There’s an episode of Futurama called ‘Proposition Infinity’. It parodies the debates about gay and lesbian marriage in America by presenting a contentious referendum on the rights of robots to marry humans. Obviously, the idea of walking down the aisle with artificial intelligence isn’t on the public agenda. But we are not so far off from another piece of lurid science fiction: robot sex slaves.
The plans are already in place. Big robotics and electronics companies are investing serious money in developing lifelike, programmable sex dolls. They will look human, respond to their owners’ behaviour and could soon become the must have sex toy of the 21st century. The demand is estimated in the millions. The first fully operational sex robot could cost 10 or 15 thousand pounds but just like all technology, the price will eventually reach a floor. Who would have believed 40 years ago that everyone would have a computer in their pocket? Not the chairman IBM. For many, the prospect of sex robots has no moral qualms at all. It’s just another extension of sexual liberation. Yet the more human these robots look and act, the more morally dubious the idea becomes.
Let’s be clear: there is a significant difference between a battery-powered vibrator and a walking, talking warm-to-the-touch human replica. In the best case, a sex robot will be little more than an outlet for pent up sexual frustration, packed away in a closet most of the time and only used the same way the average adult consumes pornography. Even using a sex robot as little more than an erotic vacuum cleaner carries worrying implications. The same objections feminists and moralists make against pornography are easily applied to our future android sex partners.
As technology advances, sex robots will become more realistic, more intelligent and more responsive. Soon, artificial sexual partners could serve an emotional role in people’s lives, especially for those who struggle with normal personal relationships. Think of the love a person can have for an animal combined with the innate sexual desires most of us have. Is it right to outsource our affections to a piece of hardware with intelligent circuitry? It’s easy to forget the line between reality and fantasy. Millions of people become so invested in fictional characters that they cry when an author kills them off. The rise of sexual robots risks opening a can of worms we’re not equipped to handle.
Two aspects of modern society combine to make sex robots a potential problems. First, society is now highly sexualised. The prevalence of pornography and ‘hook up’ sites and apps has helped to divorce sex from human emotion. The question is not whether sex for sex’s sake is acceptable, but if all sex should be seen as merely the fulfillment of carnal desires. There should be room for both forms of sexual expression but sex today is increasingly seen only as a physical act. Second, society is more fragmented than at any time in recent history. Social media have reduced personal interactions, created artificial distance between people and made human experience a colder and harsher experience.
As people feel more alone and uncertain, and as sex becomes something we see as a commodity or as a method of judging someone’s worth, sex robots have the potential to become an epidemic. ‘Robosexuality’ may fill a need for those who struggle with the pressures of modern life. But the moral questions are unavoidable. Rather than dealing with the very real problem of growing isolation, sex robots will feed the sense of loneliness and stunted desire.
An earlier Futurama episode features a public service film that in some ways predicted our current dilemma. In ‘I Dated A Robot’, a corny 1950s-style narrator explains how a teenager’s relationship with a lifelike sex robot makes him abandon ordinary life. It’s time to pay attention to science fiction’s predictions again. The sex robots are coming.