical-relationship-parallels-between-prostitution-and-the-development-of-sex-robots/

    However, studies have found that the introduction of new technology supports and contributes to the expansion of the sex industry. There are more women are employed by the sex industry than any other time in history [5]. Prostitution and pornography production also rises with the growth of the internet. In 1990, 5.6 per cent of men reported paying for sex in their lifetime, by 2000, this had increased to 8.8 per cent. These figures are likely to be even higher due to the reluctance of people admitting to paying for sex [6].

    I’m not sure this is due to pornography per se as it is to A: the Internet making it much easier to buy and sell sex, and B: economic/political instability in many countries, such as Russia, forcing many women to get into sex work to survive or fall victim to trafficking. In short, Dr. Richardson’s proposed relationship between porn (and therefore sexbots) and negative outcomes in the real world strikes me as spurious.

  9. Ally Fogg says

    @everyone

    Please note, I am explicitly not supporting calls for a ban on sex robots. Nor am I stating that using sex bots would cause people to become abusive or violent to people / women / children /. whatever.

    i also recognise the familiarity of some of these arguments from debates about porn or about homosexuality or whatever else.

    However just because these arguments have similarities, doesn’t necessarily mean the details or the conclusions are necessarily identical.

    Where I have concerns is that i can see this phenomenon is uncharted territory for the human experience and human psychology. i am suggesting that the types of attitudes some of you are displaying above – which boil down to an insistence that this issue is not even an appropriate topic for debate, it must be ok, it must be left alone – might be just as shortsighted as the kneejerk BAN IT NOW crowd.

    To return to the analogies above, in one form or another homosexuality, S&M and visual pornography have been around since the dawn of time and people have debated the ethics and effects of them for most of that time.

    I am suggesting that sex robots are in some ways categorically different to pornography, to consensual BDSM etc etc etc, we are clearly on the cusp of new technology, and we are completely unprepared for it. The big problem is, as SMRNDA says above, we simply don’t know what the effects of this will be on individual psychology and social and sexual relationships. The position that it is self-evidently harmless and AOK seems entirely unjustified to me.

    Which is why, to repeat my conclusion, I am not arguing for a ban, but I would like to see a much more engaged and informed debate than we’ve been offered so far.

  10. Thil says

    @Ally Fogg

    TV, video games and even books were once “uncharted territory for the human experience and human psychology”, none of them turned the population rotten by allowing them to vicariously experience violent or sexual fantasies

  11. says

    I wouldn’t argue sex robots are an “inappropriate” subject for debate. Debate is debate, after all. A bunch of guys and gals hanging around tossing ideas back and forth at each other (whether online, like here at Hetpat or any other internet forum, or offline over a pint at the pub) doesn’t harm anybody.

    I can concede, as well, that sexbots might possibly have deleterious social effects. Before taking that prospect too seriously, however, I also think it’s fair to wait until I see a bit more evidence. You say “the argument [that sex bots are just another more advanced form of porn] begins to crumble when one considers the ethics of a sex robot with the appearance and mannerisms of a young child.” But I would ask, why? The porn industry has already dealt with the ethics of children in porn, and the overwhelming consensus seems to be that anything with adults is OK, anything with kids ought to be shut down and the psychos who both produce and consume it be locked up.

    Seems to me like the ethics of sexbots would be equally simple–adult-looking bots are fine, obviously childish or underage bots should be forbidden. You’re right that issues of self restraint, our sense of self, etc. etc. etc. are important aspects of our humanity, but IMO it has yet to be proven that sexbots are particularly troublesome in this respect.

    Again, not that I’m particularly unsympathetic to your argument, Ally. While I find the complaining of people like Dr. Richardson tiresome, I find the constant misogynist insistence that sex robots will spell the end of feminism and/or womankind to be even more irritating. I’m fine with people’s personal masturbatory habits, but when they start shoving them in my face and claiming their chosen fapping material will save true masculinity from the scourge of feminism, that’s when I begin to get annoyed.

  12. Lucy says

    Thil

    “are you saying it might help to legitimise the idea of raping an actual child in their mind? because I don’t remotely buy that idea. without going into detail, I have a couple of sexual fantasies that conflict with my intellectual beliefs about gender equality. I’ve never felt any sense conflict because I’ve never felt that my fantasies need to be realistic for me to enjoy them. I don’t think we need to stop people having violent sexual fantasies, we need to stop them trying to imply them to reality.”

    Don’t beat around the bush, Thil, do you mean you enjoy thinking about raping women? If so, you’re far from alone in that if the internet is anything to judge by.

    I for one think we really do need to stop people growing up getting excited by cruelty to women. This crap doesn’t come out of the clear blue sky. We wouldn’t be okay with it if you were fantasising about racist violence, going postal or cruelty to animals.

