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The Ethics of Regulating Robot Sex

Roxxxy, the sex robot. Photo credit: NBC.com
Roxxxy, the sex robot. Photo credit: NBC.com

The summer of 2015 has been a monumental season for robots. Just this July, a robotics company called Softbank released a humanoid robot that it claims is able to sense users’ emotions. Even more impressive, scientists at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York developed a robot that broke new ground in demonstrating self-awareness. The robot’s artificial intelligence was able to pass a self-awareness test that previously only humans had been able to beat. While the broader ramifications of this achievement have yet to be ascertained, researchers claim that at the very least, this was a “mathematically verifiable awareness of self” by non-human intelligence.

With a new era of artificial intelligence and robotic responsiveness just around the corner, robot ethicists at de Montfort University in Leicester, England are attempting to draw attention to some of its potential dangers – particularly when it comes to robots that are being sold for sex use.

Humanoid sex toys are nothing new in our society, but a company called True Companions is currently producing what it advertises as the “world’s first sex robot.” The Roxxxy Doll is a female humanoid robot, customizable for race, hairstyle, and (bizarrely) toenail polish colour, which are to be used either to have a conversation with or to “interact physically” with. This is bad news, according to Kathleen Richardson, robot ethicist. Richardson is campaigning to attempt to dissuade scientists “to withhold code, hardware and ideas from robotics companies that are developing sex robots.”

The issue of robot sex brings up two key issues, one of policy and one of regulation. Richardson is concerned with the first.

Robot ethicists are worried that this new technology does not represent a brave new world so much as a place where toxic ideas about sex, gender and race that are already present in our society will be imported, reinforced, and reproduced. While advocates for the sex robots argue that this is a purely personal matter, Richardson demands that we pay much closer attention to how sex robots – who are at this stage, at least, still mere sexual objects – might promote the objectification of women and children in our society.

The Campaign Against Sex Robots’ manifesto highlights the fact that robot-human relationships represent an unequal power dynamic. This sentence might have been ludicrous two decades ago, but nowadays the point is salient. One of the key selling points of the Roxxxy Doll is her (its?) realism. The Roxxxy Doll is as close to a woman as you can get without actually interacting with a woman. Richardson and her colleagues point out that this reinforces the idea that the needs of the user (who is also the purchaser) are paramount over the (non-existent) needs or wishes of the robot. This is not problematic in and of itself, as long as we’re only talking about objects, but this relationship adheres to the model of prostitute-john dynamics, without the added complication of the sex worker’s agency or subjectivity.

Richardson asserts that this will lead to a normalization of one-sided power dynamics that will not only reduce human empathy broadly, but specifically promote women’s objectification and violence against women and children. Their argument is reminiscent of the ways in which the consumption of pornography that portrays violent or sexist sexual encounters has been linked to increased objectification of women.

Furthermore, lurking under the gender-neutral surface of this conversation is the reality that “human/robot” is typically a stand-in for “male human and (often) female-coded robot.” Despite the fact that True Companions is currently working on Roxxxy Doll’s male counterpart, Rocky Doll, the question of human/robot sex often circulates around men’s sexual preferences and access to sexual gratification, not women’s.

Douglas Hines, the CEO of True Companions, is in a double-bind as he attempts to defend his product from multiple criticisms. Hines claims his robot isn’t intended only for sex: it can be a companion as well, and can carry on conversations. Certainly the website describes the doll as though it were human, using female pronouns. But in a recent interview with the BBC, Hines insisted, “We are not supplanting the wife or trying to replace a girlfriend.” The question of what role this object is supposed to fill is still open to interpretation – as is the question of what it means to rely on an object for emotional and sexual support.

More important, however, is the question of whether this is a purely private decision or a matter of public interest. And as developers pursue ways of making their sex robots more realistic, in an age of AI and robots that can sense human emotion, we are also not so far away from the question of whether or not robots can, for example, consent.

All of these questions are issues of social policy, but regulations on new technology often come about because of more practical concerns, such as personal safety or copyright, as we are seeing with regards to aerial drones. A proposed ban on sharing artificial intelligence technology with sex robot manufacturers for reasons of the broad public good would likely only have traction if the industry voluntarily adopts it.

The next question is, will regulation of sex robots come from laws governing technology, or laws governing consent?