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Academics Weigh in on the Ethics of Having Sex with Robots

Two robotics researchers have launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots, which calls for a halt on developing bots for sexual purposes. Not everyone is convinced.

by Zing Tsjeng
Sep 18 2015, 2:10pm

Screenshot via Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

The sex robot future is coming, but some academics are not on board the sexy, mechanised train. A new campaign is calling for scientists to rethink the development of robots used for sexual purposes, arguing that they won't just be bad for our electricity bills – it's bad for humanity.

The Campaign Against Sex Robots has attracted worldwide attention for its anti-sexbot crusade. It launched just as a sex doll company, TrueCompanion, began touting the release of its upcoming Roxxxy TrueCompanion Doll.

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Dr Kathleen Richardson, a robot ethicist at the De Montfort University in Leicester, said that her initiative stemmed from her stance on sex work. She believes that prostitution replicates inequal relations between men and women—and sex with robots is no different. "There wouldn't be sex robots if there wasn't prostituition," she told Broadly. "It's an outcome of living in a world that has been primarily organised around male sexuality and the needs and desires of men."

"Technology tells us what we value as a culture and society. With these sex robots, they're very explicitly telling us what section of society think about women."

Jude Law and Ashley Scott play sex robots in Stephen Spielberg's film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Screenshot via A.I.

Richardson's paper, The Asymmetrical 'Relationship': Parallels Between Prostitution and the Development of Sex Robots, argues that "extending relations of prostitution into machines is neither ethical, nor is it safe," and that the "development of sex robots will further reinforce relations of power that do not recognise both parties as human subjects."

"It's not that the robots are experiencing some kind of feeling that's analogous with ours," she told Broadly. "But it's how the development of the technology reinforces and contributes to society's inequalities."

Despite early headlines, Richardson and Campaign Against Sex Robots co-founder Erik Billing, a robotics researcher at the University of Skövde in Sweden, do not want to ban sex dolls entirely. Instead, they hope to spark a debate in technology about the production of sex dolls.

"We believe that sex robots reflect relations in the real human world and that the more they are developed and legitimised, the more they will reinforce the real experiences that women have in the real world," Richardson said. "They will contribute and add to that exploitation. "

Alicia Vikander plays Ava, another robot, in the film Ex Machina. Screenshot via Ex Machina

Richardson described the reaction to the campaign as "very, very, very mixed." "As you can imagine, lots of people are very supportive," she said. "But not everyone is going to be happy."

A recent Sky News poll found that only two percent of British women would fuck a robot, but let's face it: If you were encountered a sex robot that looked like Jude Law from A.I., you would probably fuck it. I mean, I would. Look at that sculpted jawline! As one VICE writer puts it: "Scientists right now in labs around the world are making robots with dicks and tits, and one day we are all going to bite the bullet and fuck them. Just get over it."

Does this make me a bad person? To find out, I called Dr Kate Devlin, a senior computing lecturer at the University of Goldsmiths in London.

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"It reeks of moral panic," Devlin said of the Campaign Against Sex Robots. "The tone of the campaign suggests women are passive and denies them sexual agency by presuming that a) we would not want these sex robots to be in our image (fair enough) and b) that we don't want own sex robots made for our own pleasure."

"Certainly, my friends and colleagues that I have spoken to directly in the field of AI and philosophy think a ban is far-fetched," she added, "but I can't speak for all of the research community."

While she believes we are "pretty far off from sentient machines," Devlin said that the future was limitless for sex robots. "This is a field of research still in its early stages," she told me. "It's pretty much starting from a default heteronormative male stance: robotic women for straight men. There's something to object to in terms of that, yes. It doesn't have to stay that way though."

So does she envision a future where every woman can get a sex robot of their own? "Why not? Why shouldn't the design change and take into consideration other bodies and genders and sexualities? Whose to say that a sex robot should even look human? With robots, we aren't limited by the constraints of the human body—or the pigeonholing of sexuality and gender."

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