    An orgasm isn’t a get out of jail free card for every sick and twisted ideology that people harbour.

  13. Thil says

    Gunlord

    Child porn is so reviled because you can’t make it without exploiting abusing real children. That’s not true of this

    If you want to screw a astroboy that’s no one else’s business so far as I can see

  14. says

    Child porn is so reviled because you can’t make it without exploiting abusing real children. That’s not true of this

    If you want to screw a astroboy that’s no one else’s business so far as I can see.

    True, but IMO the physical nature of sexbots might lead to some differences. A very lifelike approximation of a child might be put to use to some nefarious ends, like fooling child welfare authorities or scaring people (designing one that looks like a neighborhood kid and then chopping it up to scare his or her parents). I would wager such things would be forbidden for such reasons.

  15. Lucy says

    “This argument begins to crumble when one considers the ethics of a sex robot with the appearance and mannerisms of a young child. I’m sure I am not alone in finding that concept repulsive and distressing. ”

    Which is where the female-abuse-fantasy-is-harmless-be amuse-its-just-fantasy-and-human-brains-are-magic argument falls down.

    If you’re worried about child sex dolls because of what they might encourage (which you should be) you should be worried about the female versions that can’t say no, with orifices that stretch to many times their natural size, and a tear-repair service.

  16. Thil says

    Lucy

    Firstly no, I actually have a fetish for stories about men & women switching bodies. What I meant is that I can enjoy that well keeping it separate in my head from what I actually know about what it’s like to have an intergender condition.

    Secondly even if I was fantasising about rape, or anything else you mentioned, I don’t thing it would matter so long as it was just fantasy and I was conscious of that. I think “ideology” is the wrong word, it implies considered beliefs, that not what we’re talking about

  17. Lucy says

    “A very lifelike approximation of a child might be put to use to some nefarious ends”

    More nepharious than having sex with it?

  18. Lucy says

    “TV, video games and even books were once “uncharted territory for the human experience and human psychology”, none of them turned the population rotten by allowing them to vicariously experience violent or sexual fantasies”

    Actually there’s ample evidence that our behaviour is influenced by tv, video games and even books.

  19. Thil says

    Gunlord

    I doubt they’d be human enough to fool anyone for long, and making them look like real people is a separate issue

  20. Lucy says

    Gun lord

    “was just talking about this with some friends of mine on another site. The whole thing strikes me as eerily reminiscent of the old radfem arguments against porn back in the 70s and 80s–that it portrayed women as ‘sex objects’ and thus contributed to the oppression of women in society as a whole. Given the lack of success of those arguments, I’m not betting on Dr. Richardson’s campaign making much headway in this day and age.”

    Their lack if success isn’t due to them being wrong. Their due to vested interests with bigger gobs.

  21. Thil says

    Lucy

    “More nepharious than having sex with it?”

    More nepharious in the sense that it might actually hurt someone, one would assume he means.

  22. says

    I doubt they’d be human enough to fool anyone for long, and making them look like real people is a separate issue.

    True, though I imagine any sex robot advanced enough to be a satisfactory substitute would have to be realistic enough to fool people to an extent. But you’re right, making them look like real people is a whole ‘nother can of beans. I imagine copyright lawyers would be getting very busy if that takes off…

  23. Lucy says

    Mouthwash (hey don’t blame me, it was my predictive text)

    “There is hardly anything that a woman can`t get from a man if she is clever enough ”

    Now that’s hardly fair is it, we’ve brought our considerable talents to bear on trying to get some sense out of you with low success.

  24. Lucy says

    “Our behaviour is influenced by everything we expriance”

    And we experience media in a more intense, more frequent way than most things. Except sex.

  25. Lucy says

    “Secondly even if I was fantasising about rape, or anything else you mentioned, I don’t thing it would matter so long as it was just fantasy and I was conscious of that. I think “ideology” is the wrong word, it implies considered beliefs, th”

    Of course it would matter, fantasies don’t exist in a vacuum, they come from somewhere and they lead to somewhere.

  26. Lucy says

    “Firstly no, I actually have a fetish for stories about men & women switching bodies. What I meant is that I can enjoy that well keeping it separate in my head from what I actually know about what it’s like to have an intergender condition.”

    What the?

    What has this got to do with your equality politics? Or violence? You mentioned sexual violence, and equality between men and women? This doesn’t sound violent or unequal, it just sounds awkward.

  27. Thil says

    @Lucy

    In your world to people have to be perfect objective machines, for them to allowed any freedom at all?

  28. julian says

    Of course it would matter, fantasies don’t exist in a vacuum, they come from somewhere and they lead to somewhere.

    They are still fantasies. And while walking underneath stairs hoping to catch a glimpse at someone’s crotch is immoral behavior, creating a simulation of that harms no one. Nor does it encourage people to go engage in the immoral behavior either. It gives people who might enjoy that a safe place to experiment.

