Will sex robots be just another sextoy, more technologically advanced? Today, sexbots are stunningly realistic. They are enhanced with artificial intelligence. Since loneliness seems to be the scourge of our modern societies, are we going to develop feelings for robots?
A modern version of the myth of Pygmalion
A few years ago, when the conversation started about sex robots, things seemed rather clear : it was just another sextoy on the market, simply more technologically advanced.
When you take a step back, there’s nothing really surprising about these new uses. Sex dolls are nothing new. The vintage plastic inflatable ones had clown faces and were a running gag in the 90’s-00’s comedies.
But today, sexbots are no laughing matter. We reached another level the day sex dolls became much more realistic, and equipped with artificial intelligence.
They are now 100% customizable and can interact with humans. Basically, we are replaying a modern version of the Pygmalion myth. Remember : the eponymous character sculpts his ideal partner and begins to feel such a violent passion for her that the goddess Aphrodite, touched by this story, turns the statue into an actual woman.
The fantasy of a robot creature that would be the “dream girlfriend” is not new either, this theme regularly appears in literature, comics and science fiction series or movies. Do you remember the 90s series “Weird Science”, where two teenage geeks created a so-called “perfect woman” through a computer, like a modern version of the Bride of Frankenstein.
Twenty years later, it has become reality.
We can question this idea of ”customizable partners”. What does underlie this desire to choose the humanoid’s physical appearance as well as the traits of their “personality” (they can be programmed to respond in a certain way, to be rather docile or with a strong temperament, rather shy or not, etc.).
We came to the point of total control and extreme objectification of others, even if here, “others” are machines. This necessarily raises ethical questions.
Precisely, sexbots are controversial. Looking at this “phenomenon” through the look of society says a lot about what is at stake on a deeper level…
Social view on sexbots
Let’s start with a simple question: why would anyone have an “intercourse” with a robot? Like anything about the human sexual behavior, the answer is far from simple. Is it a paraphilia among others, or the consequence of a deep lack of physical and emotional interactions? The question remains open.
In the collective unconscious, sex dolls/robots reflect an unflattering image of their users. If you mention the question at a dinner with friends, inevitably a guest will drop a sentence like: “Personally I’m good, I don’t need dolls, I will never be that desperate !” Captain ego speaking here. But I dare you to go and try, ask people around you what they think of sexbots…
Even nowadays, buying and using sextoys remain something you do quite secretly. However, if we consider that service robotics will enter our homes by 2030, it’s possible that tomorrow, using sexbots will be assumed in broad daylight.
The best example at a society scale is Japan. The birth rate there is currently in free fall. Of course there are many factors of this decline, but let’s start with the simplest: men and women seem to have more and more difficulties to meet, to start a conversation and to enter the (time-consuming) game of mutual seduction. Work is a pillar of Japanese society, and the among of time you’re supposed to spend in the office is almost unlimited. In that context, you simply don’t have time for a relationship. Another thing to consider : Japanese practices around dating and relationships are still shrouded in cultural taboos and strict codes.
In summary, sex robots have every reason to be a hit in Japan. Indeed, this is the country where sexbots sales are growing the most.
In view of this example, is it still certain that sexbots are only toys? What if they imitated human interactions so well, that we could barely tell the difference? What if they passed the Turing test (and they will)?
The most advanced sexbots are already very sensitive and reactive: they respond to stimulations on their artificial skin. They open the possibility to explore any fantasies. They will always be ready to perform all kind of practices, that your partner doesn’t even know how to spell the name.
Our reaction towards robots is : “Will they take our place, at work and in the sheets now?” This fear of being replaced by the machine is very common in the history of technology.
As for sex robots in particular, we must admit that the competition with a “Sexterminator” is going to be… interesting, to say the least. Obviously, a sex robot will always be in great shape, never tired, always ready to go.
Will the craze for sexbots remain confined to Japan? Of course not. Let’s turn the camera to western society for a moment …
In the mood for love (with an AI)
If you enjoyed the movie “Her” (2013) like I did, you remember Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix: the character is the archetype of the good guy, smart, rather handsome, with a good job. Apparently, Theodore has everything for him. It’s not that he can’t get a girlfriend, it’s more that his divorce has left him emotionally damaged. He’s therefore very reluctant to connect with a woman again. Step by step however, he falls in love with Samantha, his virtual assistant, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. She offers him affection, support and everything you’re supposed to expected from a girlfriend (without the downsides of a relationship). She’s at his side 24/7, available whenever he needs her, but he can also turn the device off if he wants to. She assists him in everyday life just like Siri does for us. She lifts his spirits and helps him progress in life, as we say. Thanks to her, he slowly recovers from his past love traumas. Samantha is reliable (until Theodore discovers the hard truth, but let’s not spoil here).
