Sex Robots. An introductory presentation of the academic debate

A work in progress.
Article by Christina Maraboutaki

According to the Greek Mythology, Pygmalion was a sculptor who, after losing interest in women, fell in love with his masterpiece, an ivory female statue named Galatea. Feeling sorry for the young man, Aphrodite brought Galatea into life and Pygmalion managed to take his own creation as his wife (Ovid, Metamorphoses 8 AD). Pygmalion’s myth is only an example among a wide variety of cultural products, from classical novels (Frankenstein 1816, Pinocchio 1883) to science fiction cinema (Blade Runner 1982, Her 2013, Ex- Machina 2014) which use this leitmotiv of turn-into-life machines that fulfil (or betray) humans’ desires.


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Sex industry has also invested on this subject by creating sex robots or, as they have been commonly called, SexBots...For the purposes of this article, a sex robot is defined as an artefact aimed to cause sexual gratification which holds the following three characteristics; i.) it has an anthropomorphic appearance, which means a humanoid form, ii.) a minimum degree of artificial intelligence, hence at least the slightest capacity to interpret signals and respond to the environment and iii.) the ability to move in a human-like form. Sex robots might sound at the moment as a dystopian science fiction scenario, similar to previous fantasies of flying cars associated with the new millennium.

 

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Their construction however has already started, bringing tension in the academic circles.

For the time being, sex robots look more like sophisticated dolls, a sex toy with its own history, rather than interactive machines. Matt McMullen, the CEO of the California based company Abyss Creation, has constructed the closest to a humanoid robot, the SexBot called Harmony. For the moment, Harmony is able to repeat the users’ words and answer to simple, pre-programmed questions while blinking and smiling. Through an app, the user can switch her/its personality, as well as her/its voice and accent. Her/its face and hair are removable, making the level or personalised service quite promising. But the race for the first sex robot is considered to be won by the New Jersey based company True Companion that announced the creation of Roxxxy in 2010, gathering about 4,000 pre-orders shortly after her/its presentation. Roxxxy is a full sized doll with synthetic skin and the AI capacity to learn the user’s preferences. Her/its features, such as breast size, hair colour, eye colour and skin colour are also customizable. At least until recently, there has been no clear evidence that its distribution has actually taken place and public voices remain sceptical on its production.

The responses on sex robots vary significantly, even among the same field of study, since their construction raises scientific, legal, political, ethical and philosophical questions. Since 2014, the ‘International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots’ is held annually providing an opportunity to the academic community to exchange ideas on related topics. It is worth noting that in December 2015 the announced second meeting in Malaysia was banned because it was considered non-scientific and offensive. From a utilitarian point of view, David Levy, co-founder of the Congress and author of the book ‘Love and Sex with Robots’ (2007), has widely argued in favour of sex robots and their potential role in dealing with problems of solitude, addressing especially the difficulty in developing sexual relationships.

 

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Moreover, he claims that sophisticated sex robots could displace prostitution, acknowledging at the same time that the ethical and social implications of such displacement should be addressed. In his presentation to the Congress in 2016, entitled Why Not Marry a Robot?, he refers to the history of the legal evolution of marriage (interracial and same-sex marriage), in order to strengthen his position in favour of the robot-human marriage which, as he states, is expected to happen sometime before 2050. Levy has given more than 100 interviews to the media and his work remains the most common reference in academic texts.

On the other hand, Kathleen Richardson, Professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI (De Montfort University) argues that sex robots could potentially harm society and reproduce existing inequalities and violence. More specifically, she claims that the conceptualization of sex robots as a potential displacement to the prostitution industry is misleading because it does not take under consideration the complexity of prostitution as a phenomenon. On the contrary, according to her view, such position contributes to the further objectification of women since it degrades prostitution to a simple act of financial exchange; the client is merely represented as a buyer of a ‘thing’, not recognised as a human being. In brief, Richardson argues that technological developments and sex trade coexist and reinforce each other, rather than the opposite. In 2015, she initiated the Campaign Against Sex Robots, modelled on the longer-standing Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. Richardson’s campaign has received critiques for embracing a conservative attitude towards the ethics of sex. According to Kate Devlin, a computer scientist specialising in Artificial intelligence and Human–computer interaction, Richardson’s concerns in regards to the dehumanising power of sex robots over women are reasonable, as long as the scientific community remains a male dominant space which addresses merely a heterosexual male audience. She argues however that the total ban of sex robots only reveals prudishness and lack of openness about sex and sexual identities. Devlin states that ‘machines are what we made them’ and argues that their contribution could be beneficial, especially in therapy or even towards the understanding of sex offenders’ psychology, if the research on the field moves away from the dominant hetero-normative male gaze. In 2016 Devlin founded the first sex technology hackathon (UK), a conference held among scientists, academics and people who work in the sex tech industry with the purpose to build alliances and raise awareness.

Recent scandals over the exploitation of social media users’ personal data declare that ‘private’ information can be used in uncontrolled ways. The corresponding users’ responses, limited mostly to a simple change of privacy settings on the same platform, reveal the general indifference -if not legitimization- of such acts. In other words, everyday practices have already been technologically mediated and the outcome of such mediation remains, at least until now, highly arbitrary. Meanwhile, sex robots seem to cause moral panic, expositing thus the particular meanings that sexuality has been invested on. Theorizing them in isolation however is a partial work, since these products are only a symptom of a wider network of power relations.

   

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 Gender and sexual stereotypes are socially embedded in a much more subtle way than the one suggested by the over-sexualized robots. Their big lips, over-sized breasts, empty gaze and cliché answers simply reveal their performativity, the fact that they are a parody without an original. Sex robots are constructed in order to be consumed as such, which means as not perfectly resembling to human beings machines. At least for the time being, their affect does not even get close to the uncanny valley - the space where the confusion and fear in front of a synthetic being that looks like an actual human is so high that can create great conflict. So far however, the real discomfort of such interaction originates from issues of consumerism, alienation and solitude.

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