  29. Thil says

    @Lucy @26

    Nothing we think or feel exists in a vacuum, we aren’t the robots in this debate

    @Lucy @27

    Q1: gender bending stories tend to imply that a person’s gender and personality is determined by thier physical sex. That not true as I understand it

    Q2: I didn’t say I was having violent fantasies

    Q3: true, but not when talking about my self

  30. smrnda says

    A few things – from the objections of Richardson I’m getting the idea that it’s being assumed that the primary audience for sex robots will be male (thus the fear of what it will do to gender inequality.) But I’m not sure we should assume that (if they existed) that sex robots will not appeal to women. It’s kind of how most porn has, historically, been produced for male viewers and catered to heterosexual male tastes, but now there is porn specifically made for and frequently by women. In fact, I wonder if the change in how women viewed porn might have been because women starting consuming it more, and more openly. It’s sort of how, back when the audience for science fiction was mostly white and male it was more sexist and racist. It doesn’t mean sci fi has to be – in fact, it can be totally the opposite. Much porn is misogynistic. Does it have to be? I’d say I’ve started to have to say no, because so many women I know find at least some porn exciting to them. I’m also not sure if the issue is really sexually explicit entertainment versus other types. Misogynistic *media* is worth critiquing, but I don’t think it really matters in the end if it’s sexually explicit or not.

    Another thing is that it seems to be assumed that the purpose of sex robots will be for people to engage in behaviors that would not be ethical or legal if it was with a real person. Possibly, but I suspect that it could just as easily be people wanting a way to explore more mundane kinks that they just might not feel comfortable doing in real life. Image a married man who has some homosexual fantasies. Maybe the sex robot is a way to indulge these desires without having to divulge them to any real people, because the guy feels too awkward about them. Maybe he *could* have his wife put on a strap on, but maybe he’s not comfortable telling her? Maybe he fears emotional entanglement if he tries it with an actual man. In this way, maybe sex robots could complement rather than be an alternative to partnered sex. It’s sort of like watching that movie your partner isn’t into while they’re out with friends. We’ve been taught that any sort of non partnered sex in a relationship is cheating (some people consider a partner masturbating to be cheating) but maybe that isn’t really a healthy or realistic standard.

    It might seem that I’m being naively positive about sex robots, but I’m just trying to balance out the assumption that it’s going to be necessarily a bad thing. Most science fiction depictions of sex robots tend to be built around the idea that they’re an outlet for sadistic sexual impulses, or a toy meant to cater to people who view real people as nothing but sexual objects with no humanity. But I think science fiction is more about a commentary on the present than it is necessarily an attempt at an accurate prediction of the future. Sex robots in science fiction allow people to explore themes of objectification, sadism and degradation. It’s kind of how AI is less about depicting what real AI is like (I’m an AI researcher, so maybe this influences my view) but exploring the idea of ‘what makes someone human?’ or the idea of exploitation or the Other – the intelligent machine, like the alien, is an Other which isn’t biologically human, but is still a sentient being and is human like.

    Given that there’s more openness towards researching human sexuality, and this shows little sign of changing, by the time someone is developing sex robots they’ll be people eager to study their impact on the users. We’d also have to figure out how people really use them – our suspicions could be totally wrong.

  31. drken says

    I am reminded of the “Don’t Date Robots!” hygiene film from “Futurama” and the “Can you f*ck it?” sketch from “Robot Chicken”, which address the morality of sex with robots and the obvious inevitability if it, respectively. But, back to real life.

    I can see it becoming an problem for some people. For example, those who are socially awkward might start using it as a crutch and stop trying to have actual, healthy relationships with others. I’m sure there are those who use prostitutes and/or pornography the same way. Would this just make it worse? Probably, the more immersive something is, the more insidious it becomes.

    @smrnda #32:
    My guess is that people will use sex robots for everything they currently view in porn. If all it takes is for you to upload a “rape” or “incest” program I’m sure there are those who will do so, even if those programs are difficult to come by (the nature of software would make banning them nearly impossible). But, I’m sure most of those programs will be fairly mundane (pizza delivery person, housekeeper, etc.). But for pedophiles, somebody would actually have to manufacture a child sex doll, which would probably be more tricky than finding a rape program. Whether or not such dolls would be illegal, I can’t imagine them being available on Amazon.

  32. smrnda says

    @drken

    Even if certain programs are banned, people with some hacking skills will find a workaround. With some knowledge you can hack industrial control cards, robots would perhaps just be a bit harder. The potential worry then would be – what if someone were to desire a dangerous fantasy where the sex bot poses a risk to them, say, someone who wants to indulge in erotic asphyxiation? Maybe sex robots should be the type of thing you have to use at some special, licensed facility?

