The future is coming: Will sex robots open a door to darker human urges?
Published Thursday, July 20, 2017 11:26AM EDT
The robots are coming. Indeed, the sex robots are already here, and available to order off the internet.
But a new report is warning about the ethics of the life-like dolls, saying they have the potential to vastly change the sexual landscape.
Those robotic sex dolls can’t be found in your local strip mall just yet, but several companies now sell their own versions over the internet.
For several thousand dollars, users can custom-order the robots to their own specifications. Not only can the dolls look the way users want, they can recognize and respond to certain voices, carry on conversations, and even be programmed to behave like reserved, shy women, or wild, “party girls.” (The websites also sell male dolls, but they account for a fraction of the sales of female robots)
But in a report released earlier this month, entitled “Our Sexual Future With Robots,” the Foundation for Responsible Robotics argues that while the dolls could offer comfort to some, they could also worsen the exploitation of women, shift perceptions about consent, and be used to indulge in dangerous or even illegal sexual practices.
Dr. Aimee van Wynsberghe, an FRR co-director and assistant professor in ethics and technology at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, says sex dolls are not new. What is new, though, is their ability to interact with humans.
“When we start to add functional capabilities, that’s when we’re talking about a robot,” she told CTV’s Your Morning Thursday from London.
The dolls currently being sold and developed are testaments to “the incredible developments of AI (artificial intelligence)” van Wynsberghe said. Not only can some of the dolls recognize their owners, they can be programmed to have any number of personality traits, to learn what their owners want, and to simulate orgasm.
“When it has these capabilities, of course it can interact with you in a much more interpersonal way. It learns about you, it remembers different things about you,” she said. “…So you have a more personal interaction alongside the sexual gratification.”
Van Wynsberghe says there are plenty of benefits the robots could offer, including bringing companionship and pleasure to those who are lonely or who have trouble with relationships.
People with disabilities could use the robots, too, as could seniors who have lost their partners but are still in need of sexual gratification. Even those who have experienced sexual trauma could potentially use the robots as “a complement to their healing process,” she says.
But van Wynsberghe says her group also has several concerns about the robots.
“This is why the Foundation for Responsible Robotics wrote this consultation document -- to get people to start thinking about the darker sides,” she said.
Concerns about objectification
One issue is that dolls can be programmed to have shy or “frigid” settings, which raises questions about whether it’s ethical to allow users to indulge in rape fantasies.
The authors also have concerns about the appearance of the robots.
“Right now, we see it’s mostly the porn industry that is pushing the development of these sex robots. So it’s a female representation and it’s a very pornographic image of the female body,” she said, which could promote the objectification or exploitation of the female body.
Then, there’s the fear that some users might begin to prefer relationships with robotic companions since they are programmed only to please and never show autonomy. Wynsberghe says the fear is that could eventually lead to social isolation for some.
The corollary concern is that widespread use of the dolls could wear away accepted standards about consent. If users don’t need consent with these robotic sexual partners, “will these kinds of things transfer over into human-human relationships?” van Wynsberghe and her team wonder.
“Will sex between two humans fundamentally change because we have this evolution of sexual practices?”
Most concerning to the report authors is the fact that there are companies making sex dolls with a child-like appearance.
“These are thought to help pedophiles so they won’t harm children,” she explained, noting that a Newfoundland man was recently charged with possession of child pornography, among other charges, for ordering one of these child-like dolls.
Wynsberghe says there is great debate about whether these robots provide pedophiles with a safe outlet for their fantasies, or simply reinforce them. The fear is that by allowing people to engage in sexual relations with child-like robots, it “normalizes” the practice or “makes these individuals feel like they want to have ‘the real thing’,” she said.
All of these are questions and dilemmas that society and governments will need to focus on “in the foreseeable future,” the report authors say, as robotic technology continues to revolutionize the way humans interact.