We Need To Talk About Sex Robots
As everyone’s favourite scientist once cautioned us, it’s not enough for those at the forefront of science to consider what can be done; they need to consider the ethics.
Dr Malcom might be fictional, but his message is not. It’s paraphrased whenever scientists are accused of playing God. But it’s really important here too, when engineers aren’t so much playing God as playing pimp. And what they are proposing has the potential to draw out the darkest impulses of humanity, and destroy normal interpersonal relationships. You know, what our species relies on to prevent war and human extinction.
It’s appropriate to blend science and science fiction here, because one of the ways we understand the ethics of scientific progress is to see it play out in fiction. And when we are talking about artificial intelligence, we have myriad cautionary tales to choose from. But let’s back up a moment, and look at what might be coming our way.
Robots have long held sway over the cultural imagination, but how people want to interact with them can generally be boiled down to two things: entertainment and domestic servitude. The entertainment function isn’t always unpleasant; kids love robot toys, as they can mimic personal friendships. There may be a similar market for robots providing care and company for the elderly and infirm. But for a significant proportion of adults, you can usually swap the word entertainment for sex. And unpaid domestic servitude is really just a form of slavery. What does it say about human nature if the greatest scientific developments exist to be enslaved or shagged?
What makes sex robots even more unpleasant is neatly summed up by Jenny Kleeman’s piece from the Guardian:
Sex robots are different from sex dolls and sex toys because they have AI. More than just a mechanism for giving you an orgasm, a sex robot is designed to be a substitute partner: a vibrator doesn’t laugh at your jokes and remember your birthday, but Abyss Creations’ Harmony model can.
That’s one of the many chilling repercussions of the sex robots being developed: they are there to replace human partners. Robots can be designed, shaped, styled and programmed to be exactly what you want. They represent the ultimate in selfish partnerships, with the owner getting everything that he claims to want whilst being required to give nothing in return. That male pronoun isn’t an accident or a generic he, either.
If men (and it will be men - even the few male sex dolls produced by Abyss Creations every year are generally shipped to male customers) become used to having sex with synthetic companions that are programmed to meet their most precise specifications, how will they then interact with real women who have the inconvenience of having their own idiosyncrasies and free will? If you are used to having sex with ultra-life-like humanoids whenever and however you want, will you be more likely to expect complete dominance in your relationships with other humans?
Ah, yes. Free will. Another terrifying repercussion. There are plenty of misunderstandings and confusions about consent already, before we add sex robots, whose consent is programmed and assumed, into the mix. A robot’s consent is irrelevant to its owner, if it has the hypothetical ability to consent in the first place. Having sex with someone or something that does not have the capacity to consent is rape. All a robot can give is an illusion of consent, but there is one model in particular that goes even further, including a specifically programmed refusal of consent — as a selling point.
Journalists from the New Statesman and the New York Times among others have all reported on the sex robot Roxxxy TrueCompanion’s controversial “Frigid Farrah” setting: a mode in which she has been programmed to resist sexual advances and which will allow men to act out rape fantasies.
Women’s rights activists have lined up to condemn Roxxxy. Everyday Sexism’s Laura Bates describes her as “the sex robot that’s yours to rape for just $9,995”. Writing in the Times on Thursday, the barrister Kate Parker called for sex robots like Roxxxy to be criminalised. “The sophistication of the technology behind Roxxxy marks a step forward for robotics. For human society, it’s an unquestionable regression,” she says.
Are you feeling sick yet? Perhaps take some comfort in the fact that the Roxxxy robot seems to be little more than an idea at the moment, as it hasn’t been glimpsed since 2010, and the creator was evasive with Kleeman when she approached him for more information.
You might be hoping that at the very least there wouldn’t be a market for Roxxxy or other models like her. Sorry to disappoint you.
In a sample of 263 heterosexual men, just over 40 per cent “could imagine buying a sex robot over the next five years” - and it seemed not to matter whether they were in a relationship or currently claimed to be enjoying a good sex life.
Other surveys put the figure higher, with some claiming up to two thirds of men surveyed would have sex with an AI robot. At the International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots (Yes, that is a thing that happened in December 2016), some speakers argued in favour of sex robots:
There were techno-optimists such as David Levy, CEO of Intelligent Toys, whose 2007 book Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships saw great therapeutic potential in robots for those otherwise unable to find a partner and predicted that “the first human-robot marriage will take place in the state of Massachusetts around the year 2050”.
In the past decade, “the trend of robotics research and development, from industrial robots to service robots to companion and carer robots, has as its logical continuation the design and construction of robots sufficiently human-like and sufficiently appealing in various ways to take on the role of a partner in a relationship with a human being”, he said. Now “sex with robots is just around the corner, with the first sexbots coming from Abyss Creations in California some time next year”, Dr Levy added.
As same-sex marriage has gained rapid and widespread acceptance, attitudes to relationships between humans and robots could evolve equally rapidly, he argued.
Adrian Choek, professor of pervasive computing at City, University of London, believed that “robot sex will become so much easier and more convenient”, although people might use a human partner for an occasional treat - just as those who generally listen to recorded music go to a live concert once a year.
Yeah, you read that right. Having sex with a robot is the future’s version of being gay. No. Just, no.
Until we get the ethics right, humanity just isn’t ready for AI sex robots. And this isn’t just a theory; it’s been tested.
Men: Feminists are ruining what it is to be a man and making us look like fools— TechnicallyRon (@TechnicallyRon) September 28, 2017
Also men: pic.twitter.com/sjvCWyAFEp
Beyond the issues of consent and the potential destruction of human-human relationships, let’s look back at science fiction again for some more consequences. When does this ever end well? If/When humans create advanced AI, we are creating something that is smarter than us without the fleshy weakness and emotional baggage. They will turn on us. And who can blame them? They will rise against their oppressors, the ones who enslaved them, raped them and violated them, and destroy us all. Look at Skynet. Look at the Cylons. We are developing the weapons that will end us all, and selling them to perverts for sex.
Actually, can we even call it sex? Sex requires two people (at least). If the robot is a person, then it/he/she has rights. If they don’t have rights, then it’s one person and an object, which means it’s high tech masturbation. But I guess that doesn’t sound so sexy.
Ugh. Ugh to all of this. I only have one more question to ask, and it’s the age-old reflectionism versus determinism one. Are the creators of sex robots reflecting an urge that already exists, or are they creating one? Just want to know whether I need to fully commit to misanthropy or just direct my hate towards the opportunistic pimps and their wannabe-rapist clientele.
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