Should you have sex with an AI?

It might not be a question you’re asking yourself right now, but according to a California-based developer of artificially intelligent sex robots, they will be soon be as popular as porn.

sex robots

This is, at least, the hope of Matt McMullen. He’s the founder of RealDoll, a “love doll” company featured in the documentary, “The Sex Robots Are Coming”.  The film seeks to convince its audience that combining undeniably lifelike dolls like Matt’s with interactive, artificially intelligent features will lead to an explosion in the market for robotic lovers.

But is this okay? Many say that it absolutely isn’t.

Indeed, just as the Campaign To Stop Killer Robots gathers pace in the media, a lesser known campaign is trying to make its voice heard: The Campaign Against Sex Robots. And they’re just as serious about their issue.

Those in favor of sex robots tend to mount familiar-sounding arguments. They say that access to lifelike, feminine AI (McMullen says 80% of his custom is for female dolls) will help reduce the use of prostitutes, and therefore protect many vulnerable women and children who are forced into an underground and often brutal industry.

You may note that this is the same claim that has been used for many years to defend all types pf pornography, and the use of more “traditional” sex dolls. Yet – as everyone knows – the sex trade has continued to expand exponentially, and sex-trafficking has become an international crisis of some urgency. Whatever purpose sex products serve, it appears that the protection of sex workers is not one of them.

Indeed, The Campaign Against Sex Robots claims that the tech boom has actually supported and contributed to the growth of the sex industry.

Campaigners at the fore also have another worry. They’re concerned that the blending of sex and AI will to further reduce human empathy to dangerous effect. Empathy, they argue, being something that requires the experience of a mutual relationship.

The blame for the erosion of this critical human instinct does not sit uniquely with sex robots, but is also connected to the kinds of video games that reward the killing of prostitutes (i.e. Grand Theft Auto), and virtual reality that simulates the sexual abuse of children.

These are all cases where proponents claim that the recipient (of sex, abuse or sexual abuse) is not real, and therefore the act cannot constitute a real harm. The Campaign Against Sex Robots would argue that the ensuing attitudinal knock-on effects are very real indeed. Especially the implications for real life sex workers, to whom sex robot users may “graduate”, rather than replace.

If we learn through practice that sexual partners are “things” that exist for our satisfaction (however unpleasant the act of satisfying is…), there is no reason why that general mindset wouldn’t be transferred to human partners.

Which leads to the most obvious objection to these AI love dolls: if we embrace a world in which sex with these (almost always) cartoonishly female AI is normalized, we are exacerbating the universal objectification of women. Something that many, many women have fought against over many, many years.

I suppose the question is, in taking some technological steps forward, do we not run the risk of taking many societal steps back?

Watching the documentary, it felt as though the makers of “Harmony” (a talking, interactive love doll) were trying to create something as close to a female as possible, without any of the unattractive characteristics of a real woman: extra body weight, wit…resistance. These are the women that will never say no, always look fabulous, and never ever mount a challenge.

In other words, the makers of AI sex dolls reimagine and very openly reduce an “ideal woman” to body parts and a combination of sexually provocative and submissive responses.

In spite of these objections, some are keen to highlight the potential benefits. AI expert and author of Love and Sex With Robots, David Levy told Time magazine:

“I think the really massive benefit is that there are millions of people in this world, who for one reason or another cannot make good relationships themselves with other human beings. And so they’re lonely and miserable. I think when they’ve got the option of having relationships with very sophisticated robots, that will for many of them fill a big void in their lives and make them much happier.”

So, who do we think of? The lonely few? Or could the generations of young women who could be brought into a world where adults own lifelike AI, built to look just like them but manufactured and sold exclusively for sexual purposes?

Some will certainly contest that the anti sex robot movement leverages arguments that could be seen to condemn all pornography, which seems extreme, if not puritanical. Truthfully, they could be construed that way, but surely this depends on whether we believe there’s a distinction between watching and doing? Between viewing the human form and owning a human form? To be blunt, between masturbation and sex.

I think most of us would be more favorable to the idea that someone living in their home had viewed certain websites discreetly on a laptop or tablet, and less favorable to the idea that “Harmony” was charging underneath the bed.  There is, surely, a psychological difference for both parties – and, indeed, for David Levy’s sexually frustrated loners.

This week the media reported that new guidelines were released for the ethical development of AI robots. I’ve yet to leaf through the 266 pages, but critically these guidelines refer to design, i.e. making sure robots don’t do anything unethical, like exhibit bias against certain humans or nudge people to take bad decisions. Perhaps – as with sex robots – we should also be thinking about the uses of outwardly innocuous technology. How should this AI be presented so that it is consistent with the norms and values of modern society?

Harmony, after all, is merely an robotically embodied chatbot – much like Sophia, Saudi Arabia’s robot citizen. The fact her program is sexual is not, on its own, hugely problematic. She only really becomes troubling when you consider three factors combined: her (convincing) submissive and sexual AI “mind”, her (convincing) anatomically correct, single-purpose robotic body, and – perhaps most relevantly – the attitude of her “users”, who actively and deliberately seek to conceive of her as a real human.

Somehow, as separate items, none of these seem quite as disturbing as their sum of their parts. It would be intriguing to know if either of the first two were in any way altered, whether this would destroy the illusion that manufacturers and their buyers want.

In other words, is this really a sex aid for men whom women dislike? Or for men who dislike women?

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