    On the ‘sex bot as crutch’ – people say the same about porn and masturbation or any number of activities now. I don’t think the key to helping socially awkward people is to take away or ban the crutch, it’s to have professionals who might be trained to help them with whatever specific problems they have.

  33. That Guy says

    Who would have thought that a thread about sex robots would be so lively and stimulating?

    @ally- I largely agree with smrnda- I take objection with the assertion that sexy robots are necessarily a bad thing- there doesn’t seem to be any solid arguments for this, and I’m also skeptical of the implied gendered issues, which you could argue are demeaning to men (only men want sex! and they want it ALL THE TIME!)

    what I’m not really buying is the idea that sex robots are a step-change in terms of sexual devices, or they are the only novel sexual innovation in history.

    TO CLARIFY- what I mean by a sex robot is

    1)something in the shape of a human being
    2)that is physically capable of intercourse
    3)that responds in a human manner to sexual behaviour
    4)that is otherwise inert

    devices that satisfy 1) and 2) (and 4)) already exist (realdolls), and software that tries to imitate 3) also already exists, to varying levels of sophistication (from japanese dating games to …uh… japanese rape games).

    I have two primary concerns- firstly, as stated above, devices like this could normalise harmful behaviour, and secondly, someone creates something that does 1) 2) and 3) but NOT 4)- but uses it as a sex robot anyway. I don’t need to explain why this is unethical.

    I will happily concede that proliferation of sex robots would have unpredictable effects on how society views sex and relationships, but I have a strong feeling we’ll get there inch by inch, and be able to observe what happens to ourselves on the way- as has been mentioned before, television, the internet, badDragon etc are all novel (in their own ways) and I don’t see anything unique about sex robots.

    On the topic of changing human relationships- anyone interested and with an hour or so to spare should watch the documentary “Guys and Dolls”- it follows men who own ‘real dolls’ and the relationships they have with these objects. This will probably shed some light on the questions above about ‘crutches for elationships’

  34. Archy says

    If sex robots reach the point needed for potential major psychological issues (falling in love with the bot), then they are probably so advanced in A.I that they will probably be considered sentient, therefore may invoke laws to protect them from rape. Although an A.I would have the ability to rewrite it’s own programming so any potential harms of the rape of the robot could probably be removed.

    Things like uncanny valley may be a big barrier to sexual enjoyment until the A.I reaches a very sophisticated level. Maybe hard code barriers would be put in place to limit their desire for autonomy and they could simply be that holy grail of sex bots but I’d guess that sex bots would be defined as such. Laws may exist where equally life-like A.I robots could be protected from rape, but sexbots designed purposely for sex would have no sense of consent and thus be automatically always consenting. Although quite frankly, life-like robots with A.I advanced enough to feel harm from rape would probably easily kick a humans ass should they try. It’s a bit hard to rape a terminator.

    Potentially by the time A.I and lifelike synthetic skin, mucus, other liquids is at such a level, we will have brain-tapping “the matrix” style VR where you go into your fantasy world anyway.

    I think there is potential for high quality sex bots with warm skin, etc to help people with major social anxieties (warm skin to help oxytocin release) but I doubt most people would choose that over dating a human. I don’t think those with social anxieties would see women as sex objects, although they are probably better off with legalized prostitution with a real woman/man.

    To reduce “women as gatekeeper” issue, we need 100% effect birth control, rid society of slut-shaming, STI’s, and make sex safer and more fun for women (and men). I do find it strange for people to think of sex bots as treating women as objects, I would not think a male sexbot makes men objects. Extremely effective sex bots will most likely destroy the illegal human sex trafficking trade, especially if the price was cheap enough, only a few degenerate evil folk would want to be with someone harmed vs a bot that has no qualms with that job. Although most humans would also be out of work at that level of A.I and robotics…

  35. sonofrojblake says

    This is all very interesting, but I can’t help thinking that Dr. Richardson of Leicester Poly, sorry, DeMontfort University, has done a jolly good job of self-promotion by pushing a few easily-located hot buttons.
    Sex? Check.
    Robots? Check.
    Relevance to a recent media event? Check.
    Social justice agenda? Check.
    Absolutely no realistic chance of anything the conversation is about being even slightly relevant any time in the next, say, six decades? Check.

    Well played madam. There are several groups of people talking past each other here. On the one hand, you’ve got the lumpen commentariat who have their entitled opinion about everything regardless of their woeful lack of knowledge of easily-obtainable facts, people who literally just started thinking about this when they read this story. They’re saying things like “But won’t someone think of the (artificial, simulated) children!?!?!?!?!?!”. On the other, you have the scifi geeks who started thinking about (and discussing) this issue since before the Beatles split up. (Recommended reading: “Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?” by Robert Sheckley.) They’re saying things like “But it’s totally fine, they’ll obey the Three Laws and they’re totally not people and where’s mine?”.

