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The Campaign Against Sex Robots: Is Banning Them the Answer?

Two academics argue they will promote the objectification of women and children.

Gold robots

Humanity’s relationship with technology has always been complicated. We worship at the altar of automated convenience, but fear the speed with which it remakes society. Robots are perhaps the ultimate expression of this duality, inspiring utopian dreams and apocalyptic nightmares in equal measure.

But have we stopped to consider the ethical implications of such technology?

Now two European academics are attempting to provide an answer, with a public campaign seeking to ban the production of sex robots.

Founded by robotics ethicists Dr. Kathleen Richardson and Erik Billing, the Campaign Against Sex Robots argues that such machines will exert a profoundly negative influence on society.

Although the movement stops short of advocating the extension of human rights to robots, it asserts that development of sexbots will only reinforce pre-existing inequalities. The group’s website details a laundry-list of damaging effects, such as encouraging the degradation of women and children, and even inadvertently promoting human trafficking.

Rather than develop sex robots, Richardson instead suggests that researchers should pursue, “ethical technologies that reflect human principles of dignity, mutuality and freedom.”

Comparing the dynamic to the prostitute-client relationship, the campaign suggests that such devices will also erode the empathy of their users over time.

According to Richardson’s paper “The Asymmetrical ‘Relationship’: Parallels Between Prostitution and the Development of Sex Robots,” the prostitution model automatically privileges the buyer’s perspective. This has the unintended side effect of diminishing the seller’s subjectivity, reducing them to the status of objects, and reinforcing “relations of power that do not recognize both parties as human subjects”.

Pathologizing desire

However, while Richardson’s campaign raises many important questions about the ethics of the nascent sexbot industry, there are serious flaws to be considered in her prohibition-based approach.

Although Richardson’s warning about introducing pre-existing inequalities is worth heeding, moralistic censorship carries its own dangers. The politics of sexual respectability have historically been a damaging force, stigmatizing any desires that exist beyond an imagined mainstream.

French academics Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari wrote about this as early as 1972 in their philosophical text “Anti-Oedipus,” the first volume of the groundbreaking theoretical work “Capitalism and Schizophrenia”.

They critique the tendency of traditional psychoanalysis to privilege the nuclear family as the primary social model. By promoting the ideal of a perfect family unit, people are taught to be ashamed of their private desires, to pathologize, deny, and repress all atypical urges and unconventional fantasies. Submitting to your predilections is seen as an act of perversion while suppressing these desires is considered natural.

The photo displays iCub, a child-like humanoid robot.

Deleuze and Guattari attribute this to the Freudian figure of Oedipus, which oversimplifies the complexities of desire, and marginalizes those outside the theoretical mainstream:

“…if desire is repressed, it is because every position of desire…is capable of calling into question the established order of society… It is therefore of vital importance for a society to repress desire, and even to find something more efficient than repression, so that repression, hierarchy, exploitation, and servitude are themselves desired.”

And while Richardson’s campaign may intend to merely prevent the sexualization of robots, it also politicizes them, drawing in a broader gender discourse which may be limiting in its scope.

Richardson’s definition of sex robots as “machines in the form of women or children for use as sex objects” is highly restrictive, ignoring what will likely be the post-gendered nature of artificial sexuality.

Feminist academic Donna Haraway has previously outlined the ways that digital identity will disrupt the sex-gender binary in her influential work “A Cyborg Manifesto.”

“There is not even such a state as ‘being’ female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices,” she said. “Gender, race, or class consciousness is an achievement forced on us by the…patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism.”

Sex robots may also have applications that extend beyond the realm of consumer gratification, with potential for a variety of therapeutic purposes. Like the growing number of hands-free personal sex devices, these robots could prove ideal for aiding those with mobility problems to lead more fulfilling sex lives.

The sex robots are coming

Aside from the inherent difficulty in suppressing technology, Richardson’s crusade focuses too much attention in the wrong direction. Like previous campaigns aimed at banning pornography, it approaches the equation in reverse, blaming the product instead of the environment that created it.

Robot enthusiasts have also been echoing this sentiment on social media, taking to Twitter to express a variety of concerns about the nature of Richardson’s critique:

 

And let’s not forget that this is only one side of the story, with roboticists already working toward engineering love between humans and machines. For instance, the Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Technology Laboratory at the National Taipei University in Taiwan has been developing a field of study known as Lovotics.

Head researcher Dr. Hooman Samani’s work involves a complex AI that simulates the endocrine system, allowing his robots to mimic both the psychological and physical symptoms of being in love. This emotional element demonstrates that at least some researchers are interested in developing machines that go beyond mere sexual gratification. In the future such devices may even be capable of falling in love.

However, while Richardson’s campaign is somewhat short-sighted, it is part of a growing movement that is attempting to examine the way we interact with robots.

In 2012, the academic Sinziana Gutiu wrote a similar study entitled “Sex Robots and Roboticization of Consent” for We Robot, an annual conference on legal issues relating to robotics. And earlier this year, the Tokyo-based telecommunications group Softbank released a humanoid robot named Pepper, which features instructions explicitly forbidding its usage for “sexual acts” or “obscene behavior.”

Although the Campaign Against Sex Robots is still receiving plenty of press, it seems likely that Richardson’s attempt at censorship will eventually end in failure, regardless of the validity of her arguments. Consumer demand will eventually ensure that sexbots are a commercial inevitability.

All that matters now is how we choose to respond to them.

Do you think that sex robots will contribute to real-world objectification?

Image sources: epSos.de, Jiuguang Wang

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