The Ins and Outs of Robot Sex

This post is not for the faint-hearted or easily offended. With the First International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots taking place in Portugal this week, once again, many of the key issues relating to emerging technology extend well beyond the purely technological …

Without labouring on detail, there’s a certain type of spiritual confession, which takes place all over the world, in which past sexual conduct is a major aspect.  Some crude advice often given to those (males, in this case) about to confess is along the lines of, “Don’t worry – I’ve heard it all before. In the end, there’s only five things you can really have sex with: a man, a woman, a child, an animal and a milk bottle.”  So … in the AI simulated world of the future, does that taxonomy still work?  Is an android sex-machine still a milk bottle or something more?

The abstract for one of the conference papers, “Entertainment vs. Evolution: Cyber Love and Relationships. Should We Draw the Line?”, to be presented in Portugal this month by Denise Oram and Nigel Houlden (from Glyndwr University, Wales), asks:

“Just because we can, does it mean we should?” and expands …

“Technology continues to advance at an exponential pace. We are living in an ever-changing environment; one where machine intelligence is constantly evolving and taking a more active role in society.

This paper attempts to examine and raise awareness of the issues and problems in the development and operation of intelligent machines and the current failure to address ethical and social factors. It raises issues concerning the future of human-machine relationships and raises questions for an exploratory discussion of the social implications and considerations that they present. In particular, these questions should be asked in preparation for the many scenarios and impacts involved with future cyber-love, sex and relationships. We need to be aware and have consideration of the social involvement and the psychological well-being of people as a result of using them.”

So, what are these ‘issues’?

Well, let’s start with a recap of a couple of socio-technological principles considered (it’s presumptuous to say ‘established’ – although there’s a strong case) in previous posts:

  • Technology – existing and emerging – is generally used and abused in about equal measure, and will probably continue to be, although it’s often a matter of personal opinion as to what’s actually good or bad.  Just as one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom-fighter, one woman’s pleasure is another’s sin.  (See The Real Internet of Things)
  • Appropriate legislation always lags some way behind the changes brought about by emerging technology and there’s really no credible history of short-term social, moral or ethical objections being effective in restricting long-term technological advance and deployment.  (See Shazam for People)

The additional premise behind this particular post is that – at some point in the future – pretty much anything by way of entertainment will be possible; at least in simulation and without much difficulty if we’re prepared to accept limited quality/realism in the early stages.  The Star Trek Holodeck may be a good few years off yet but the individual components are appearing and most of what we’re going to discuss here doesn’t require anything like that level of sophistication.  Dancers at the End of Time it isn’t but then it doesn’t have to be.

These three principles are, in a strictly propositional sense, the axioms for this piece.

2010 saw the release of Roxxxy, the ‘love robot’, or ‘true companion’ to give it its company description.  There should be no real surprise in this.  The period of time between the invention of plastic and the arrival of the blow-up doll market wasn’t huge either.  And, in fact – visually at least, Roxxxy doesn’t look that much different to an inflatable sex toy.  Now we’re in the AI age, the claims made for Roxxxy are that “She knows you name, your likes and dislikes, can carry on a discussion & express her love to you & be your loving friend. She can talk to you, listen to you & feel your touch. She can even have an orgasm! She is also anatomically consistent with a human so you can have a talk or have sex. She is always turned on and ready to talk or play! Have a conversation or have sex – it is up to you!” (although none of this has been verified – empirically or otherwise – in the research for this post).  Roxxxy is also configurable (by the manufacturers) in the basic features of eye, hair & skin colour and breast size to reflect personal ‘taste’ [sic].

What’s being offered here is fairly crude in both senses of the word so there may or may not be academic AI interest – technological or social – at this stage of Roxxxy’s development.  However, if there isn’t yet, there certainly will be soon, particularly as the robot’s configurability improves, both in terms of hardware (appearance) and software (behaviour) but, to continue this discussion, we’re probably going to have to stop calling it Roxxxy – that may be too restrictive a concept.  And, if that need to generalise sets alarms ringing, it probably should.

