Woman being intimate with a robot

Social implications of sex robots scrutinised in new report

Image credit: Dreamstime

A report by the Foundation for Responsible Robotics at the Hague Global Institute, Our Sexual Future with Robots, looks into the appropriateness and implications of humanoid sex robots being used in brothels, sexual therapy and to reduce sex crimes.

While sex toys have been used for centuries, the report says, sex robots are a different matter entirely, as they are created as “pornographic representations of the human body”. Sex robots are likely to revolutionise the sextech sector, and none more so than those incorporating artificial intelligence (AI), such as Abyss Creations’ $15,000 companion doll, “Harmony”.

“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.”

The Foundation’s report is another high-profile response to the growth of increasingly lifelike sex robots, following David Levy’s Love and Sex with Robots book in 2007 and the “Love and Sex with Robots” Congress, last held in London in 2016.

The researchers asked academics, representatives from the sex industry and sex robot industry, and members of the public for their views on the possible uses of sex robots, and what the implications of these would be.

According to Professor Noel Sharkey, co-director of the foundation who studies AI and robotics at the University of Sheffield, it is hard to know how the market will grow and affect society.

“Will these robotic dolls be niche? Or will they change societal norms and become widespread?” Professor Sharkey said at a press briefing. “How would [sex with a robot] equate to a truly human intimate relationship?”

It has been widely suggested that robots could make ideal replacements for sex workers (and already in some countries, mechanical sex dolls are available for clients’ pleasure), and most people find the idea of robot prostitutes acceptable, the report finds. However, many clients’ needs could not be met with current sex robot technology; they are unable to have convincing conversations, and cannot consume alcohol or drugs.

Robots would have problems replacing sex workers, and even greater problems replacing partners, the report concludes. No human-to-robot emotions could be mutual for the foreseeable future.

“The best robots could do is “fake it”,” the report concluded. “Robots cannot feel love.”

The report also raises possible societal implications of humans taking robots as their lovers; the proliferation of sex robots is likely to aggravate the work already done by the pornographic industry in creating images of objectified and submissive women. Although this could be combatted by creating sex robots with different body types, the report says, the types of sex dolls and robots already on the market suggest that this is unlikely to happen.

Sex robots could, in some cases, keep people company, and may have a role to play in sexual therapy (such as reducing anxiety for virgins preparing for their first human sexual encounter). However, forming close relationships with sex robots may lead to social isolation; the ability to form friendships and feel intimacy and empathy can only be developed through human interaction and mutual consenting relationships.

The most contentious issue faced by the Foundation in its report regards providing specialised robots for sexual offenders and people with repressed paedophilic urges. A Japanese company, Trottla, has been manufacturing sex dolls with a childish appearance for over a decade. This could prevent sexual offences by allowing would-be offenders to satisfy their desires in a way that does not involve real people.

“This may work for a few but it is a very dangerous path to tread and research could be very difficult,” the report argues. “It may be that allowing people to live out their darkest fantasies with sex robots could have a pernicious effect on society and societal norms and create more danger for the vulnerable.”

As sex robots become more attractive and accessible, it concludes, what is needed is a “broader societal discussion” to determine what type of sex with a robot is acceptable.

“It is the responsibility of our governments and the wider international community to determine what is publicly and morally acceptable before stepping into regulatory territory.”

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