There’s a paradox there. Like Theodore, we might think that being in a relationship with an artificial intelligence makes it possible to avoid disappointments and broken hearts. It seems like a rational and safe choice. But more and more researches in psychology and psychiatry show that we could suffer many pathologies, if we develop a strong attachment to robots. For example, an impression of losing touch with reality, an aggravation of social loneliness, emotional dependence at machines and the list goes on.
Sex addiction could become more and more common, if the use of sex robots is democratized. This pathology is understood not as an unhealthy need for sexual stimulation all the time, but as a psychological way to anesthetize stress, boredom, mental health issues, loneliness, insecurities, and unsolved traumas, through sex. Therefore, sexbots could become a drug, nothing more nothing less.
Precisely, sex is an issue in the movie Her. Samantha doesn’t have a body. The sex remains virtual, and it’s a painful frustration for the human-AI couple. Now, imagine that an artificial intelligence as advanced as Samantha is placed in the body of a very realistic humanoid robot. It’s no longer science fiction.
Just like in the movie Her, being in a relationship with an artificial intelligence would probably be taboo …at first.
Telling your friends that you are engaged with an operating system, or taking your sexbot to the restaurant might be awkward for sure. But if you look at it from a historical point of view, the practices around couple and relationships today wouldn’t have been acceptable a hundred years ago. When we take a step back, we acknowledge that standards and morals change a lot though time. Therefore, if sexbots are a scandal today, this may not be the case in ten or twenty years.
That doesn’t mean it’s right, or wrong. But it’s definitely happening.
Are robots more ethical than humans when it comes to consent ?
Every innovation brings ethical questions along the way, around uses. What can robots do to us, and what can’t they do? More specifically, male sexbots will be programmed to ask consent from their users, for legal reasons, to start with. They will be designed to strictly get a clear authorization before proceeding to anything. The use of a “safe word” is included (exactly like in BDSM).
It’s not exaggerated to say that, in a way, sex robots will care more about consent than humans.
So, if robots intrinsically respect us, the question is: are we going to respect them?
In 2017, a sexual robot also named Samantha, born in a factory in Barcelona, was violently assaulted by several men during the Ars Electronica festival in Austria. For me, even if Samantha is strictly speaking an object, it is absolutely not acceptable.
The problem is clear: sexbots will be the victims of the worst human instincts. These instincts of violence, abuse, sadism and so on, will be unleashed on robots, as many movies and series have portrayed it recently. Under the surface of civilization and manners lays the threat of discharging frustrations and hatred, and what people can’t do to their neighbor, they might want to do it to robots, to ” decompress ” in the most abject way.
In the same way misogynists are scaringly going more and more inhibited online, what will prevent these individuals from satisfying on female robots their fantasies of gender-based violence ? This logic can be extended to any social groups at risk to be targeted by hate crimes, and this is highly problematic.
In an effort to “prevent” these behaviors, some AI sexbots are already programmed to respond positively to soft seduction rather than violent approach. Pure hypocrisy that doesn’t solve the problem…
Generally speaking, technological tools for entertainment drag us more and more to satisfy all of our instincts, without limits. But I’m one of those who think that, if we want to improve our society and have better relationships with each other (whether in the public or the private life), we cannot behave in the virtual world as we wouldn’t in “real life”.
We can’t treat robots like any other object, without a specific ethic to it. If we give robots (and sexbots) a human shape, then abusing them would taint our humanity, by mirror effect.
In general, robots will play the same role as pets, especially for elderly or isolated people. That’s already the case in Japanese retirement homes. Therefore it’s almost certain that we will develop an attachment to robots. In this logic, we must question the way we treat them (and why not, the necessity to grant them legal rights or not). If we condemn animal abuse, why not condemn abuse on robots?
The end of human love? Of course not.
I draw no definite conclusions from all that, especially not hasty conclusions. Will sexbots replace all relationships and be the death of humanity? Of course not. Machines are made of metal, electricity, 0´s and 1´s. We are made of flesh (and therefore, fundamentally unpredictable and complex emotions).
From a purely ethological point of view, sexual attraction is a matter of survival. Our desires for pairing push us to reproduction and social cohesion, it’s as simple as that. But love and sex are not only that, far from it. It’s a very subtle network of emotions. The “recipe for love” is a rather mysterious cocktail. Many ingredients come into play, including our cultural standards, our belief systems, our education, our psychology and our personal history.
Like everything that is fundamentally human, the “chemistry” between lovers isn’t predictable like the result of a mathematical operation. It’s impossible to recreate that with a machine.
Sexbots can satisfy, let’s say, mechanical desires, and fill the loneliness in a certain way. But they won’t replace the human love experience, fundamentally made of imperfections (our imperfections). So fulfilling and yes, so painful at times. Wanting to erase any kind of pain and failure from our lives by technology (and here, in our emotional lives, by sex robots) is not at all a guarantee for happiness, it’s more the opposite. Jonathan Franzen said this very well in “Liking is for cowards, go for what hurts” published in the New York Times :
“And yet pain hurts but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative — an anesthetized dream of self-sufficiency, abetted by technology — pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived.”