Is Sex with Robots a Good Idea?

Dr. Punita RiceCulture

Did you see this Quartz interview with Dr. Aimee van Wynsberghe on sex with robots? Dr. van Wynsberghe is an assistant professor of ethics and technology in the Netherlands, and the co-founder and president of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics. In the interview, she talks about the practical value of sex robots, some of the ethical gray areas in sex robot design, and delves into the ethical concerns surrounding human-robot sex (!).

Here’s a particularly intriguing excerpt on the practical and therapeutic use of sex robots…

“There there are a lot of statements being made about at the moment about possible therapeutic uses for sex robots. Suggestions that this could be a compliment to someone’s healing therapy if they’ve experienced a sexual trauma, and can’t have sex with another human…

You could imagine going that route, finding out if a doll or robot is something that a person with disabilities might be interested in. A responsible, slow introduction, where robots are tested appropriately, could make the use of robots a more broadly accepted practice, rather than a niche. And if we start to involve these groups, then we put pressure on the industry, by saying, “No. We don’t want the pornified individual. We want an older-looking individual, because we have 70-year-clients who are interested in the technology.”

So why might sex with robots be problematic?

Any time we bring new and advanced technology into the human experience it has the potential to alter what it means to be human (remember life before smart phones? You didn’t always have a dictionary, encyclopedia, an instant communicator, an entertainment device, a web browser, etc. in a single device that you could carry in your pocket). So bringing a sex robot into the lives of humans has the potential to change things too. Maybe it isn’t happening quite yet, or on the scale of smartphones, but as the technology becomes more advanced, more realistic, and more widespread, it will definitely raise questions about how humans engage with it.

For example, will sex with robots mess up our experiences or expectations of actual sex, or of actual women? Dr. Kathleen Richardson, has concerns about how female sex robots will impact the way we engage with real women. She equates the portrayal of women in the form of sex robots to the portrayal of women in pornography.

Also, what about blurring lines between what’s normal with robots but not other humans? And does sex with robots create issues around consent? How would we ensure people were making clear distinctions between their dynamics with sex robots and regular people? And to that point…

There are also ethical issues with the kinds of robots we’re actually designing. Is it ok, for instance, to create a sex robot that’s programmed to seem non-consenting? What about robots that are supposed to resemble kids?

Those questions open up some really uncomfortable conversations about how sex robots might curb predatory behaviors. On the other hand, it might also serve to encourage those behaviors (here’s another article on the trouble with using robots to indulge predatory urges).

And, if you have a partner, is sex with robots cheating? (In the Quartz interview, Dr. van Wynsberghe also mentions robot sex as an alternative to cheating in a relationship.)

Obviously, as the technology continues to improve (it exists now, but it’s not Westworld-level real), there are going to be a ton of gray areas.

As an aside, there’s definitely the underlying assumption that men will be most likely to engage with this technology. Does that change the conversation?

Ultimately, the question is this: How do we address the ethics of sex with robots?

It’s actually a good thing robot sex isn’t super widespread yet. This way, we can deal with the ethical concerns by figuring out what people should do before we get to a place where we’re navigating these issues in real time. In one article, Blay Whitby (a philosopher focusing on technology and its impact on society) says we have to figure out the ethics and legal issues related to sex robots now, before they become more commonplace. Dr. van Wynsberghe says the same thing: We have to think through the ethics of this before they become a problem… otherwise, it will be like trying to “roll back the internet.”

See also: Black MirrorHumans (streamable here if you have Amazon Prime), Westworld (streamable with a free HBO trial), and Ex Machina (streamable here if you have Prime).

So, what do you think – is sex with robots actually a good idea?

P.S. – This is arguably the best subreddit, this is a funny article about that subreddit, a great Nerdwriter video explaining why Anthony Hopkins is so great in Westworld, and also, The Humans Are Dead. And, thoughts on being more intentional about using social media.

(The photo in this post is from Westworld.)