In the recent past, most imagined the idea of interacting sexually with robots, or sophisticated love dolls, as still being decades away, in the coming era of the Jetsons. But here we are in just 2017, and mainstream audiences around the world are seeing sex robot stories in popular publications and websites. We’re not talking just about science and technology publications, but sites like The Telegraph and The Guardian. The subject has even headlined the Drudge Report of all places. But unlike writings prevalent in previous years, today’s articles are focusing not just on technical topics, but also on morality and the effect on society.
As these increasingly lifelike human companions and playthings evolve before our eyes, we’re faced with real questions about what societal repercussions will arise. For example, will abusing a robot provoke abuse towards humans? Will prostitution finally become acceptable to the masses, and to governments? Will our new companions cause their human partners to become even more lonely and isolated, or become more fulfilled? Will crimes against robots ever be on par with crimes against humans?
With today’s state of the art silicone dolls and their rudimentary vibrational and audio feedback, it seems to most that truly desirable Westworld-level robots are still far, far in the distant future. But as futurist Ray Kurzweil famously declared in his Law of Accelerating Returns:
An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense “intuitive linear” view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). The “returns,” such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity — technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.
As with any technology, more human-like sex robots are going to be here sooner than you think. And that means that the moral and ethical questions we’ll grapple with are also right around the corner.
To help you get a grasp on some of the societal issues coming down the road, the Foundation for Responsible Robotics co-directors Noel Sharkey and Aimee van Wynsberghe have released a consultation report titled, Our Sexual Future With Robots. In it they present a summary of the issues and various opinions on significant issues that society may have to deal with in the next 5 to 10 years. They purposefully “do not contemplate or speculate about far future robots with personhood – that could have all manner of imagined properties.”
Here’s a bit from the report’s Introduction:
In 2017 most liberal societies accept or tolerate sex in many different forms and varieties. Sex toys and masturbation aids have been used for centuries and can be easily purchased in stores in many countries. Now companies are developing robots for sexual gratification. But a robot designed for sex may have different impacts when compared with other sex aids. Those currently being developed are essentially pornographic representations of the human body – mostly female. Such representations combined with human anthropomorphism may lead many to perceive robots as a new ontological category that exists in a fantasy between the living and the inanimate. This is reinforced by robot manufacturers with an eye to the future. They understand the market importance of adding intimacy, companionship, and conversation to sexual gratification.
The aim of this consultation report is to present an objective summary of the issues and various opinions about what could be our most intimate association with technological artefacts. We do not contemplate or speculate about far future robots with personhood – that could have all manner of imagined properties. We focus instead on significant issues that we may have to deal with in the foreseeable future over the next 5 to 10 years.
We begin by presenting an overview of the technological state-of the-art in sex robots and parallel sextech at the time of writing this document (May 2017). We then focus on seven core questions that have received prominent attention in the media and in scholarly literature:
- Would people have sex with a robot?
- What kind of relationship can we have with a robot?
- Will robot sex workers and bordellos be acceptable?
- Will sex robots change societal perceptions of gender?
- Could sexual intimacy with robots lead to greater social isolation?
- Could robots help with sexual healing and therapy?
- Would sex robots help to reduce sex crimes?
We conclude with interviews with two of the manufacturers of sex robots to allow them their say.
Download the report to read all 44 pages.
Photo credit: Flickr – Michael Coghlan