It doesn’t take much imagination to project the ‘love robot’ into a future where much more convincing configuration is possible.  Now, there’s no suggestion here that the current makers of Roxxxy will get involved in any of the shady stuff we’re about to consider but others could easily jump on the bandwagon.  Generally, where there’s money to be made, a market appears.  If there’s something (or someone) to be exploited, someone (or something) will do just that.  (A fairly self-explanatory product called ‘AutoBlow’ reached its crowd-funding target in a very short time indeed recently.)

In fact, and in time, what manufacturers are prepared to ship by way of factory configuration may not matter much.  Making Roxxxy’s skin, hair and eyes in a range of colours and her breasts in different (but presumably matching?) sizes is hardly the future of robotic sex.  All that’s needed instead is to supply a configurable system to the customer; then they can get on with it themselves.  It’s not hard to conceive a combination of:

  • a body with the necessary mechatronics to change shape; larger and smaller overall and fine-tuned individual detail wherever required (even if there are still a few ‘base models’ initially to facilitate this), and
  • smart-material for skin, which can take on any appearance, or any image (configured through a variety of means), wherever required across the body’s surface.

Put these two hardware concepts together, and add the necessary software to convincingly drive it, and you have the complete package.  One way or another (very unscrupulous suppliers or full customer configuration), we have to consider a future in which the sex robot that you buy can be absolutely anything you want it to be.

So, having hopefully covered our legal backsides, exactly what sort of ‘configuration’ might we be talking about here?  As if we can’t see it coming …

Well, we have to take a deep breath here and recognise that, laying morality and legality aside – at least for now, a sex robot:

  1. Doesn’t have to be a woman
  2. Doesn’t have be adult
  3. Doesn’t have to be human
  4. Doesn’t have to have any counterpart in the real world at all

Now, that’s done it, hasn’t it?  What’s interesting to observe is that, whilst this list might be in the natural order of constraint relaxation from the conventional female sex doll, the levels of outrage caused by each in turn won’t be.  Remember we’re not implicitly condoning or condemning any of these but it’s likely that the first could be taken as a simple matter of equality (if that’s what’s wanted) and the last probably seen as just weird.  However, the third will make most people feel uncomfortable and the second will have them screaming.

Or will it in fact?  Is it actually wrong?  Or does it being a robot we’re talking about here make it OK?  This is probably the central question … Right, have you chosen your moral position?  Good.  Let’s see if it’s really as simple as that then …

The problem is that this really isn’t a straightforward ethical decision to be made in moral isolation.  It has some hard-edged practicality to it.  Consider the following questions and scenarios …

Is a sex robot fundamentally  (legally, morally, ethically, whatever) any different to simple masturbation?  Where does the physical stimulation overlap with the mental image and how much is this affected by the other senses being played on?  And does it actually matter or is it really just an expensive milk bottle?

There’s often an implicit assumption that this will be a male-oriented market.  Should it be?  Will it be?  The world is a big place and sexual standards and preferences are pretty non-homogeneous.  Can we always assume that equality is equivalence and both are to be encouraged?

Would an appropriate use of a ‘true companion’ be to, say, recreate a departed partner for emotional continuity?  OK, how about an ex-partner … against their wishes?  How about someone whose essential data you’ve just captured – completely without their knowledge – in the street on your Google Glass?  How about your neighbour’s twelve-year-old daughter?  Could celebrities ‘sell’ themselves?

If the idea of a child sex robot is utterly abhorrent, how about the alternative proposal that precisely this technology could be used to treat paedophiles?  Is it just possible that there might be a positive side to such a sickening idea?

To what extent would it be acceptable to use a sex robot to ‘experiment’?  Obviously the technology would allow individuals to engage in activity they probably couldn’t easily in the real world but would there then be more of a tendency to push boundaries, try things they probably wouldn’t ‘in the flesh’, test personal sexualities, etc.?  Is this OK?

