“I started thinking, ‘Oh, no, something needs to be said about this,'” Kathleen Richardson, a senior research fellow in the ethics of robotics at De Montfort University in Leicester, England, said of her early research into sex robots that recreated what she called the “prostitute-john” relationship. “This is not right.”
Richardson’s umbrage was explained in a paper, “The Asymmetrical ‘Relationship’: Parallels Between Prostitution and the Development of Sex Robots,” presented at Ethicomp, “a forum to discuss ethical issues around computers” held in Leicester early this month.
“I propose that extending relations of prostitution into machines is neither ethical, nor is it safe,” the paper read. “If anything the development of sex robots will further reinforce relations of power that do not recognise both parties as human subjects.”
In a telephone interview with The Washington Post, Richardson — with Erik Billing of the University of Skövde in Sweden, the co-creator of the Campaign Against Sex Robots — said that she is not anti-sex. But she does object that the unequal power relationship that’s part of sex work between humans may be replicated in robot-human encounters — that will then be reinforced in human-human encounters, like a vicious circle.
“Technology is not neutral,” she said. “It’s informed by class, race and gender. Political power informs the development of technology. That’s why we can do something about it. These robots will contribute to more sexual exploitation. ”
From “Westworld” to “Blade Runner” to “A.I.” to more recent fare like the film “Ex Machina” and the AMC show “HUMANS,” robotic sex workers are a familiar presence in science fiction. But we’re not really at the point where one can cruise down to a red-light district — or click over to an e-tailer — and purchase a sexual encounter with a machine that seems human. So what is Richardson talking about?
In the AMC show “HUMANS,” about sentient robots, a family’s life becomes complicated when a husband has sex with his “synthetic,” played by Gemma Chan, above.
Like Elon Musk decrying the rise of killer robots, Richardson is less worried about what exists than what soon will. She mentioned companies like True Companion and Real Doll whose merchandise looks primitive — even creepy — but may be a harbinger of sex work’s future. She also said some businesses planned to build models that look like children.
“There are companies … that don’t have animatronics but rely on the same idea,” she said. “It’s a new and emerging technology, but let’s nip in the bud.”
Billing, an associate senior lecturer in informatics — that’s the study of information — in Sweden, said that films such as “Ex Machina,” with attractive robots played by indie film darlings, ask big questions about what it will mean when machines becomes sentient. But these big questions can distract from the robots we already have, and how we interact with them.
“To some degree, these robots already exist,” he said. “… I think that the actual machines that are out there are debated too little.”
The nascent sex robot industry, however, defended its evolving product line.
“We are not supplanting the wife or trying to replace a girlfriend,” True Companion’s chief executive Douglas Hines told the BBC. “This is a solution for people who are between relationships or someone who has lost a spouse. … People can find happiness and fulfillment other than via human interaction.”
If sex robots still look like the equivalent of the Apple IIe, the philosophical literature on their rise is already quite deep. In 2007, David Levy took on the topic in “Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships.”
“Love with robots will be as normal as love with other humans,” Levy wrote, “while the number of sexual acts and lovemaking positions commonly practiced between humans will be extended, as robots teach us more than is in all of the world’s published sex manuals combined.”
Almost a decade later, he hasn’t changed his mind. Levy also pointed out something perhaps obvious — machines are already a part of our sex lives.
“There is an increasing number of people who find it difficult to form relationships and this will fill a void,” he told the BBC. “It is not demeaning to women any more than vibrators are demeaning.”
Asked whether “male” sex robots might also appeal to consumers, Richardson and Billing said that the majority of sex workers are women — though, for the record, there is a male Real Doll.
“Well, it will probably happen to minor degree,” Billing said of the rise of male sex robots. “There are certainly male prostitutes but not at all to same degree that there are female prostitutes.”
Richardson saw the campaign against sex robots as part of broader efforts to combat both potentially Terminator-like artificial intelligence and sex trafficking. She also criticized Amnesty International’s recent decision to call for decriminalization of the sex trade.
There’s nothing inevitable, she said, about exploitation. The future of our technology belongs to us.
“It’s important that we have a debate about this,” she said. “Einstein’s theory of relativity — it didn’t have to turn into the atom bomb, right?”