First, scientists called for a ban on autonomous killing machines. Now, their sights are set on sex robots.
This week, ethicist Kathleen Richardson and roboticist Erik Billing launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots, saying sexbots would perpetuate the "immense horrors still present in the world of prostitution" which "justifies [the use of women and children] as sex objects." The campaign is the offshoot of a paper they wrote earlier this year on the ethics of sex robots. Robotic sex dolls, they say, are a menace to society because they "reinforce power relations of inequality and violence."
Ok, let's unpack that a little because those are some pretty strong claims. The science on the social effects of sex robots is still embryonic. When I looked to Google Scholar for research on the societal effects of sex robots, many of the hits that came up were ethics-related papers warning how sexualized machines might change the way we view sex and relationships. I couldn't readily find published articles that delved into how sex robots have specifically altered our sexual worldview. Even the Journal of Sexual Medicine didn't have much to offer. But that might soon change, with sex robots becoming more and more mainstream.
Last year, David Levy and Adrian Cheok, two robo-sexperts organized the first congress on love and sex with robots. The second one, which will include topics like intelligent electronic sex hardware, gender, and psychological and sociological approaches to sex robots, is scheduled for mid-November in Malaysia.
More life-like sex robots are in the works. Companies, like Real Doll, are rushing to add artificial intelligence to their offerings. That means we might one day have personalized sex machines built to fulfill our every whim, that can be programmed to learn our likes and dislikes.
A person can say no to your weird fetishes. A machine, at least at first, won't. So you'll be able to teach it and tweak it to your specifications. There's research that shows people tend to value things they build more than objects they buy off-the-shelf. And those are just inanimate things like furniture.
What happens when the thing you're building has glimmers of intelligence and personality? Will we become addicted to these machines? Will the diagnoses of amalgatophilia—a condition in which a person develops sexual desires for objects like statues, dolls or mannequins—become more common, and even acceptable?
We do already have sex with machines after all. Research shows that women turn to technology just as much as men to spice up their sex lives. A 2009 study found that nearly 53% of women used a vibrator, compared to almost 45% of men.
A sex robot's brain—assuming it's connected to the internet—will have access to all the sexual activities of the world's sex robots. Even the most sexually active people won't have as much data with which to improve their performance in bed. It will be able to please you in ways that may be impossible for a human. Robots could become a mirror of our best and darkest wishes, and in that context, maybe we'll fall in love—or lust—with our robots faster and more deeply than with other fleshy beings. We often complain we can't find a real date because of Tinder bots, could you imagine what it'd be like if we had to compete with physical robots as well?
Enter the Campaign Against Sex Robots.
"I think if a person is lonely they will draw on what is available to help them. It's not a failing of a person if they feel lonely," anti-sex robot campaigner Richardson told me in an email. "Women also feel lonely."
Part of Richardson's objection is that sex robots are likely to be designed solely to please men.
"The fact [is] you'll be hard pressed to find any company that has put real efforts into creating a male robot for women," Richardson said. "This is because in the 'real world' of human relationships there is a gender division. Men are mainly the buyers of sex; their sexual desire is validated and seen as ok, and women are seen as the suppliers of sex. Female sexual desire and sexuality is very underdeveloped."
Put that way, it sounds less like the Campaign Against Sex Robots or more like the Campaign for Male Sex Robots.
Richardson's critique is born out in an Amazon search for the term "sex doll," which yielded more than 10,000 hits. The vast majority look female.
When I searched "male sex doll," the options dwindled down to around 3,000, and the majority were actually sex dolls meant most likely for heterosexual males, rather than a male-looking sex buddy.
In a world with sexbots, Richardson thinks these biases will be magnified. Tech already has a gender problem. Our apps and devices are designed by men, usually white men, because they dominate that industry. We've seen how this has played out poorly for women already. Until recently, Apple's HealthKit app didn't offer menstruation tracking, for instance.
The sex robot industry may well reduce the female body to automated, on-demand vaginas, body parts that can be accessed any time, any way. Richardson and Billing aren't the first to caution the world against the societal effects of sexual fembots. At the WeRobot conference in April, J.D. candidate Sinziana Gutiu who specializes in the legal implications of human-robot interactions, presented a paper titled "Sex Robots and the Robotization of Consent." In it, she argues:
The sex robot is an ever-consenting sexual partner and the user has full control of the robot and the sexual interaction. By circumventing any need for consent, sex robots eliminate the need for communication, mutual respect and compromise in the sexual relationship. The use of sex robots results in the dehumanization of sex and intimacy by allowing users to physically act out rape fantasies and confirm rape myths. Of greatest concern is how sex robots will affect men’s ability to identify and understand consent in sexual interactions with women. Widespread use of sex robots will promote user’s antisocial practices and impair the dignity of women.
Robots embody social stereotypes of what is attractive, which could promote or exacerbate new or already existing biases toward women, like the idea that all women are "delicate, passive, obedient, and physically attractive," Gutiu adds. The sexbots in production today resemble young, mostly white or Asian, women.
Richardson and Billing also express concern that "the development of sex robots will further reduce human empathy that can only be developed by an experience of mutual relationship."
"We are not against sex. Sex between consenting adults is wonderful, [adults] who can meet each other as free subjects without coercion," Richardson told me in an email. "We are against sexual objectification of any person, be it women, or men."
But it may be that people having sex with robots won't think of them just as objects. We tend to see robots as our friends. We interact with them in ways that we don't with inanimate appliances. (I named my Roomba Wall-e. My refrigerator doesn't get the privilege of a nickname.) We do this because robots have what experts call "social valence," meaning we ascribe to them human qualities, like personality. That makes "robots feel different. So society will treat them differently," says University of Washington cyberlaw expert Ryan Calo.
Already, people are horrified by humans kicking robotic dogs or dismembering robots for sport.
But if people do want to sexually assault robots, should we stop them? Some researchers think robot-directed violence and aggression could be used as a proxy to understand what makes humans tick, and could possibly help sex offenders work through their emotions and psychological issues.
The question is how society will react to human-like robots being used in this way. Some companies are already thinking ahead. The manufacturer of the cute Pepper robot, for instance, spells out that sexual acts are against its ownership contract.
Without a legal framework through which to deal with robosex, it's unclear what a call for ban will do, other than generate headlines. That's been one of the criticisms with the call for a ban on autonomous weapons. Without a way to enforce a call to action, it's very likely to fail, and especially when it comes to sex-related things. No one likes killer robots. Everyone likes sexy Cylons.
And if they scare you, take solace in this: "I think it will be some time before these machines will get to the point where they are a dangerous influence," said John Sullins, a Sonoma State University philosopher who studies robotics and AI. "It would take breakthroughs in robotics and artificial intelligence that I do not see forthcoming. The robots that exist today are far less appealing than the static silicon love dolls. The human imagination is very strong and the way that a sex robot…talks and moves is just not that attractive."
This story has been updated to include comment from John Sullins.
Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.