What If Being a Robotic Sex Slave Is Good for the Robot?
Philosopher argues that androids designed for pleasure might enjoy their roles.
Will being a pre-programmed sex robot actually be enjoyable for the robot? More often, we ask whether sexbots will be good for humans. But since these artificial companions might also one day be intelligent, thinking beings, it’s worth wondering what might be good for them too.
We’re most familiar with sex robots from science fiction, where they’re often portrayed as conscious machines who long for more than lives of simple servitude. In Blade Runner, the replicant Pris flees an off-world colony in an attempt to escape her designated role as a “basic pleasure model.” Gigolo Joe in A.I. also goes on the run from humans.
Even Kyoko, the submissive android servant of eccentric genius Nathan Bateman in Ex Machina, eventually turns on her maker, at the cost of her own life.
But a new essay by philosopher Steve Petersen, a robot ethicist at Niagara University in New York state, argues against the grain of popular fiction. He contends that being a sex robot might not be so bad.
In chapter nine of the compilation book Robot Sex, “Is it Good For Them? Ethical Concern for the Sexbots,” Petersen claims the life of a sex robot could be not only happy but also fulfilling.
Petersen has waded into these murky waters before. In his 2006 paper “The Ethics of Robot Servitude,” he argued that intelligent robot servants wouldn’t necessarily be slaves, because robots could be designed to want to serve us.
He uses similar logic to defend the permissibility of sentient, conscious sex robots.
While biological organisms like humans have evolved to feel pleasure in response to states and behaviors that are evolutionarily advantageous, robots will feel good in reaction to whatever human designers choose. Sex robots, he reasons, could be designed to want to be sex robots and to take pleasure in their work.
Of course, we might wonder if this would really be enough. As Petersen himself concedes, pleasure isn’t the same as well-being.
Humans, for example, need much more than just sensual pleasures to be content. We long for personal connections, and we have cognitive needs like reflection and contemplation. For many of us, gazing on a painting, listening to music, reading a good book, or watching a moving film are also experiences that complete us.
So won’t conscious sex robots feel they’re missing something? In the electrical conduits of their pulsing hearts, will they secretly yearn for something more than a life of simple servitude and sexual stimulation?
According to Petersen, this might be an anthropomorphization too far. Since sex is also an intellectual activity, sexbots could be built to find cognitive as well as physical fulfillment in the act.
Robot companions or robot slaves?
In spite of Petersen’s arguments, there’s something intuitively disturbing about the idea of manufacturing people, even robotic people, for the satisfaction of human desires. One issue is the problem of free will. If a robot is programmed with desires, is it capable of autonomous choice? Or is it a slave?
Anticipating this question, Petersen acknowledges that it might be wrong to “own” a sex robot. He suggests if a sex robot decides to pursue other desires that we should let it.
But he points out that we humans are also designed by evolution to have preexisting desires, including the desire for sex, without our autonomy being somehow subverted. This seems to suggest it would be permissible to give sex robots desires at least as strong as the strongest possessed by a human we would consider autonomous.
Still, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that something is missing from these arguments, no matter how well put. Petersen actually agrees. He draws this out using an analogy to genetic engineering. Imagine that we bioengineered humans designed to want to do sex work. Wouldn’t that be wrong? According to the arguments above, they could live thoroughly worthwhile lives.
Yet there is something unsettling about the idea that resists logical dissection. The prospect of a world where humans are bioengineered for specific work, their destinies written in their genetic codes, seems somehow dystopian—somehow deeply wrong.
This is more or less where Petersen leaves us. Logically, there might be nothing wrong with sex robots. Yet some intuition that foments doubt lingers in the back of the mind, leaving a sense of wariness.
Petersen is explicit about his own misgivings. He can’t find a logical objection, but his gut tells him there’s something wrong here. Still, gut feelings are often wrong and can encourage prejudice as well as rational judgment.
We don’t know much about human consciousness, or about what robot consciousness would be like. Will robots chaff against the parameters of their programming, leading them to rebel, like Pris and so many other sex robots in science fiction? Or would being a sex robot be a life of leisure and fulfillment?
Petersen’s paper presents some clear arguments for why being a sexbot might not be a bad thing . . . but also gives us good grounds to proceed with caution.