Kathleen Richardson is worried about sex robots. Now a robot ethics researcher at De Montfort University, she's spent the last 15 years looking at robots "designed to take on intimate roles, that were once thought off-limits to machines—companions, friends, lovers."
While the concept of a robo-girlfriend may seem farfetched, there is the prediction that most of us—yes, you read that right—will be having sex with robots by the year 2050. And although sex robots are nowhere near mainstream, companies like True Companion and RealDoll have already developed strikingly realistic models (if you have any doubt about how realistic, look at the New York Times video). Some of these "companions" can engage in "conversation," and can even download different personalities.
This may seem like a fantasy for those who are less inclined (or able) to form real-life relationships. But it has raised serious concerns. Earlier this year, Richardson, along with Erik Billing of the University of Skövde in Sweden, formed the Campaign Against Sex Robots, whose mission is to raise awareness about how these robots "are potentially harmful and will contribute to inequalities in society."
How can the existence of a robot contribute to inequalities? Richardson believes that the asymmetrical balance of power between human/sexbot is a parallel to the real-world prostitute-john relationship. The robot, like a prostitute, becomes an object for purchase. Richardson said that in society today, "the objects are women and children, and the buyers are men. You don't have to be a feminist, you just have to look at empirical data to see there's a market in human bodies."
It's a reflection, she said, of what is already happening in society. "For that market to exist, those bodies must be presented in certain kinds of ways. And to present a body in a way that you can buy, you can penetrate, you can torture, is only possible if you don't see that other human as a full subject. If you truly value other human beings, it would be very difficult to buy sex off of them."
The argument can be made that yes, a sexbot is an object—so what's wrong with it? But by treating humanoid robots as objects designed purely to fulfill our own sexual needs, Richardson argues, we are also devaluing human relationships.
"I'm looking at what we need as human beings. How much we need other human beings. How we learn about being human from other human beings," she said. When the human element disappears, she said, and we are essentially telling people that they can have their needs gratified through a machine. "First of all, that's not possible," she said. "That, in itself, will change humanity."
While the focus of Richardson's campaign is sexbots, her broader concern is with any robots that replace relationships with humans, including companion robots for the elderly. "Could we live in a world where we're no longer interacting with each other? Where this machine is constructed to meet our needs, to give us what we want?" Richardson asked. "All the evidence is saying no."
Richardson is not alone in her concerns about the breakdown of intimacy in relationships. Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and author of Reclaiming Conversation, recently spoke to TechRepublic about how her research is showing a troubling development coming along with our increased attachment to our devices—a lack of empathy towards each other. Richardson also pointed out the lack of empathy as a natural outcome when we begin treating life-like robots as objects designed for our pleasure.
Not everyone shares these concerns, however. The Second International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots, which recently made headlines when it was banned in Malaysia, is an academic gathering partly intended to make more realistic sex robots. "We want to improve human happiness," said Adrian Cheok, co-founder of the conference. He said that for people who are "very shy, mentally or physically disabled, depressed or lonely or elderly," sex robots can be an option for them "whereas it may be difficult for them to have sex with humans."
Richardson sees these types of arguments as problematic. When it comes to the physically disabled person using a sex robot, she said, "it means that his needs are more important than recognizing the full subjectivity of another human being."
And while she doesn't believe Pearson's prediction that most of us will be having sex by 2050—"he was funded by a sex toy company," she said—she worries about the direction we're headed if we don't begin treating this work with serious ethical consideration and standards. "It's getting us ready for a new, different kind of sexual relationship where anything goes."
"We need to genuinely cultivate a sense of humanity," she said. "I'm trying to get people to really think about what sex means, what relationships mean in their lives, how technology can be presented as an alternative, and what the consequences of that are."
- Academic conference on 'Love and Sex with Robots' abruptly cancelled after being declared illegal (TechRepublic)
- The age of love, sex, and robots: TechRepublic Podcast, episode 15 (TechRepublic)
- Ex Machina's gender problem: How the AI blockbuster reinforces stereotypes (TechRepublic)
- Will you be having sex with a robot in five years' time? (ZDNet)
Hope Reese has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, KY. Her writing has been featured in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Undark Magazine, VICE, Vox, and other publications.