Science fiction loves a dystopia. Our literary visions of the future give us a chance to explore the worries and fears we have about today’s society and the changes we are powerless to halt. We can’t guarantee what will happen and so, in the face of this loss of control, we create new worlds as warnings. From some of the earliest surviving stories in history through to the latest Hollywood blockbusters, we are shown examples of the terrible horrors that can occur when we play gods and build humans. But, actually, it just might be okay.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is big news at the moment. We see the results of AI research all around us - or rather, we don’t see them, because more often than not they blend seamlessly into our lives. The customer help on that e-commerce website you used earlier? More likely than not, it was a chatbot: automated AI. Those advertisements on social media that seem to read your thoughts? Machine learning algorithms, trawling vast sets of data to tailor sales to your online history or your status updates.
When we think about AI, we often think about the embodied version that stalks those stories: the robot. We already have robots, because a robot is merely a machine that can automate certain actions. They are all around us - cleaning our carpets, assembling cars in factories, performing keyhole surgery, providing care and comfort in nursing homes and dismantling bombs on the battlefield (or, worse, bearing bombs in the form of pilotless drones). So far, the robots that surround us are programmed by us. We tell them what to do and they obey. Sometimes they are instructed to train themselves on really large datasets to respond in new ways that aren't explicitly programmed, where they can invent new or better ways of doing things. However, we don't yet have robots that are sentient or conscious. We don’t have robots that can pass as human. Those are still in the realm of sci-fi.
Of all these, the sex robot is the attention-grabber. The tabloids love the topic (“Robot Phwoars” was a memorable headline), combining as it does the excitement of the risqué (“Talking Sex Robots With Warm Genitals Will Be on Sale Next Year!”) and the terror of technology (“Sex Robots Might Kill Off The Human Race, Expert Warns”). The recent Love and Sex with Robots conference held at Goldsmiths generated much of this coverage, but beyond the headlines were some far more promising insights.
"Why should a sex robot even look human?"
David Levy, who in 2007 published the book after which the conference was named, has a much more utopian view of sex robots. As he sees it: “Almost everyone wants someone to love, but many people have no one. If this natural human desire can be satisfied for everyone who is capable of loving, surely the world would be a much happier place.” His overall outlook is delightfully promising (barring some caveats), with the optimism that we can literally engineer happiness.
At the moment this is somewhat moot as we don’t actually have sex robots. What we do have are human-like dolls that overwhelmingly take a hyper-sexualised female form with all the expected orifices. One of the manufacturers, RealDoll, is investing in AI for their products. This is where the initial path to sex robots is leading us. I see sex robots as falling under the umbrella of sex tech. People already use sex tech - it's a growing industry worth around $30billion a year. It includes hardware (like sex toys such as vibrators or fleshlights), software, virtual reality, apps (hook-up apps; apps for intimacy) and these mechanised sex dolls. We're just beyond blow-up doll stage.
Things are headed this way and, I would argue, they look far from utopian – but this doesn’t have to be the case. These current dolls are gendered, stereotyped and clichéd and we shouldn't fall into the trap of thinking that's what a sex robot must be like. We shouldn’t be limited by convention when we have such new and innovative technology at our disposal. Why should a sex robot even look human? Concerns about objectification of women can be addressed if we move away from the expectation that these robots need look human, and if we make them something for everyone, not just for men. We have the chance to shape and explore technology, to make it more equal and diverse, and we shouldn’t shy away from this opportunity
Appearance aside, just how beneficial could these robots be? Sex tech has proven therapeutic uses, allowing people with spinal cord injuries, for example, to lead a fulfilling sex life. It’s widely known that sexual activity is associated with a raft of wellbeing measures, and sex tech - including sex robots - can be a part of that. It doesn’t have to be the dystopian vision of a solitary male figure addicted to his robot girlfriend. Perhaps Levy is right. Perhaps our robotic counterparts are the key to combating loneliness. Companion robots in many forms are already being used therapeutically to provide comfort and to soothe people.
But the next question is: what if we make a machine that can think for itself? What status would it have then? The European parliament is currently considering a form of “electronic personhood” to ensure the ethical design, production and use of robotics. (It’s not about granting human rights to robots. Not at this stage, anyway.) A global community of academics is working on the ethics of AI and this type of question (i.e. should we make a sentient machine that will serve us) is one that is often debated. It also hinges on whether or not the robot will be truly conscious - and some researchers think that will never happen. It could be programmed merely to give the appearance of consciousness, which is convincing to us humans, so that we feel cherished and loved but the machine is simply processing its orders without being more than just a powerful computer.
For me, I sit firmly on the fence between the stuff of mechanical nightmares and the machines of loving grace. I see so much potential for sex tech - and sex robots - to bring happiness to many, but in order to do so we need to shape the field now and work towards an ethical, responsible, fair and equal approach. If we can do that, who knows what the future may look like.