Robo-ethicists have proposed using child sex robots to research and treat pedophilia.
Video courtesy of News in Levels
There’s a robot takeover on the horizon. Drones do our military bidding. Roombas clean our houses. Robots assist in surgeries. Driverless cars will soon cart us around. There’s a campaign to crowd fund Jibo, the world’s first “family robot.” Soon, we’ll all be asking the question from those weird Svedka advertisements: "R U BOT OR NOT?"
With all of this imminent technology seeping into our lives, robo-ethicists have been debating very new, very practical ways that robots intersect with society. Last week, at an event called Our Robot Future at the University of California, Berkeley, robo-ethicists introduced the idea of using sex robots to rehabilitate pedophiles.
Ah, what a brave new world we live in. Some people seem to think this is a brilliant idea, but manufacturing child sex robots is probably the worst use of technology since Transformers: Age of Extinction.
In the olden days, pedophilia was treated with techniques like electroshock therapy or “covert sensitization,” in which a patient would learn to associate thoughts of naked children with things like having his dick stuck in his zipper. Today, the treatment is determined on a case-by-case basis (fortunately, dick-zipper imagery has fallen out of favor). Katie Gotch, who works for the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, told me that the most common methods are either rooted in cognitive-behavioral therapy or psychopharmacology, using drugs that are often referred to as “chemical castration.”
One thing that definitely doesn’t work is demonizing pedophiles or treating them like monsters. Remember, not all pedophiles are criminals; having an interest in children does not a molester make.
No one is really sure how pedophilia develops, but we do know that it’s somehow wired in the brain. In other words, pedophilia has no “cure” and we can’t realistically expect that these desires will evaporate, no matter what kind of treatment is used.
So if we can’t change pedophiles’ inherent interest in children, and the rate of recidivism for offenders is fairly high (depending on whom you ask, it’s somewhere between 15 and 50 percent), then a good method of treatment should have two aims: to allow pedophiles to manage their illicit desires and to reduce harm to children.
Here’s where the robots come in. If we simply swap children for childlike bots, we could deal with the pedophilia problem without actually endangering kids. This type of theory came up in 2002, when the Supreme Court defended the merits of “virtual child pornography”—porn where child actors had been replaced by digital renderings. The Supreme Court legalized virtual child porn on a technicality, as the Justices are want to do, and it was quickly criminalized the following year when Congress passed the PROTECT Act. But the case incited a bizarre debate about whether or not virtual child porn could actually do some social good.
The logic goes something like this: The demand for child porn is high. Even with strict laws against the stuff in the United States, it’s pretty much impossible to stop the spread of internet porn from other countries. Plus, the internet is full of nefarious marketplaces for illegal stuff like child porn, so it’s probably always going to exist. If we can’t effectively get rid of child pornography, we might as well find a way to make child pornography more palatable, right? We do that by incentivizing animated child porn, rather than the real stuff. It’s child porn, without the children.
In theory, a child robot intervention would work the same way. We realize that pedophilia isn’t going anywhere, so we ought to find a way to deal with the lust for children in a way that keeps actual kids out of the equation. Hence, robots. It’s child molestation, without the children.
Of course, things that sound good in theory don't always work out in practice. Introducing child sex robots to the world is a terrible idea, and it’s highly unlikely that it would actually help to reorient pedophiles. For one thing, sex robots are creepy. The primitive models that exist on the market look mostly like the Real Housewives reimagined as strung-out hookers. Even if we were able to create bots that looked normal and vaguely human, there’s the issue of the uncanny valley: objects that look almost-human make us extremely uneasy, like Madame Tussauds’ wax figures or those creepy animations in The Polar Express. Robots are also notoriously bad at pretending to be human; even Eugene Goostman, the “super computer” that passed the Turing test this year, was about as intelligible as Gary Busey.
So it’s unlikely that child sex robots would be a passable substitute for real children—at least, based on the technology we have today. But that technology is rapidly improving. In 2010, the top-of-the-line sex robot was Roxxxy, who was surprisingly capable of carrying on a semi-lucid conversation and providing three usable holes. Sure, she was once described as “Lady Gaga having her wisdom teeth extracted,” but Roxxxy had something that even the most expensive Fleshlight didn’t: responsiveness.
Roxxxy, the "world's first sex robot." Video courtesy of Asylum.com
This is great news for the future of the sex-robot market, but when we’re talking about pedophiles, responsiveness is probably the last thing we want. When I told Gotch about this latest advancement in robotics, she balked.
“Now you have a child bot that’s indicating pleasure to these sexual activities? That could be very detrimental to the individual’s cognitive understanding.” The emergence of pedo-bots would likely reinforce pedophilic behaviors, sending the confusing message that sex with (robot) children is totally OK but sex with (human) children is not.
There’s also an important distinction to be made between pedophiles, or persons who have a known attraction to prepubescent children, and child molesters, or persons who have actually molested children. In fact, a shockingly small number of pedophiles actually act on their impulses. So what happens when we build non-offending pedophiles a sex robot and encourage them to use it?
The answer, according to Gotch, is that “having that sublimation through a robot may, for some, actually increase their difficulties with their arousal patterns rather than meeting those needs." In other words, she argues that child sex bots are pretty likely to redirect pedophilic interests back toward human children, rather than satisfying the desire outright.
Back in 2002, some proponents of virtual child pornography argued that providing access to an alternative form of child porn would reduce the demand for the real stuff. But that logic ultimately boomeranged: Child pornography—whether real or animated—is sometimes used as a tool for offenders to “groom” children, or demonstrate that having sex with children is OK. Child sex robots could effectively be demonstrative in the same way.
But most importantly, if science fiction has taught us anything, it’s that robots can be evil, but they don’t have to be. People with deviant sexual desires are the same way. But we’re not going to get anywhere with rehabilitating pedophiles if we treat them like monsters by encouraging them to go at it with weird, childlike sex bots.
Follow Arielle Pardes on Twitter.