Sex robots: The end of empathy and love or a force for good?
by Emma Sims
No longer a fringe fantasy, sex robots are coming to the fore of society. What does this mean for humanity?
What is a robot? “A commercial good with a face,” Kathleen Richardson, professor of ethics and culture of robots and AI at De Montfort University, explains to me, exasperated. “That’s really what it is. It’s made. It’s manufactured. It’s a product with a face.” The idea that one can engage in a significant relationship with a robot – a relationship that requires “intimacy, trust, commitment, a mutual understanding” – is unrealisable, she contends. But it’s more than that. It’s downright dangerous, and it puts the whole concept of humanity in precarity, even jeopardy.
Let’s rewind a little. Sex robots, or sexbots as they’ve come to be known, are on the rise. There’s been a spate of TV shows that feature humanoid robots partaking in ostensibly human relationships; think Channel 4’s Humans and HBO’s critically acclaimed Westworld. The Stepford Wives – the novel (1972) and both films (1975 and 2004) – provide another example of the world’s fascination with humanoid fembots. The theme was even touched upon by the western world’s foremost sex symbol, Ryan Gosling, in the 2007 indie flick Lars and the Real Girl (although the object of Gosling’s affection was a less-than-realistic inflatable doll – the sexbot’s low-tech cousin).
But sexbots aren’t just screen fodder. They’re real, commercially available entities – anthropomorphic robots designed for the sexual gratification of humans, and they’re seeping into the mainstream. As with any new technology, they’re difficult to police; a lack of precedent makes understanding the long-term ramifications of these sex robots – not to mention the boundaries regarding conduct with them – more than a little fraught.
(From Westworld, Season One. Credit: HBO)
Enter Professor Richardson, rallying against the onslaught of the sexbot via the platform she founded, the Campaign Against Sex Robots. She’s a regular on the media circuit, touting her vehemently anti-sexbot stance on platforms from TEDx Talks to annual technology conference Web Summit, and has recently published a book, An Anthropology of Robots and AI. When I speak to her, she is buoyant, brisk, and no-nonsense.
“People think my campaign was a feminist campaign to begin with, but actually they got it wrong. It became a feminist campaign,” she asserts. Richardson’s academic research (she holds a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Cambridge) took her to MIT, where she observed what was taking place in their robotics department. It was at the institution that she was first introduced to the concept of human relationships projected onto – and enacted by – these resolutely unhuman objects. This, she believes, was automation masquerading as care; ostensible empathy belying a necessary lack of human connection.
“It took me a number of years to figure out what would really happen to us as human beings if we just stopped relating to each other,” she ruminates. Once sex robots came onto the scene, her thoughts were crystalised: “We propose that the development of sex robots will further reduce human empathy that can only be developed by an experience of mutual relationship,” proclaims the Campaign’s summary manifesto.
A significant part of Richardson’s argument rests on her anti-pornography stance, one which jars with the tide of opinion in 2018. You may recall this Huffington Post infographic, which revealed that porn sites receive more visits per month than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined. Richardson argues that sex robots embody the power inequalities represented in porn, and other problematic sexual phenomena. “You’ve got to stop thinking that dolls and robots can exist without prostitution and pornography, or child sexual exploitation. They can’t exist without it. They don’t exist without it. They’re […] derived from that fundamental inequality.”
(Credit: Alphr/Monique Woo)
It’s not hard to see her point. Sex robots are overwhelmingly modelled on classic pornographic ideals: big-breasted, small-waisted, doe-eyed, cosmetic-clad and vaginally… constricted women. But it’s not just the aesthetics which irk; it’s the darker side of porn, and the patriarchal power structures upholding large parts of it, which are these sexbots’ raison d’être. “What we’ve done is created a structural inequality that at its very core lacks empathy, lacks equality, and we’re taking that as the basis for this new technology and saying, ‘Well, this is what happens.’”
As machines, sexbots can be turned on and off. They can be silenced. They are vulnerable, pliable, programmable. If we start modelling relationships on this hyperbolic expression of pornographic power play, could this translate into the sexual objectification of real-life women?
When pseudo-relationships emerge between sex robots and their owners, they are necessarily based on one-sided power structures: the user and the used. If society starts taking this sexual objectification as the norm, it will damage the way people relate to each other, Richardson argues. “The idea that we could just treat each other anyway and there are no problems with that – that’s obviously false,” she laments.
“They can go and rub their penis […] on a bookshelf”
Peddlers of sex robots, she claims, are cashing in on an anthropomorphic illusion that compounds patriarchal inequality: “They’re trying to create an illusion that [their customers] can buy into – that [a sex robot] is like a person”. Richardson, accused by internet trolls of being a sexless killjoy, has nothing against sexual gratification itself.
“They can go and rub their penis […] on a bookshelf, if they want to. There’s not a campaign against bookshelves.” Indeed, nobody is conflating a bookshelf with a human being. But a robot that blinks, talks, and has a discernible ‘personality’? Well, that’s another story.