Is it OK to abuse a sex robot?  (Of course, ‘abuse’ is a somewhat subjective term in relation to sex: some people pay for ‘abuse’.)  Is it OK to rape or ‘kill’ a sex robot?  Does its simulated appearance have any bearing on this?  In fact, should robots have ‘rights’?  After all, we seem to be talking about sex slaves here.

If you still don’t like the sound of any of this then, apart from grumbling in coffee shops or writing irate letters to newspapers, what do you really think you can do to stop it?

And we’ve not even mentioned animals and extra-terrestrials.  (Well, we have now.)

Morally, there may be a difference here between, say, child pornography and a child sex robot.  Child pornography clearly abuses children in its creation; on the surface, a child robot doesn’t.  But would it encourage it?  Or would it actually decrease it?  (Once again, we really shouldn’t be asking the technologists these sorts of questions.)  A comparable issue divides vegetarians: if ‘real’ meat could be constructed from a molecular process, with no actual animals involved, would that make it OK?  Similarly, why do many vegetarians like to eat soya protein shaped like a pork chop?  Is that ‘dirty’ vegetarianism or simply helping them remain vegetarian?  Is convincing sex robot simulation something shameful or to be considered better than its alternative?  Are we all ever likely to agree on this?  Frankly, no.  Are those groups that see themselves as our spiritual or moral guides ever likely to agree on this?  An even franker ‘no’.  This may seem like a localised affair at the moment but it truly has the potential to further split the scientific and religious communities.

Whatever we decide, or try to decide, effective legislation may be difficult anyway. Emergent technology as a service often pulls together a number of individual threads, which are innocuous in their own right but devastating in combination. The hardware and software necessary for a realistic sex robot would have numerous benefits elsewhere in society and would be actively encouraged as research.  On the other hand, in practice, there would be little to prevent a sex robot being supplied in diminutive appearance to reflect a particular model or ethnicity, say – to not do so could be seen as discriminatory; the ‘home configuration’ required from that to a child would then be minimal. Outrage may have its place but how effective is that likely to be?  Many are still outraged by pornography and sex toys; have they been eliminated?  No; there is no effective legislation, even for the pornography industry, which is known to be exploitative.  Ultimately, we simply keep it out of the public view and individually choose whether or not to partake.

So where does all this leave us?  Well, probably nowhere, really.  Even if there was to be some great legal and ethical consensus on this, which then became enshrined in law or moral code, it could still be ignored – and it would be.  The problem is that people just don’t all think the same and sexual morality and conduct may divide them more than anything else.  Ultimately, this may – yet again – be something that we have to get to grips with ourselves; and this isn’t a legal – certainly not a technological – process.

Jack DeGioia, of Georgetown University, once warned, in a talk on the impact of social media, “I wish to signal my concern that our new technologies, together with the underlying values such as moral relativism and consumerism, are shaping the interior worlds of so many, especially the young people we are educating, limiting the fullness of their flourishing as human persons and limiting their responses to a world in need of healing intellectually, morally, and spiritually.”

However, he then suggested the need for, “deepening self-understanding, self-awareness, self-knowledge – resources that support the interior work of seeking inner freedom. If we establish as a goal for each of our lives, Herder’s idea “that each of us has an original way of being human” – that the goal of our lives is to identify what Charles Taylor identifies as our most “authentic” self, such a goal can only be attained through demanding interior work. An authentic self is one living in accord with one’s most deeply held values.”

He wasn’t talking about robot sex, of course, but the we each find our own way of being human principle may well apply to this and to many other areas where we wrestle with the moral implications of emerging technology.  It’s likely that individually we’re the only one on our street that thinks about sex the way we do; it’s likely that we’re the only one in the world that thinks about everything the way we do.  On that basis, what chance do we have of fitting someone else’s morality?  Ultimately, the best way of answering to an unknown higher code is probably to (genuinely and truly) answer to ourselves.  But how good are we going to be at that?

About Vic Grout

Futurist/Futurologist. Socialist. Vegan. Doomsayer. Professor of Computing Futures. Author of 'CONSCIOUS' View all posts by Vic Grout

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