    And in the middle, you have a tiny minority of depressed engineers pointing out that the entire discussion is *literally* academic because the technology is nowhere the fantasy. They’re thinking things like “You people watch too much television.” They’re not saying it, partly because it’s the bloody obvious and partly because it’s a waste of time.

    For an encore Dr. Richardson should start a campaign to ban lightsabers. Can you IMAGINE what would happen if one of those fell into the hands of a child? Or a paedophile???? Something must be done!

  36. AJ says

    Simple sex robots already exsit. This is what in a very primitive form a vibrator is and inflatable wome are.

    The concern is if these things appeared more realistically human. This stems from anthropomorphising inaminate objects, understandable but illogical. There is no additional moral dimension to this at all unless and until such robots had advanced to be self aware, something that there is not the slightest indication will be possible in the forseeable future. A non-sentient sex robot is just 3D pornography with kinaesthetics. The intersting thing will be how depiction of illegal events by such a device will be handled – rape, paedaphilia etc. Rape fantasies are very common paticularily in women and there are paedophiles who would presumeably want such depictions. The key to me is if such pornography makes the actual commission of crimes against real people more or less likely. It seems to me the evidence from pornographyis that it makes it less likely but I expect such depictions will be made illegal anyway.

    Illogical policies in areas of moral controversy are common place.

  37. Ally Fogg says

    sonofrojblake

    snark noted, but you’re wrong.

    Richardson’s argument (and my commentary on it) is not about synthetic consciousness of the robots, or even robots with sufficiently advanced AI to consistently pass a Turing test. It is more about the type of animated sex toys in human form that are already coming on the market.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2MeQcI77dTQ

    now, you have to laugh if you watch that video and listen to the salesman talking about ‘perfecting’ a sex robot, because quite obviously they are a good few years from that, but it is slightly chilling to hear him talking about how they have employed psychologists in order to recreate the psychological and emotional interactions that go along with sexual relationships.

    I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to imagine the type of technology there improving rapidly within a matter of years rather than decades, far less centuries.

    Nobody here is worrying about whether robots have feelings or rights or awareness. it is the humans about whom there should be, perhaps, some consideration if not concern.

    And yes, I am well aware that there are professionals in all these fields (not just engineering, AI etc, but also philosophy, psychology etc) who have been considering this stuff for decades, but that needs to come centre.

  38. says

    it is slightly chilling to hear him talking about how they have employed psychologists in order to recreate the psychological and emotional interactions that go along with sexual relationships.

    I dunno…IMO that just sounds like some typical salesmanship shilling. Nobody’s going to admit they’re selling “just” a sexbot in public, especially for something as apparently primitive as Roxxy (seriously, I’m a straight guy and Roxxxy’s face didn’t make me feel horny, it made me feel like laughing). They need to spice it up with some nice-sounding buzzwords, and “deep genuine psychology!” seems like a useful phrase. I don’t think it’s really frightening or disturbing, just kind of tacky and somewhat cloying. I’d bet those “psychologists” are just unpaid interns or something, lol.

  39. sonofrojblake says

    I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to imagine the type of technology there improving rapidly within a matter of years rather than decades, far less centuries.

    That’s what I said. It’s not much of a stretch for a journalist to imagine it, just as it wasn’t much of a stretch in 1975 to imagine that by now we’d be holidaying on the moon – unless you, y’know, actually knew anything. The difficulty of successfully simulating human interaction of any kind is consistently wildly underestimated even by engineers working in the field (hover your mouse over the linked cartoon for an example). http://xkcd.com/1425/

    We can’t even put a convincing human likeness on a screen, even when we have arbitrarily good data for the surface model AND a human to “drive” the way it acts, AND many millions of dollars to throw at the problem. See “Tron: Legacy” and tell me how convinced you were by the computer-generated young Jeff Bridges. And that’s a two-dimensional representation of a person they had direct access to.

    Advertisers employ psychologists. That’s not “chilling” or sinister. It’s purely a way to separate punters from their money. All of this stuff is baby steps away from fleshlights, and it’s a triumph of the manipulators’ art that they’ve convinced you that it is anything more.

  40. proudmra says

    When sex toys achieve sentience, we can debate their rights. Until then, the shape doesn’t matter.

  41. Marduk says

    Ally, when I talk about the form of arguments I’m talking about the rhetorical structure of them. I’m not drawing an analogy, I’m not giving an example. We’ve had this dispute before and I don’t understand why. If I could draw here I could show you how these things reduce themselves to diagrams and you can fill the blank spaces with anything you like and they are still the same argument. You need to accept these things can be codified and typified as abstract forms. “I can define virtue and your actions contradict virtue”, is an argument ultimately based on power and authority. Rejecting that is basically the first philosophical argument there ever was. That said, rhetorically, I’ve always liked subjective values arguments when honestly stated as such. The porn abolitionists could probably have won by now if that is how they’d done things rather than torturing statistics, yelling at people and pretending to be objective. Just say why you don’t like it and how it makes you feel without invoking complicated theories, its the most persuasive approach there is.

