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The robot sex doll revolution may have some big downsides, experts warn

by Carter Sherman
Jul 5 2017, 8:30am

Let’s talk about robot sex.

As robotic sex dolls become increasingly available and lifelike, humans need to stop and consider their consequences, a new report by robot and ethics experts warns. The report, written by the Foundation for Responsible Robotics and titled “Our Sexual Future with Robots,” delves into several pressing questions about the future of robotic sex: Could the rise of robotic sex dolls end human prostitution and sex trafficking? Will sex robots lead people to isolate themselves from real humans? Can robots ever truly love you back?

“We do not contemplate or speculate about far-future robots with personhood — that could have all manner of imagined properties,” the report, which was prepared by roboticists and ethicists associated with the U.K.’s University of Sheffield and the Netherlands’ University of Twente. It includes interviews with sex doll makers, robot experts, and ethnicists, and examines a variety of previous studies on people’s interaction with robots. “We focus instead on significant issues that we may have to deal with in the foreseeable future over the next five to 10 years.”

Right now, robotic sex dolls are still in their early stages, but the race is on to make them ever more realistic. Sex doll companies have recently introduced at least five robotic models, which all use some degree of AI technology, are customizable to clients’ preferences, and retail in the thousands, according to the report.

The report found such dolls could be used to help the elderly, the disabled, and the traumatized, who otherwise might be unable to satisfy their sexual desires with humans. But they also raise questions about consent: After all, by design, these dolls — which are largely created by and geared toward men — cannot say no to their owners.

“There is no question that creating a pornographic representation of women’s bodies in a moving sex machine objectifies, and commodifies, women’s bodies,” the report reads. “However, the big question is, what additional impact on societal perception this will create within an already burgeoning adult industry that thrives on such objectification and commodification.”

The report also examines how the increase of robotic sex dolls will impact sex crimes like rape or pedophilia. That possibility actually isn’t so futuristic: A Japanese company, professing that childlike sex dolls stop people with pedophilic urges from acting out their fantasies in real life, has sold such dolls worldwide for more than a decade, according to the report. And in late June, a U.K. man was jailed for trying to import a childlike sex doll from Hong Kong in a case that’s believed to be the first of its kind.

There’s no evidence to suggest that these dolls really help anybody, and experts are unconvinced. In fact, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine paraphilia researcher Peter Fagan told the Atlantic in 2016 that childlike sex dolls would likely lead would-be pedophiles to act upon their urges “with greater urgency.”

“Imagine treating racism by letting a bigot abuse a brown robot. Would that work? Probably not,” Patrick Lin, director of the ethics and emerging sciences group at California Polytechnic State University, told the Responsible Robotics researchers. “If expressing racist feelings is a cure for them, then we wouldn’t see much racism in the world.”

“You have to strike a balance between lack of regulation — so we have all different uses and personifications of children and women as sexual objects — or you have overregulation and you stifle the technology,” Aimee van Wynsberghe, Responsible Reports co-founder and assistant professor in ethics and technology at the Technical University of Delft, told the Guardian. “You have to find the way to balance so you really can harness the good.”

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