You have to give robotics researcher Kathleen Richardson credit for one thing: she's forward-thinking when it comes to moral panics. In a half-baked new paper, the De Montfort University research fellow is full of dire warnings about technology that doesn't even exist yet in the marketplace: sex robots.
"I started thinking, 'Oh, no, something needs to be said about this,'" Richardson told The Washington Post about her early forays into sex robot research. "This is not right." Her misgivings culminated in a paper titled "The Asymmetrical 'Relationship': Parallels Between Prostitution and the Development of Sex Robots," presented at a computer ethics forum in Leicester, England, earlier this month. In it, Richardson argues that the development of sex robots would "further reduce human empathy" and "reinforce power relations of inequality and violence."
Specifically, Richardson is concerned with the possibility that robots will be used for prostitution, which she thinks will be neither ethical nor safe. And her efforts don't end at the academic. Together with University of Skövde lecturer Erik Billing, Richardson founded the Campaign Against Sex Robots. It's aim is to spread the news that "these kinds of robots are harmful and contribute to inequalities in society."
I wrote a feature about sex robots for the April 2015 print edition of Reason ("Sex, Love, and Robots"), which addressed many of the issues Richardson and Billings bring up. They may be on the early-adopter end of this particular panic, but they're far from the first to worry that sex robots, and specifically the prostiution of sex robots, will lead to all sorts of ill effects. At the 2012 We Robot conference, researcher Sinziana Gutiu warned that sex robots could "promote the idea that women are ever-consenting beings," leading to an increase in sexual violence against human women.
By promoting "lies about women's humanity," sexbots present "a danger that builds on and surpasses the harms attributed to pornography," Gutiu wrote in her conference paper. In this she joined the laments of social conservatives. "Sodom and Gomorrah never dreamed of sexual immorality like this," Jennifer LeClaire wrote last year in the Christian magazine Charisma. Dave Swindle, an associate editor at the conservative/libertarian site PJ Media, asked, "What happens when a bunch of teenage boys pool their money to buy a robot prostitute they can gang rape?…What will our world be when people lose their virginity to a machine?"
Other academics, however, have welcomed the possibility of sex robots, seeing potential benefits for sex therapists treating issues like erectile disfunction and fear of intimacy. At a 2014 Berkeley Law School panel on robot ethics, Georgia Institute of Technology roboethicist Ron Arkin suggested that "childlike robots could be used (to treat) pedophiles the way methadone is used to treat drug addicts."
While Arkin empathizes with those who find this appaling, it's better to investigate the therapeutic potential of these robots "in a controlled way" than to avoid any research because it makes us uncomfortable, he told me earlier this year, pointing out that childlike sex dolls are already sold online. "Should the design of [sex robots] be informed by science? Yes," said Arkin. "Is anyone doing true scientific study on intimate robots at this time? Not to my knowledge. I would encourage that line of research to be undertaken if we can get past our Victorian taboos."
Other researchers see robot prostitution as a desirable substitute to commercial sexual exchange between humans.
In a 2012 paper, "Robots, Men and Sex Tourism," the New Zealand researchers Ian Yeoman and Michelle Mars enthusiastically predict that robot prostitutes will overtake human sex workers by 2050. Yeoman and Mars paint an elaborate portrait of a posh Amsterdam robot brothel catering to a high-end clientele and niche sexual preferences—a situation the writers see largely as a social good, capable of invalidating all the messy moral concerns that human sex workers present.
… lawmakers may well move to block robot brothels also. But should robot prostitution be legalized, would "the oldest profession" find itself, like so many others, vulnerable to technological disruption?
In his 2014 paper "Sex Work, Technological Unemployment, and the Basic Income Guarantee," John Danaher, a law lecturer with The National University of Ireland, Galway, rejected the idea that sex workers and clients will all go quietly into the good robot night. This is largely due to the fact that people like having sex with other people; even in the presence of a robust robot sex trade, those inclined to pay for sex will still sometimes want to do so with a human being. But we also shouldn't discount sex-worker resiliency—like the move from streetwalking to advertising on Backpage, those in the sex trade will adjust to suit the times. "Prostitution could well be one of the few forms of human labour that is likely to remain resilient in the face of technological unemployment," posits Danaher.
Research on why men pay for sex has found, more than any other common denominator (variety, convenience, etc.), a desire for mutuality. Clients want to feel, at minimum, like a sex worker somewhat enjoys her time with them. In a 1997 study of male prostitution clients ages 27 to 52—nearly half of whom were married—a desire for sex was frequently met with "social, courting behaviors that were often flavored with varying degrees of romance." Interviewing clients at a New Zealand massage parlor, researcher Elizabeth Plumridge found they "all wanted a responsive embodied woman to have sex with. This they secured by ascribing desires, response and sexuality to prostitute women. They did not know the true 'selves' of these women, but constructed them strategically in a way that forwarded their own pleasures."
Read one way, this research could support the future popularity of robot prostitutes, which could theoretically be programmed to portray care and lust sufficiently well that we fall for it. This, of course, depends in part on how effectively artificial emotional intelligence and sociability is developed. But even if we grant that realistically emo sexbots are possible, will they be "real" enough to afford mutuality? Whether we're talking orgasms or affection, convincing oneself that a human sex worker isn't faking it rests on the fact that, technically, she may not be. With robot companions, the fakery is inherent. It's a given. How much that actually matters remains to be seen.
For more on sex robots, robot prostitution, and how we should probably all just chill the fuck out about it, see my full sex robots piece here. For more on how robot sex will turn men into rapists, check out the Campaign Against Sex Robots site .