They might not have fully arrived on the scene yet, but already there are calls to ban sex robots... before they've even really been invented.
The call, which comes from campaign leader Dr. Kathleen Richardson, claims sex robots are unnecessary and undesirable, and suggests their introduction could lead to the irreparable manipulation of attitudes towards gender, beauty and sex.
Dr. Richardson, who works as a robot ethicist at De Montfort University in Leicester, England, hopes to raise awareness concerning the deficiencies of sex robots. Although we've yet to see anything representing what could be termed a mildly authentic and effective sex robot, Dr. Richardson claims research and development is being poured into the concept without thinking about the social repercussions. She told the BBC:
Sex robots seem to be a growing focus in the robotics industry and the models that they draw on - how they will look, what roles they would play - are very disturbing indeed.
At the forefront of her campaign are claims that sex robots will reinforce and promote negative concepts regarding the objectification of women and their role in society. Furthermore, it has been suggested these sex robots will likely adhere to one particular idea of beauty, once again reinforcing stereotypes. She added:
We think that the creation of such robots will contribute to detrimental relationships between men and women, adults and children, men and men and women and women.
This certainly seems rather convincing, as it's hard not to agree that literally turning women into sex objects (and let's face it, I think we all know most sex robots will be female) will lead to an increase in sexual objectification. Furthermore, as robots become more sophisticated there is the suggestion that instead of seeing robots as more human, we will see humans as more robotic. This is especially important when you consider women are already fighting a social struggle to escape from gender stigma, prejudice and objectification. The fear is that these products could lead to all women being viewed as essentially the same as sex robots.
How Do The Manufacturers Respond?
Firstly, we should probably accept that at the moment, there are no mainstream sex robots of any sophistication on the market. However, that doesn't mean there are not companies out there who see the sex robot industry as the massive money pie it might one day be.
True Companion, the developer of the "world's first sex robot," the Roxxxy, have fought back against suggestions sex robots are unnecessary. Chief executive Douglas Hines claims his products can provide a lot of enjoyment to people who may be unable, or unwilling, to pursue "real" relationships. He explained:
We are not supplanting the wife or trying to replace a girlfriend. This is a solution for people who are between relationships or someone who has lost a spouse. People can find happiness and fulfilment other than via human interaction.
Others have also suggested sex robots could be used as a safe, non-harmful outlet for individuals with fringe, and perhaps even illegal, sexual fetishes.
Alex Garland's recently released scifi thriller Ex Machina also partly dealt with the concept of having sex with a robot:
Although Hines sounds like he's championing a noble cause, it's hard to see how these relatively niche concerns can result in a profitable business. For the most part, the Roxxxy (as the name makes quite clear) seems to be primarily aimed at the wider sex-interested market. Despite this, Hines claims that as Roxxxy becomes more sophisticated, the "sex" part of the sex robot may diminish. He adds:
The physical act of sex will only be a small part of the time you spend with a sex robot - the majority of time will be spent socialising and interacting.
Ultimately, he hopes Roxxxy can become a self-teaching machine capable to talking at length with its owner and automatically tuning itself to their likes and dislikes.
Are Sex Robots Actually Possible?
If the Roxxxy is the current pinnacle of sex robot technology, then it's likely we still have a long way to go. In essence, the Roxxxy is basically a laptop attached to a fleshlight. She cannot move independently and she appears to be pulling an expression reminiscent of sheer terror - which is hardly something I'd like to look at during sex. Furthermore, the dialogue she does spout seems to be mostly limited to pretty questionable dirty talk. In fact, True Companion's 'hands on videos' for Roxxxy provide a rather harrowing viewing experience (Warning: Slightly NSFW video, although there's no nudity, robotic or otherwise):
Although Hines claims his company has received thousands of pre-orders for the $7,000 machine, experts remain skeptical about its broad mainstream viability. Indeed, no Roxxxy owner has ever come forward to discuss their intimate experiences with the robot.
Despite this, Dr. Kevin Curran of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, claims sex robots will be available in the future. The presence and interest in sex robots means there is clearly a market, although it might be some time until the technology is advanced enough to appeal to the wider public.
David Levy, author of the book Love and Sex with Robots, argues that by 2050 we will not bat an eyelid at someone in an intimate relationship with a robot. He told the BBC:
There is an increasing number of people who find it difficult to form relationships and this will fill a void. It is not demeaning to women any more than vibrators are demeaning.
This seems relatively likely, especially when you consider how attitudes towards sex have changed in the last 20 years alone. Only two decades ago, people would have been extremely reluctant to discuss sex, pornography and sex toys - whereas nowadays it's almost considered polite table conversation.
Spike Jonze's scifi romance Her looked at how future relations with computers might be commonplace:
Generally, Dr. Curran concludes that we are a society probably not yet prepared for the wider questions surrounding artificial intelligence and sex robots. As robots become more sophisticated and humanlike, is it still ethical to think of them as objects without agency or the ability to give and/or withhold consent?Furthermore, if sex robots really do become surrogates for real relationships, how does this affect issues such as marriage and child-rearing. Curran states:
Have we sufficient legalisation in place for the issues that can arise in a future where robots are sufficiently advanced as to be indistinguishable from humans at first glance? Can a robot marry? Can a robot couple adopt a child?
Well, call me out fashioned, but for the time being I think I'm happy to keep it analog.