    I no more want to see this dystopia than I think you want to ban it either. But I don’t think it is actually going to happen.

    I think the Richardson paper isn’t actually very good, nor would I expect it to be, it was a short conference contribution published in a newsletter written by the session chair to give things a bit of pep. I’d imagine she is a bit mortified at the scrutiny right now. Its not well written and the positions taken seem more randomly thrown together than constituting structured thought (e.g., look a the way she disputes Levy’s arguments with irrelevant information, then an actual restatement of Levy’s evidence which she doesn’t disagree with, just fails to carry out the necessary statistical analysis on which shows he is correct!). An oddity in her argument is that given the rather random adoption of arguments about autism into the mix, she actually suggests that should these robots ever exist, it is women who will demand them, not men, who she establishes like the moral ability to actually need them anyway! Someone who’d spent a bit of time on this might have noticed this quirk of the piece.

    Its provocative but nothing more and I look forward to better quality work in this area.

  42. Marduk says

    OK, so what I’ve now worked out is really wrong with this, its that we are using the idea of technology in a magical way bogie man kind of a way.

    Essentially what is going on here is Richardson is trying to understand paraphilia in terms of normative sexuality and as a potential form of normative sexuality. And going about it in a very messy phenomenological kind of a way. The truth is that you could have written this article at least 60 years ago (and probably 100s of years ago had we had the words for it) and made it about high heeled shoes, apple pies or vacuum cleaners all of which are objects of sexual obsession and sexual practice for some. All the same societal risks apply, none of the same risks have ever manifested. One could write quite a chilling set of paragraphs about the negative potential of an empty shoe and how threatening that is to women, I’m sure its been done before many times. I’m not aware that this has been a disaster for society or really even a problem for those involved unless they find their fetish (in the truest sense given we’re talking about objects) isolating or whatever. People that want to fuck robots are already fucking robots, people who want their partners to act like robots are already sending off for plastic outfits and nobody cares as far as I know. The promise of robotics adds less to the mix than you might imagine other than the suggestion that they might somehow normalise this kind of thing. Although Richardson draws analogy to the use of robotics in war, it doesn’t really work because sexuality is about preference and arousal, killing people isn’t and we already know what the mechanisation of warfare leads to (that little learning experience was called World War 1), its not a theoretical matter. How and why robotics will magically transcend is not explained. Appeals to animism don’t actually work because animism is a property of the observer not the observed (has it even occurred to how strange cartoons and picture books actually are?) which is why I’m sceptical that there is some sort of level of critical level of verisimilitude that changes the game. Everyone likes Mr Benn already, if you want a rubber doll presumably you’ve already got one. I suspect this might always be one of those things that is always a menace yet to arrive in ten years time.

  43. brucegee1962 says

    Presumably a perfect sex robot — that is, one that satisfies the sexual desires of its owner, but is non-sentient — wouldn’t lead to its owner abusing real people, because xeir desires are being met. So even if there was evidence that sex robot owners were more likely to go on and abuse real people, would that be evidence that they should be banned, or that they should be made better?

    I’m very tempted to take the long view on this question — that all the people who would rather have sex with a robot instead of interacting with a real human are people we may not particularly want in our gene pool. Thus, allowing them to fulfill their desires like this is an excellent way to make it less likely they will reproduce, to the benefit of future generations.

  44. drken says

    @ brucegee1962 #45:

    Any sex-robot would have to be non-sentient as a sentient one would be able to turn down its owner for sex. A sentient sex-robot that couldn’t refuse would essentially be repeatedly raped. It would be like having a battle-bot that could feel pain. I suggest watching Westworld for an interesting (although not a great movie) view on the ramification of slowly emerging sentiency in robots.

  45. sonofrojblake says

    @brucegee1962, #45: you make an excellent point. Never mind banning sex robots – that’s an attitude only a short-sighted prude would have. They should be made compulsory, and everyone should be issued with one when they reach puberty. Every bot configurable to cater to any possible paraphilia, their appearance malleable to the user’s tastes (so you don’t get bored). Everyone could learn sexual etiquette and technique safely, with a “partner” who will never hurt them, get pregnant, betray them, give them an STD and so on. If you had such a partner, how much more carefully would you select your human sexual partners? How much MORE meaningful would sex between people become? Picture a society where everyone’s sexual urges are catered for and most people rarely bother having sex with actual other people at all. Second thoughts, don’t bother, it would be quicker and easier to just find where in JG Ballard’s work it’s already been done.

