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Is It Time to Reframe the Sex Robot Debate?

Legal ethicist suggests dropping arguments that rely on symbolic meaning of sexbots.

Legal ethicist John Danaher speaks at the TEDxWHU event in February 2017.

We are facing an uncertain future regarding sex robots and their consequences, says legal ethicist John Danaher. And this view should shift the current debate on how, if at all, this technology is developed.

Danaher, an academic based at the National University of Ireland, Galway, laid out his argument at TEDxWHU last month in a 17-minute talk called “Symbols and Consequences in the Sex Robot Debate.”

It’s not his first time weighing in on the topic. In 2014, Danaher published a paper on whether robots will replace human sex workers, and another debating the criminalization of robotic rape and child sex robots.

Groups opposed to the creation of mechanical lovers tend to focus on their symbolic meaning and its consequences, Danaher explains in a video recording oh his talk.

For instance, the major objection of Kathleen Richardson, the founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots, is that human-sexbot interactions will symbolically mimic exploitative interactions between sex workers and clients. As a result, sex robots and their use would condone objectification and reinforce negative attitudes toward women.

However, according to Danaher, the symbolic meaning of an act of object can vary by culture and also change over time. He gives cultural practices concerning the treatment of the dead as an example.

Furthermore, Danaher predicts that the social consequences of sex robots will be highly contentious and uncertain. He refers to debates on pornography to illustrate his point.

Even after forty years of empirical studies, there is no clear agreement on the effects of exposure to adult images. Some studies suggest negative consequences, while others suggest positive or no discernable effects.

So instead of falling back on subjective and uncertain social consequences to steer the sex robot debate, Danaher suggests focusing on fundamental value commitments.

He put forth these options:

  1. Embrace liberty and allow people to develop the technology freely
  2. Embrace uncertainty and allow monitored experimentation
  3. Act in a precautionary or risk-averse manner to prohibit or closely regulate development

For a more in-depth explanation of Danaher’s position, view the video above or read his blog post on the talk.

Do you agree with Danaher’s view on how we should reframe the debate on sex robots? Why or why not?

Image source: TEDx Talks

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  • Alan Brooks

    “For instance, the major objection of Kathleen Richardson, the founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots, is that human-sexbot interactions will symbolically mimic exploitative interactions between sex workers and clients. As a result, sex robots and their use would condone objectification and reinforce negative attitudes toward women.”

    Richardson is correct; however in some nations– such as Japan– conditions are not relatable to the West; thus Westerners cannot with any accuracy discuss developments in such countries.

    “Even after forty years of empirical studies, there is no clear agreement on the effects of exposure to adult images. Some studies suggest negative consequences, while others suggest positive or no discernable effects.”

    Though one might say commercialized ‘adult’ (e.g. adolescent-oriented) images offer no net plus. They are no more/less than commodities.

    “1. Embrace liberty and allow people to develop the technology freely”

    The libertarian model is the only practical way to go with this and other personal issues
    — albeit with the understanding of how ethics are lacking re the technology and that free criticism of the technology is welcomed. Commercialization of sexuality is to be criticized as a matter of necessity.