Sex robots are the future — maybe

A love and romance revolution is quickly approaching, and it’s straight out of the uncanny valley. It has lifelike silicone skin, eyes that can blink and the ability to make you think you are actually having sex with a human.

Yes, it’s sex robots, the newest development in the technology that will change the world around us, and what goes on in our bedrooms.

Today, the Foundation for Responsible Robotics released “Our Sexual Future With Robots,” a report exploring the main questions about sex robots, including “Would people have sex with a robot?,” “Will sex robots change societal perceptions of gender?” and “Could robots help with sexual healing and therapy?” 

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The answers to all of these questions are important, especially considering there are sex robots already for available for purchase, with prices ranging from $5,000 (~£3,875) to $15,000 (~£11,600). Customisation is the greatest selling factor for each model, and they all include some sort of artificial intelligence, allowing them to convey emotion or change personalities.

The report claims that potential benefits of owning a sex robot go beyond the immediately obvious. Sex therapists said sex robots have the potential to be therapeutic tools, and some medical professionals support sex as a medical therapy. Plus, the UK Human Rights Act 1998 leaves room for interpretation about the robots’ potential to be a treatment, stating “it is illegal not to support disabled people to enjoy the same pleasures as others enjoy in the privacy of their own homes”. 

Disabled people could benefit from the robots, as well as senior citizens and people with problems such as erectile dysfunction and social anxiety, sex therapists said in the report. 

Sex robots could also impact how society approaches not just how we have sex, but also how we treat gender. The report’s results are all based on gender as a binary – the split between male and female. But people who identify as non-binary are increasingly accepted, meaning robots could easily be built according to the same rules of gender, even though robots are all genderless by default.

Ethical concerns 

There is a more sinister side to the robots’ therapeutic possibilities: it has been argued that they could enable rape and paedophilic fantasies. Trottla, a Japanese company, started selling childlike sex dolls more than a decade ago, according to its founder Shin Takagi. Takagi is a self-proclaimed paedophile who said engaging with childlike sex dolls prevents people with paedophilic urges from acting on them. But medical professional Peter Fagan told The Atlantic that products like Trottla’s likely reinforce paedophilic interests and cause them “to be acted upon with greater urgency”.

The legality of the dolls’ existence is also a live question, since certain countries classify child pornography as visually depicting explicit sexual activity with anyone who is younger than 18 years old – and fornicating with a robot built to resemble a child seems like it would definitely fall under those terms. A Canadian man is already facing charges of smuggling and possession of prohibited goods after a Trottla doll he ordered was intercepted at an airport, according to the report. 

Robots could also be used to stimulate rape, and it’s been suggested that the sex robot Roxxxy from True Companion – which is currently available to buy – has this option built in, given you can set its personality to be “frigid” towards sexual advances.

Although that sounds alarming, there is a silver lining to this: it’s an opportunity to teach people about consent, according to Patrick Lin, a philosophy professor and robot ethicist, in the report.

“If it’s important to society that we teach people that sex requires consent, then it’s not absurd to build in those norms in human-robot interaction,” Lin wrote in an email to researchers. “We’re socially conditioning people to act in better ways. So, consent here isn’t about the robot per se, but it’s about what our action says to society.” 

Speaking of what it says about society, sex robots are overwhelmingly female – this may be partly down to demand, but is also likely linked by the gender split in the engineering industry, with just 9% of UK engineering jobs filled by women. This is reflected in the gender stereotypes that our current waves of robots occupy – those with a female appearance are more likely to be in an assistive role, such as robot waitress or robot secretary. Although the report highlighted a “significant percentage” of women who approved of sex robots, the main demand comes from men – suggesting that sex robots, despite being genderless by default, may only succeed in objectifying women. 

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All technological development brings up ethical considerations: the need to weigh up the good against the harm, and ultimately decide if it’s all worth it. 

In that respect, the debate surrounding sex robots is no different – it’s just that this time the answers will hit you in a much more intimate place.  

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