    @drken, #46: A sex robot that had to give meaningful consent and presented ANY risk of NOT giving consent would be entirely pointless and nobody would buy it, so the possibility does not arise. The raison d’etre of such an appliance is that when you switch it on it performs the function for which you bought it. Good grief, if you’re going to have to seek meaningful consent from your household appliances you might just as well interact with a bloody human, and isn’t that what you spent all that money on a robot to avoid? The day your sexbot turns you down is surely the day you chop it into pieces and put it out for recycling, isn’t it? No different than a toaster in that regard.

    Obviously some people would like the appearance of sentience in such a machine but without such inconvenient considerations as consent. It will eventually be an interesting philosophical problem trying to draw a line between machines which are truly sentient (and therefore presumably deserving of all the rights pertaining to sentient beings, including the right to own their own hardware and not be switched off) and machines which their manufacturers will insist only do a convincing impression of being self-aware. Again, see Turing and countless sf authors since.

  46. says

    They should be made compulsory, and everyone should be issued with one when they reach puberty.

    That would probably be prohibitively expensive for the foreseeable future…

  47. sonofrojblake says

    You see, that’s exactly the kind of category error I’m talking about.

    It wouldn’t be “prohibitively expensive”, any more than it would be “prohibitively expensive” to issue every person of working age with their own anti-gravity backpack.

    Going to Mars would be “prohibitively expensive”. Building a road tunnel across the Atlantic Ocean would be “prohibitively expensive”. For any reasonable definition of the foreseeable future, building even one sufficiently convincing* sexbot would be impossible. Not difficult, or expensive, or limited in number – impossible, in principle, because not only can we not do it, we don’t even properly understand why it is we can’t. This is not a question of expense or engineering, where we know the solutions to the problems but can’t afford the materials necessary. Nor, on the bright side, is it (as far as we know), a fantasy prohibited by known physical laws, unlike for instance a Trek-style teleportation device. It’s a problem we don’t even understand the question to properly yet.

    It’s particularly frustrating because as a species we’ve thrown really a rather large amount of money and time and effort at it already, and yet any four-year old can look at our very, very best efforts so far and spot them immediately for the crude efforts that they are. It’s hard to think of a field where anyone off the street is fully qualified and able to tell an expert “Yeah, sorry, good effort but it’s failed.”

    *By “sufficiently convincing” I mean one that almost all people would accept as a reasonable substitute for a real human for the, ah, limited use they’d be putting it to. So pretty damn convincing, if you think about it. And of course brings up the question of what it would take to convince YOU.

  48. Ononymous says

    What is it about sexbots that cause so many otherwise sensible people to lose their common sense?

    There is nothing categorically novel about a sexbot. One way to demonstrate this for yourself is to read virtually any argument against sexbots and ask, Does this same argument not also apply to personal imagination, porn and sex toys?

    There’s no new “debate” to be had, because there is nothing truly new about sexbots. But if we’re going to examine people’s sexual fantasies and the props they use to assist them, at least there should be some equality here. The masturbation habits of both women and men should be inspected for problematic ideas.

    Women have been getting themselves off using Sexbot 1.0 — the detached super-penis known as a vibrator — for well over a century now. When a woman produces sexual pleasure for herself by manipulating a buzzing severed cock, what kind of fantasy is she spinning in her head? If self-reports from women are any indication, she is very likely imagining a man doing whatever she wants. This fantasy man is just a means to an end. The woman uses this man as a mere object to get herself an orgasm. She uses this man in the same way that she uses the vibrator. And when she is finished with her orgasm, she puts the man away until she needs him for sex again, just like she does with the vibrator.

    What kind of ideology are women promoting when they employ a penis-shaped object in conjunction with a fantasy man-object for an entirely selfish purpose? Could this widespread regular habit of using males and male body parts for sex not have serious negative effects on society?

  49. smrnda says

    @sonofrojblake

    Well, I have to say that you’re advocating a quite generous future where everybody can get a sex bot. And I agree that ‘expensive’ isn’t a really great objection. Many things that are expensive owing to business choices or economic factors, but many things can be made cheaper and more plentiful if there is both demand and resources allocated for R and D. Hey, just look at computers. Not too long ago a ‘computer’ was a gigantic thing that only a government research lab, university with large endowment or huge corporation can afford. Now there’s more computing power than existed then in a cheap nearly disposable flip-phone which is already obsolete technology.

