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In 1908, the German doctor Iwan Bloch wrote of "hommes or dames de voyage," the "artificial imitations of the human body, or of individual parts of the body" sold in France with "genital organs represented in a manner true to nature." Dames were equipped with oil-filled pneumatic tubes, the hommes an apparatus by which "the ejaculation of the semen is imitated." By the 1920s, customizable sex dolls were advertised "fitted with a phonographic attachment, recording and speaking at will."
Though perhaps some were attracted to the dolls, these were largely considered masturbatory devices, or in some cases a tribute to a dead loved one. Will sex robots be similarly functional, or will they provoke desire in their own right?
"Right now, we're at an inflection point on the meaning of sexbot," Kyle Machulis, a systems engineer with Mozilla, told Aeon magazine last summer. "Tracing the history of the term will lead you to a fork: robots for sex (idealized version: Jude Law in the movie AI), and people that fetishize being robots (clockworks, etc.). There was a crossover in the days of alt.sex.fetish.robots, but I see less and less people fetishizing the media/aesthetics, and more talking about actually having sex with robots."
In a survey of 61 DollForum.com members—75 percent men who own dolls, 10 percent women who own dolls, and 15 percent men thinking about purchasing a doll—the psychology researcher Sarah Valverde asked owners what motivated their purchase. Not-mutually-exclusive answers included sexual stimulation (70 percent), companionship (30 percent), and using the doll in sex with a human partner (17 percent). About a third of male owners reported some issues with sexual functioning. Most rated their sex with dolls as "above average" to "excellent."
None of the respondents were in therapy related to their relationship with the sex dolls. Most were employed, educated, and reported similar anxiety and depression levels as the general population. While the use of sex dolls is often seen as pathological, Valverde makes the case that "a diagnosis of paraphilia would be unwarranted, without significant distress or impairment in functioning. Provided a doll-owner doesn't need the sex doll in order to achieve sexual satisfaction, a diagnosis of a fetish would not be appropriate" either. "Anecdotal evidence suggests these dolls have brought relief, security, and happiness to their owners," she concluded.
In his 2007 book Love + Sex with Robots, the artificial intelligence specialist David Levy—a former professional chess player and now president of the International Computer Games Association—pinpoints 11 major triggers that inspire emotions humans recognize as love. Many of these factors could presumably be inspired by social robots, including proximity, reciprocal liking (liking things that like us), need-fulfillment, a sense of mystery, and the presence of certain desired characteristics (like red hair or a deep voice). To Levy, it's not a stretch to imagine some humans falling in love with and even marrying robots within a few decades.
First, Do No Harm
One result of this influx of robots into our bedrooms is that it may "trigger a broader role for the concept of moral harm in law," suggests University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo in a 2014 paper, "Robotics and the Lessons of Cyberlaw." Certain uses of robots may be deemed undesirable because they compromise the actor, rather than a specific victim or society. The fact that a robot itself can't feel pain or be exploited may not stop pushes to prohibit particular uses of or behavior toward social robots.
"The Kantian philosophical argument for preventing cruelty to animals is that our actions towards non-humans reflect our morality—if we treat animals in inhumane ways, we become inhumane persons," noted Darling in her paper "Extending Legal Rights to Social Robots." "This logically extends to robot companions. Granting them protection may encourage us and our children to behave in a way that we generally regard as morally correct."
In her We Robot conference paper, Gutiu suggests that, "if regulated," we may be able to use sex robots "to correct violent and demeaning attitudes toward women." But this sort of large-scale social-engineering-through-sexbot could quash the potential for their more individualized use in rehabilitation.
Levy imagines a role for sex robots similar to sex surrogates, therapists who use actual sexual intimacy to address clients' issues. "All of the most common sexual dysfunctions and their cases can be treated by surrogate-partner therapy, including premature ejaculation, nonconsummation of a relationship, erection difficulties, performance anxiety, and fear of intimacy," he explains in Sex + Love With Robots. The book cites the California sex therapist Barbara Roberts, who laments that "we have no traditional rite of passage nor meaningful ceremonies to initiate young people into informed adult sexuality"—a role Levy also envisions for sexbots.
And then there's the inevitable question of kiddie sexbots.
Last summer, at a Berkeley Law School panel on ethical and legal challenges in robotics, Arkin spawned a flurry of sensational headlines by suggesting that "childlike robots could be used for pedophiles the way methadone is used to treat drug addicts," potentially reducing recidivism rates for sex offenders. Many people find this idea immediately distasteful. Arkin empathizes with them, he tells me, but he thinks it's better to investigate the therapeutic potential of such robots "in a controlled way" rather than simply avoiding research because it makes us squeamish. While no U.S. companies are publicly selling them, childlike sex dolls are already available online from foreign makers.
In Canada, child sex robots are illegal, but there are no U.S. laws yet specifically criminalizing them. In fact, there is reason to think the U.S. courts might carve out some legal space for them, as unlikely as that might seem: In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of a federal law criminalizing "virtual" child pornography, described as either digitally created images or those featuring young-looking adults pretending to be younger. "I could see that extending to embodied [robotic] children," said Calo, the law professor, at the panel,"but I can also see courts and regulators getting really upset about that."
Regulatory concerns notwithstanding, "it's coming to the time when we start talking about these things," Arkin argues. "Should the design of [sex robots] be informed by science? Yes. 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."
One area where academics and journalists seem enthusiastic about the possibilities for sexbots concerns robot prostitution. Love doll brothels can already be found in Japan. 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.
Prostitution is illegal in the U.S. and many other countries, and various nations have previously criminalized everything from vibrators to adultery, so 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.