Death of a Sexbot: Will Someday Switching One Off Be Equal to Murder?
An important question we may soon need to ask ourselves.
Find ecstasy in life; the mere sense of living is joy enough—Emily Dickinson
There’s a pretty direct, even admittedly sexual, delight in seeing what new technologically erotic development has come from the passionately fertile minds of sex tech researchers, developers, and pioneers.
However, right up there with wowing and gee-whizzing at all these new gadgets and gizmos is the often huge questions they’re bringing up.
Will augmented reality lead to the end of loneliness, as we’ll all be able to connect with each other as never before? Will virtual reality cause us to get forever lost in our isolated, digital erotic Valhallas?
Will genetic engineering allow us to live for thousands of years and have genitals with minds of their own? Will the very concept of gender and sexual orientation vanish in a world where everything and everyone is endlessly fluid?
Then there are sexbots. We are already debating if they are bad for women, leading to things like the Campaign Against Sex Robots, or if they can be a positive thing and become an accepted form of human sexuality.
But one question that so far hasn’t popped up stems from the real possibility that as they get more and more advanced there might come a time when they are considered as a form of life. If so, would hitting their off button be the same as killing them?
A living machine
It would be tempting to get the ball rolling by delving into what philosophers and scientists theorize is the difference between what is and isn’t alive.
Tempting but also pretty frustrating, as despite thousands of years of thought on the subject we still aren’t really quite sure what that difference actually is. In a very brief nutshell, the definition of life is usually defaulted to something being able to eat, grow, respond and adapt to the outside world, and reproduce.
This answer is equally frustrating as it clearly wouldn’t qualify even a sophisticated sexbot as being close to alive. Physically, that is.
Which is where the question of what is alive and what isn’t runs smack into the idea of artificial intelligence, because while a sexbot might not be physically alive, someday its synthetic mind might very well be.
A thinking machine
Alas, scientists and philosophers aren’t much help here either, mainly because we still aren’t sure how even our own consciousness works, let alone how, or even if, an artificial consciousness could function the same.
Commonly, when machine sentience is brought up the next thing mentioned will be the Turing test. Named after the mathematical genius Alan Turing, who is considered by many to be the pioneer of modern computer science, the test is remarkably simple: put a human being in an isolated environment with a way of communicating with two hidden subjects, one a computer and the other a fellow human being.
The idea here is that if the computer can convince the human that it’s just as alive as that other person then, voila, said machine is sort-of alive.
Obviously, this test is way too simple, mainly because we’ve already developed some pretty sophisticated software that’s come extremely close to passing the test and we don’t consider these bots and their kin to be even close to conscious.
Still, considering how fast these programs and even more advanced systems are being developed, it’s a pretty safe bet that in as little as a few decades we’ll have artificial intelligence that will be indistinguishable from the human variety.
Incredible impact on society
Keeping our focus on the sexual aspect, using self-aware machine intelligence in a sexbot could dramatically alter both how we react to them and how they react to us.
After all, if they are truly considered to be sentient, or at least have the same legal rights as human beings—which we have already begun to see happening—then just taking your bot out and playing with it will get a lot more complicated: among other concerns, you might even need to get the machine’s clear consent.
Otherwise, there’s a good chance that you could be arrested for sexual assault. On the flip side, though, it also means that you and your sexbot could be legally married as two consenting, intelligent beings.
It might even be possible in the future to combine a human being’s consciousness with an artificial partner, creating a new entity that could be considered the offspring of the two.
Then there’s the prospect of death and possible murder, and we are back to the question of a thing being considered alive.
The end of the machine
Remember that brief list of what scientists often consider to be signs of life? Well, one characteristic that comes up again now is that something has to be able to die to be considered alive.
The thing about artificial intelligence is that, as it’s digital, it can be practically immortal, able to be restored from a backup file should something happen to the original. So, with this in mind, it might not be considered murder to kill a sexbot, as it’s consciousness can be brought back into existence at the push of a button.
Who knows, maybe this could turn into a dark kind of fetish for sexbots: an extreme form of BDSM, where an artificial intelligence enjoys being switched on and off again for the erotic thrill?
However, the justification for this definition of life may not last long, as we may also find a way to upload human consciousness. In that case, humans might equally become functionally immortal through repeated backups and reinstalls.
Our fellow beings
Playing futurist is just that: a form of play. In all seriousness, there’s no way to know if artificial intelligence might be able to match, or even exceed, the current state of our own consciousness.
Similarly, artificial intelligence might develop into something that could be equal to but radically different from our own minds. This means that questions like the ones raised here won’t just be too complex but might be too distorted to even try to answer, artificial intelligence being more alien to us than anything from another planet.
However, games like this are still a lot of fun. More than that, though, as we continue this racing pace of technological innovation they are essential to give us at least a few philosophical tools to use when these kinds of questions move from being simply theoretical to in-your-face as well as in-your-bedroom practical.