    But with sex bots, I kind of wonder how many people would want them? There are a decent number of people who prefer their sex to occur in a relationship of some sort, and the absence of that possibility would reduce their interest greatly. I’m guessing the reason is sex has a social function – it’s probably why I might have more fun playing a game against a real person than against an unbeatable bot – even though the *unbeatable bot* would be a bigger challenge and isn’t going to say ‘hey, I’ve gotta go to work!’ It’s sort of why brick and mortar stores still exist when ordering everything online might be more efficient. Humans enjoy activities but they also enjoy the social aspect. And I think with sex part of the excitement (particularly from people I know who enjoy hookups) is not totally knowing what kinks the new partner might have. And then there’s the issue of a sex bot not necessarily having the capacity to enjoy it. People take pride on giving their partners pleasure (sorry for the excess of p in that sentence.)

    “Could this widespread regular habit of using males and male body parts for sex not have serious negative effects on society?”

    I would say not necessarily so, or not in any negative way. There is no reason to assume that the use of vibrators and the attendant use of the ‘fantasy men’ are going to in any way change how women interact with men, except maybe sexually in that if ‘use vibrator’ becomes totally acceptable and something nobody is ashamed of some women might not be so interested in partnered sex. But I can’t see that as horrible. If women (and men) end up using sex bots more often and have sex with other people less often, unless some huge imbalances occur I don’t see any negative impact. I can see a difference in level of acceptance being a problem, but we already have that with porn and masturbation. There are some men who, if they caught their female partner using a vibrator, would feel bad, but others might not even care, but these types of conflicts are in no way new. A problem could happen – if sex bot use remains a minority thing, I’d imagine that users of sex bots might have decreased options for partners, but then I’d just see a subculture of users forming. If it gets huge, then the same thing would happen to people who weren’t into sex bots. My view here might be influenced by being asexual. I’m aware that few people share my total lack of interest in sex. I’m aware that if I have a partner, they will likely want sex, and if they got it elsewhere (from a human or robot) I’m not going to feel hurt, it’s no different (to me) than if they wanted to see a movie I did not want to see.

  50. sonofrojblake says

    you’re advocating a quite generous future

    I’m not advocating anything. I’m speculating. One of the things I’m speculating is that by the (distant) time we can produce a sufficiently convincing simulacrum of a human, scarcity of resources won’t be an issue and money won’t be necessary, so “generosity” is something that will apply only to a very few, irreplaceable commodities like your time and attention.

  51. brucegee1962 says

    There’s a pretty good thread on this already over at Ally Fogg’s blog. My favorite comment was from Ononymous, who pointed out that people have been using extremely effective sexbots for over a century now. They’re called vibrators, and they do the job they’re designed for extremely well.

    My opinion is that anyone who would prefer interacting with robots to actual humans is someone we don’t need in the gene pool, so we should do everything we can to help them avail themselves of this technology.

  52. Robert, not Bob says

    I find it interesting that people are talking about sexbot users as people who are just too damn lazy to go out and get a real relationship. You don’t just pluck those out of trees, ya know. Some just can’t. But who cares about them, they’re losers, right? Might be a bit of lingering religion-inspired animosity toward casual sex too. Oh, and I’d expect trans sexbots too…

  53. says

    it implies that a sex worker is little more than a robot

    I think the whole problem here is that some people treat other people that way. I sort of gathered that Richardson’s complaint is that anthropomorphizing the inhuman for sex toys will foster the behaviors of some people that tend to dehumanize humans.

    How much actual research supports this? I don’t know. But i’ve seen an awful lot of text about this lately, and not a lot of it addresses what i see as the obvious central concept. Maybe Richardson didn’t do a great job of it either; did not propose mechanisms or buried it with other points addressed, but, “As a result, we oppose any efforts to develop robots that will contribute to gender inequalities in society,” seems pretty clear.

  54. Dark Jaguar says

    This is so outside my life experience that I’ve probably got no business commenting on this, but I guess I’m doing it anyway.

    This really seems to be the same sort of fears I’ve heard about everything from violent movies and video games to cartoons that show people smoking. Being exposed to x will numb people’s senses making it easier for them to do x to real people. Has that ever actually been shown to be true? Does it take into account the effects of properly teaching that person the difference between fantasy and reality? Conversely, does teaching people the difference between fantasy and reality actually have any effect at all? I’m actually seriously curious if there’s ever been a psychological study that demonstrates that being AWARE of psychological bias can reduce their vulnerability to said bias. Where’s the test that shows that people aware of misdirection will be more likely to see the gorilla walking through the crowd of basketball players?

    As a kid, I rejected all parental and political fears that Mortal Kombat was going to turn me into a little murderer, and grew up with that rejection in mind. Is this in the same philosophical category, or is this some other sort of thing? I’m not sure. All I know is I like to pretend there’s some middle ground and I’m better than everyone for sitting on a fence post instead of taking a side. That’s what really matters. That, or the fact that the only salvation for the human mind is it’s inability to correlate all it’s contents (and thus see all the philosophical contradictions we live with at all times).

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