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This illusion puts interpersonal relationships at stake, she argues. Entrenchment of the patriarchy, sexual objectification of women, erosion of human empathy – sex robots mean risking all of these things. “I mean, it’s just getting in the way of what it is to be brilliant and loving and kind as human beings,” she sighs. “It really just gets in our way.”
What about other forms of automation? I regularly use self-checkouts, but I’m still able to differentiate my behaviour when I’m interacting with a human cashier. Just because I engage with a machine carrying out a job hitherto conducted by a human, it doesn’t erode my basic social niceties, and knowledge of when to use them. Why wouldn’t this dynamic – one of appropriate social differentiation between human and machine interaction – translate in the world of sex robots?
“They’re not a significant intimate relationship in your life,” she argues, “and you’re not a significant relationship in their life, either”. It’s the idea of “a significant other turned into an inanimate object” that she takes umbrage with.
Sex robots or love robots?
RealDoll is a company that sells life-sized sex dolls. A nascent subsection, called Realbotix, is described by the company as the “next generation of the well-known anatomically correct RealDolls blended with artificial intelligence, robotics, touch sensors, internal heaters and virtual reality”.
Realbotix’s first commercially available sexbot goes by “Harmony” – ironic, given the furore such products elicit. She has been a work in progress since 2014, and debuted late last year, setting tongues wagging in Britain’s salacious tabloid press.
There are reports that the humanoid sexbot retails at anywhere between £7,600 and £15,200, depending on customisation. RealDolls’ offerings encompass a range of different faces and body types to choose from, as well as a spectrum of cup sizes and a frankly inconceivable 50 different nipple types – from ‘perky’ to ‘puffy’.
What’s more, Harmony being a robot and not just a mound of silicon, there are a number of different “personality” types to select from. There’s a wholesome “happy” mode, a more beguiling “sensual” one, a “talkative” option and a problematic “shy” mode. Why problematic, you ask – surely “shy” just amounts to a bashful glance, a blush, a coy batting of synthetic eyelashes?
It’s easy to see how “shyness”, can descend into a whole other ballpark
The reality is not always so innocent. Take the controversial sexbot, Roxxxy, made by True Companion. “She” can be put on “Frigid Farrah” mode, a setting that programs her to “not be appreciative” of sexual advances, according to the company’s website. It’s easy to see how “shyness”, or “frigidity” in this case, can descend into a whole other ballpark, and a morally reprehensible one at that. As the New York Times puts it, Roxxxy is “yours to rape for just $9,995”.
True Companion told Alphr that it does not support any form of physical or sexual abuse, and that the “Frigid Farrah” personality is intended to work as a “training robot”: “True Companion’s sex robots have a feature that allows the user to interact with the robot as a trainer, to teach them how to interact with a partner,” said the company’s president, Douglas Hines. “This includes providing training in social as well as sexual interactions with a partner. In order to model various personalities (outgoing, shy, etc. ), we created, among others, the Frigid Farrah personality that simulates interacting with a more reserved partner.
“Roxxxy allows one to learn and practice not only sexual interaction but also the more subtle courting behavior that happens when two people are attracted – from how and when to hold her hand to what and when is appropriate for making advances towards Roxxxy. If Roxxxy finds the user moving too fast, she will tell the user. But if the user continues to disregard the feedback provided, the robot will shut down and cease interacting.”
Whether or not Roxxxy functions as a training robot, enabling sexual interactions where there is the scope for a simulation of rape opens up a world of practical, societal and ethical problems. For some, it’s a victimless crime – a harmless outlet. For others, it could serve to normalise sexual abuse in the collective conscious, with sexbots becoming a gateway drug to the real thing.
Throughout these considerations, the words of Dazed journalist Anna Freeman, in a recent op-ed on the subject, ring in my head: “I don’t believe a product should be boycotted because of our ability to fuck it up.” A 2017 report by the Foundation for Responsible Robotics details the myriad ways in which sexbots could be a force for good. Our Sexual Future with Robots, co-authored by academics including Noel Sharkey, professor of AI and robotics at the University of Sheffield, takes heed of the risks posed by sexbots, but also reels off a number of potentially beneficial applications.
(Credit: Alphr/Monique Woo)
They could be used for “sexual healing”, for example; treating problems of sexual malfunction or social anxiety about sex. The report also suggests they could be used to stave off feelings of isolation among the lonely or elderly. “No-one is claiming sex robots would be a panacea for all sexual concerns or difficulties,” the study asserts, but there are viable treatment offers here, ones that shouldn’t be discarded because of the human capacity to abuse them.
“Our humanity is created through our relationships”
Richardson disagrees. For her, sex robots propound the “myth that human beings are somehow equivalent to machines, commercially produced artefacts,” and, in doing so, “reinforce power relations of inequality and violence”.
“We are not machines. We are distinctive, and we need each other, we’re interdependent, we rely on each other, our humanity is created through our relationships with each other.”
In a world where a few thousand quid will buy you a responsive humanoid machine capable of interaction and copulation, what about empathy? What about mutual gratification, mutual understanding? What about symbiosis, warmth, kindness? Perhaps they too will befall Harmony’s fate, and become nothing but the namesake of her siblings.
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