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.