In 2017 most liberal societies accept or tolerate sex in many different forms and varieties. Sex toys and masturbation aids have been used for centuries and can be easily purchased in stores in many countries. Now companies are developing robots for sexual gratification. But a robot designed for sex may have different impacts when compared with other sex aids. Those currently being developed are essentially pornographic representations of the human body – mostly female. 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. This is reinforced by robot manufacturers with an eye to the future. They understand the market importance of adding intimacy, companionship, and conversation to sexual gratification.
The aim of this consultation report is to present an objective summary of the issues and various opinions about what could be our most intimate association with technological artefacts. We do not contemplate or speculate about far future robots with personhood - that could have all manner of imagined properties. We focus instead on significant issues that we may have to deal with in the foreseeable future over the next 5 to 10 years.
Crazy question, right? Who doesn't know what sex is for? It's obvious.
But, let's take a step back for a second to consider the question in light of the “consultation report” published this week by the Foundation for Responsible Robotics(FRR). The report was the organization's attempt to answer a set of important questions about human-robot sexuality by surveying the literature and presenting the points of view of leading thinkers and researchers in the field. Questions like, would people have sex with a robot?, what kind of relationship can we have with robots?, or could robots help with sexual healing and therapy?
Not surprisingly, experts' points of view differ dramatically.
Some believe sexual contact between humans and robots is an abomination, an unnatural act that objectifies (typically) women and psychologically/ethically harms any humans who engage in it.
Others see this kind of activity as a way for people who are unable to engage in sexual relations with other humans (for whatever reasons) to enjoy the benefits of sexual contact. Human-robot sexuality is a therapeutic tool, they say, to help millions to experience sexual pleasure in a legal, personal, safe manner. The majority who fall into this camp see robot sex as akin to masturbation with a physically present “partner.”
But, what about that peculiar question: what is sex for?
If you think about it for a minute, you'll start to get a glimpse of the complexities that are right beneath the surface of the initial obviousness.
Sex's first reason for being...it's main “job,” if you will... is procreation.
Technological advances aside, heterosexual sexual relations remains the only reliable method for making new people at scale. Let's call that sex's #1 functional job. That job...creating other humans in sufficient quantities to replace those who die each year...can only be accomplished via sex with another member of our species.
Never's a long time, but procreation's a job robots are likely to never be able to perform.
But, sex has other functional jobs as well. Providing physical pleasure, for example. The human body has evolved to deliver a systemic array of pleasurable experiences to accompany the process of sexual arousal and release.
Can robots deliver those experiences? Can they do this job satisfactorily?
History and experience show us that the human imagination is more than up to the task of creating fantasies that enable (at least) a reasonable facsimile of sexual arousal leading to orgasm. Are the physical pleasures of human-human sexual contact and those enabled by human-robot contact qualitatively equivalent? Are they sufficiently similar to make the latter an acceptable substitute for the former? Personal preferences differ, of course, but the long-standing proliferation of sex toys, aids, and apparatus (now including “teledildonics”) indicates that for many people objects are a perfectly acceptable way to get sex's physical pleasure job done. It's reasonable, then, to expect that robots will be more than capable of successfully doing this job.
What else is sex for?
At some point in our species' evolution, relationships between humans took on emotional characteristics that were experienced and expressible through sexual behavior. The complex process of becoming intimately emotionally involved with another human became socially (if not physiologically) intertwined with being physically intimate.
Always? Sometimes? Maybe rarely. For many, never.
That meant that, for some (many?) emotional intimacy became a “nice to have,” but not a “must have,” element of sex. The FRR report touches on the complexities of getting this job done. Prostitutes interviewed for the document reported that customers frequently ask them to feign emotional responses in sexual encounters, wanting them to experience “real” (heartfelt?) orgasms. Robot makers understand this emotional job, and are doing their best to provide artifacts that simulate contextually-accurate “faux-motional” reactions through gestures, facial expressions, sounds, and speech.
And this is where robots and people part ways most clearly. The psychological operations one must engage in to experience sexual-situational-emotional-fulfillment from a robot are non-trivial. One must ignore significant aspects of the encounter (the artificial quality of the robot's verbal and non-verbal cues; the obvious absence of lived-temporality, proactivity, spontaneity; sensory elements like responsive touch, smell, taste) and behave “as if” (i.e., ignore) other artificial qualities. While those psychological accommodations might be adequate for some of us in certain situations, the prospect of having sex's “emotional intimacy job” performed adequately, and over time, seems far-fetched. Perhaps anthropomorphism can lead us to “love” objects, but no degree of fantasy can credibly get us to have the experience of those objects loving us back. Our “desire to be desired” by another person is a significant part of human sexuality that robots can neither experience nor express.
That means that human-robot sexual contact by definition violates the first rule of interpersonal behavior: it is inherently one-sided; it can never be inter-personal. Like all Turing-test challenging exercises, then, the very best can only be simulacra, copies of authentic human-human interactions, designed to trick humans into believing (actually, suspending the disbelief that is always right on the edge of awareness) they are in an inter-personal encounter. “One-sided sex” is a special category of what we usually mean when we consider human sexuality.
Well, so what? Is that so bad? If people who are unable to have sex with others find robots acceptable substitutes, who are we to judge them? That's a question many ask when they imagine our future relationships with robots. The FRR imagines an increase in these kinds of relationships but reaches no conclusions about their impact on either individuals or society. Personally, I'm not inclined to view their proliferation as societally positive.
The document also considers even more serious questions around the effects robots could have on sexual crimes, including child-sex offenders. Again, FRR chooses not to takes a definite position on this question, choosing rather to present opposing arguments by experts in the field:
“This is a question that suffers major disagreement. On one side, there is a small number who believe that expressing disordered or criminal sexual desires with a sex robot would satiate them to the point where they would not have the desire to harm fellow humans. On the other side, there are scholars and therapists who believe that this would be an indulgence that could encourage and reinforce illicit sexual practices. This may work for a few but it is a very dangerous path to tread and research could be very difficult. 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. Currently there is a lack of clarity about the law on the distribution of sex robots that are representations of children.”
When I was a practicing psychotherapist I treated several sex offenders who exhibited persistent illegal behaviors, even in the face of serious legal consequences. In my experience, a robot, no matter how realistic, would not have led to them forgoing real world encounters.
Regardless of our individual beliefs, feelings, and thoughts on these issues, human-robot sexual behavior is likely to become commonplace over the next decade. To wit, FRR cites recent examples of UK men bringing sex dolls on dates in public, and pub owners casually accepting the couples as they would human-human partners.
We see here another example of 21st century technological innovation challenging us to confront difficult ethical questions (e.g., unemployment, autonomous lethal weapons, self-driving vehicle safety); forcing us to make decisions we never could have imagined being forced to make only a very short while ago.
In this case, one of those questions is, “what is sex for?”
Tom Guarriello, Ph.D.
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