This week in Manchester, UK, academics and researchers from all over the world have gathered for the 12th Human Choice and Computers Conference, an event which “works to shape socially responsible and ethical policies and professional practices in the information society.” One of this year’s themes focused on the realities and ethical dimensions of love and sex between humans and machines, and it turned out to be a lively discussion, to say the least.
Advances in artificial intelligence, but also robotic hardware means humanoid robots, known as androids, are no longer the stuff of science fiction. They might be clunky and awkward today, but in the foreseeable future, these machines might appear indistinguishable from humans. These androids will help with chores, keep us company and, some note, will inevitably become sex partners.
Among academics, two distinct trains of thoughts can be distinguished. On one side, there are those like David Levy, an artificial intelligence expert, who are optimistic and think humans will not only have sex with robots but fall in love with them too. Then there are those like Kathleen Richardson, senior research fellow in the ethics of robotics at De Montfort University and director of the Campaign Against Sex Robots, and others, who believe robot sex should be banned because the objectification is against human values.
Michelle Mars and Ian Yeoman are among those who think humans will soon happily have sex with robots. In a 2012 paper, the two present a scenario in which Amsterdam’s Red Light District of 2050 will be “about android prostitutes who are clean of sexual transmitted infections (STIs), not smuggled in from Eastern Europe and forced into slavery, the city council will have direct control over android sex workers controlling prices, hours of operations and sexual services.”
These sexbots would be better than humans and programmed to each individual person’s requirements. The androids will also be always available and will never say ‘no’ to anything. And that’s why Richardson thinks robots for sex are a big problem.
“Empathy is about taking into account what another person is thinking and feeling, and responding appropriately to it,” she said. “Empathy is not about projecting onto, or appropriating someone to use as you want. You can do that with an object. But I don’t want you to do that with a person.”
“Everyone thinks [sex robots are] very exciting to begin with, but when you’re alone and you have to carry a 40Ib robot upstairs, or their programme breaks down and you have to call ‘support’ and go through automated options to speak to an ‘advisor’ to find out why your robot is twitching its head repeatedly—the excitement will quickly fade,” Richardson told Motherboard. “You will realise there’s only other people and we have to find a way to build healthy and loving relationships with each other.”
Notice that Richardson assumes that a sex android can be considered a ‘person’. That’s because sexbots are expected to be used as companions as well, with a programmable personality. Nobody wants to have sex with an awkward robot. Speaking of which, meet Roxxxy — the world’s first sex robot which is “always turned on and ready to talk or play.”
Roxxxy ships for $6,995 and can allegedly learn an owner’s preferences, according to the manufacturer True Companion.
“So she likes what you like, dislikes what you dislike, etc. She also has moods during the day just like real people! She can be sleepy, conversational or she can “be in the mood!” the company’s website reads.
Some of the preprogrammed personalities include:
Frigid Farrah – She is reserved and shy
Wild Wendy – She is outgoing and adventurous
S&M Susan – She is ready to provide your pain/pleasure fantasies
Young Yoko – She is oh so young (barely 18) and waiting for you to teach her
Mature Martha – She is very experienced and would like to teach you!
They’re also working on a version destined for women — Rocky the male sex robot.
“Rocky is described as everyone’s dream date! – just imagine putting together a great body along with a sparkling personality where your man is focused on making you happy! This is Rocky!”
Sounds like a real gentleman.
Although pre-orders became available last year, it’s unclear whether anyone came in the possession of a Roxxxy unit. Judging from the pics and videos posted online, though, Roxxxy is far from the sex androids of the future. Rather it’s more of an augmented, smarter sex doll. But it’s a start, one that Levy, who is the author of the bestseller Love and Sex With Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships, thinks will unleash a sexual revolution which will better mankind. He believes prostitution, sex crimes, and loneliness will be no more as a result of a robot-utopia.
“The world will be a much happier place because all those people who are now miserable will suddenly have someone. I think that will be a terrific service to mankind,” he says.
Richardson, on the contrary, thinks sex robots will not cure loneliness but only amplify it.
“One of the first impacts of something like sex robots would be to increase human isolation because once you try to tell people that they don’t need other human beings any more, one of the consequences of that is more isolation,” she told Sky News.
Researcher Lydia Kaye, just like Richardson, thinks sex robots will encourage men to think women are nothing more than objects designed exclusively for masculine sexual gratification — something that reinforces the idea that a woman’s body is a commodity.
“Sex robots will create another means through which women will be presented as objects to be used for sexual gratification and mistreatment,” she wrote.
“They will also desensitise humans to intimacy and empathy, which can only be developed through experiencing human interaction and mutual consenting relationships.”
University of Oslo Professor Charles Ess said at the conference in Manchester sex robots “may well be able to offer good sex on demand,” but cautions that they shouldn’t be made identical to humans otherwise “human virtues become endangered.”
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.