In 2014, the Pew Research Center released a report titled “AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs,” in which it surveyed experts on the future of “intelligent digital agents permeating vast areas of our work and personal lives.”
Though most of the report focused on robots in the realm of work, Stowe Boyd, the lead researcher for GigaOM Research, also offered a more intimate prediction for robots’ roles: “Robotic sex partners will be a commonplace,” he said, “although the source of scorn and division, the way that critics today bemoan selfies as an indicator of all that's wrong with the world.”
The latter part of his prediction has already come to pass. Earlier this month, two robotics researchers, Kathleen Richardson of De Montfort University in the U.K. and Erik Billing of the University of Skövde in Sweden, launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots. “These kinds of robots are harmful and contribute to inequalities in society,” they write on the campaign’s website. “As humanoid robots become more widespread it is necessary to develop an engaged ethical response to the development of these new technologies.”
The sexbot has long been an object of fascination in fiction. In 1886, the many-named French writer Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam published The Future Eve, in which a fictionalized Thomas Edison makes a mechanical woman for his friend. More than a century later, the year 2010 marked the debut of Roxxxy, a sexbot developed by the company True Companion. Roxxxy now has three price levels and several programmable personalities with names like“Frigid Farrah” and “S&M Susan,” all of whom I’m sure are just charming.
We are still far from any future where Roxxxy and her kind are “commonplace,” as Boyd predicted—but if their inanimate ancestors, the sex dolls, are any indication, we can assume that almost all of them will be female, and they will be used mostly by straight men.
This is Richardson’s primary objection to the concept of sexbots: that any relationship with one is inherently asymmetrical, and that the asymmetrical relationship is a particularly gendered one, with male users as subjects and female-shaped robots as objects.
When I ask Richardson how she thinks sex robots will affect existing gender relations, she says, “It will reflect and propagate. Reflect and propagate. Reflect and propagate.”
At the macro level, when the people who desire to have sex with human-shaped objects are almost entirely straight men going for inanimate women, it’s a reflection of troubling ideas that men hold about real women. (I’ve written about this before, in the context of sex dolls.) People build technologies to address demand that they see. While there is a male Roxxxy (named Rocky), and there are male sex dolls, these are afterthoughts to the plethora of female-shaped options.
But the bots’ mere existence does not mean everyone buys wholesale into the ideology they reflect. They’re certainly not doing anything to fix sexism or violence against women, true, but they seem to be more of a symptom than a virus. To worry about the niche market of men who want to have sex with robots is to place a possible icky thing of the future above the deep-set problems of the present that might make such a future possible.
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“I must say I didn't call for a ban,” Richardson says. “If you look at my website, there’s nothing on it that says we want to ban sex robots. We're against sex robots because of this model that is the core inspiration for it, which is an asymmetrical relationship.”
The “core inspiration” that Richardson refers to is the sex trade. She drew a connection between sex work and sexbots after reading David Levy’s book Love and Sex With Robots, in which he writes, “It seems inevitable that just as humans desirous of sex but lacking sufficient opportunity will pay a professional for it, so there will come a time—and that time is almost with us—when people will be paying for sex with robots.”
One of the mission statements outlined on the campaign website reads:
The vision for sex robots is underscored by reference to prostitute-john exchange which relies on recognizing only the needs and wants of the buyers of sex, the sellers of sex are not attributed subjectivity and reduced to a thing (just like the robot).
The development of sex robots and the ideas to support their production show the immense horrors still present in the world of prostitution which is built on the “perceived” inferiority of women and children and therefore justifies their uses as sex objects.
This doesn’t make a lot of sense. The argument seems to come down to objectification, and the fact that in both situations—sex work and sex robots—the buyer, who is likely male, has the power. But the objectification of a robot is literally the objectification of an object, and isn’t comparable to the objectification of a person. And Richardson herself admitted to me that the connection she sees between sex work and sex robots is not “immediately obvious.”
Katherine Koster, the communications director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, says that the comparison shows a misunderstanding of the sex trade. “That power relationship that they're assuming exists within the sex trade may or may not exist,” she says. “Sex workers are repeatedly saying that's not always what it looks like.”
Levy writes that the rise of sexbots will mean the decline of the sex industry, but Richardson is less convinced. She believes the introduction of sex robots will somehow further the exploitation of sex workers.
“It became more and more apparent that women in prostitution were already dehumanized, and this was the same model that they then wanted to put into these machines they’re developing,” Richardson says. “When we encourage a kind of scenario in the real world that encourages that mode of operation,we’re basically saying it’s okay for humans to not recognize other people as human subjects.” She says she plans to reach out to sex-work abolition groups around the world as part of the Campaign Against Sex Robots.
There is an existing debate over whether abolishing prostitution or decriminalizing it is the better way to protect sex workers, but the ethics of sexbots seems like a separate issue entirely. As Koster puts it, “I don't think people would say that a washing machine is parallel to dehumanizing domestic workers.” A sexbot is also a piece of technology, but it’s one intended for sex and shaped like a human, which makes people treat it like a different and more intimate threat—one that will somehow fundamentally change sex, or humanity.
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Sex robots inspire two kinds of Puritan pearl-clutching: the technology panic and the sexual-deviance panic.
Another of the website’s mission statements: “We propose that the development of sex robots will further reduce human empathy that can only be developed by an experience of mutual relationship.” It echoes the oft-heard refrain about how new technologies will dilute real human connections. Similar arguments have been made about Tinder, and social media.
But those things have not destroyed human relationships, and there’s little reason to think that sexbots would be adopted as widely as these other things have been, beyond the conjecture of futurists. For one thing, Tinder and social media are tools to facilitate human relationships, not replace them. And there are already sophisticated, expensive, anatomically correct sex dolls that are alarmingly life-like, though they are not technically robots. But their use is a fringe activity that is heavily stigmatized—it’s an option few are choosing in place of a relationship with another human being. At the societal level, it’s an anomaly; at the individual level it’s strange, but not necessarily harmful or pathological.
Richardson says her hope for the campaign is to spark a debate (check) and also to urge roboticists to “think seriously … about what they want to contribute as individuals to this. I want people to start having responsibility for the kinds of technologies they’re creating,” she says. “Just because Einstein developed E=mc2 didn't mean someone had to make a nuclear bomb.” Or, as Leah Reich asked in a more measured way in a piece for Aeon magazine, “Should sexbots be created with the seeds of their own stigma built in?”
It’s a question worth considering. Sex robots, as currently conceived, seem largely built for a certain kind of heterosexual male. The design of them matters, because how people choose to represent women always matters. But the real reason to be troubled by sexbots, if you feel like dedicating your mental resources to doing so, is not the way they might corrupt a future society. It’s what their development shows about the society we already have.
“Society's fascination with robo-femmes—from the Stepford Wives to the Bionic Woman to Austin Powers's fembots—is not a new thing, and I think this has more to do with society's broader objectification of women and anxiety with artificial technology than any technological progress that could feasibly create realistic artificial life,” Koster says. “[Sex] is one of the most inherently human interactions that exists. There's smell, there's what skin feels like, it's their reactions to things, it's their voice.”
The most extreme endpoint on a spectrum of behavior may be the most interesting, but it’s not the best place to draw conclusions from. All the gradations of misogyny leading up to “designing a subservient woman-shaped robot to own and have sex with” are more highly populated and more insidious. And if we want to make predictions about the wide data set that is human relationships, perhaps these outliers are best ignored.