Scientists Fear Sex Robots Could Be Bad For Society

The Campaign Against Sex Robots warns that human-like sex machines could promote unhealthy relationships.
You know it's a real date when the robot brings flowers.
You know it's a real date when the robot brings flowers.

We’ve joked about robots being the future of sex, but for these two researchers, it's no laughing matter.

Kathleen Richardson and Erik Billing on Tuesday launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots, an effort to draw attention to what they see as the potential societal harm of human-like robots created for the purpose of having sex with humans. While these products are not yet widely available, they “seem to be a growing focus in the robotics industry,” Richardson, an ethics of robotics research fellow at England’s De Montfort University, told the BBC.

Billing, a lecturer at the University of Skovde in Sweden, told The Huffington Post in an email that he and Richardson "did not launch this campaign to protect the rights of the robots." Instead, he explained, they are concerned that using sex robots could foster unhealthy attitudes towards sex and gender relations.

"The danger of sex robots lies in what we read into them, how we form fantasies that, in some respects, become a reality -- a reality where the human (male) user is expected to turn on his woman robot companion for his own, lone, pleasure," Billing said. "I think most of us would agree that this is very far from a healthy, mutual, sexual relationship."

The campaign's website features a position paper by Richardson comparing the relationship between a person and a sex robot to that between a client and a human sex worker. Richardson argues that the proliferation of sex robots would strengthen the attitudes of objectification and exploitation that she says are prevalent in the commercial sex trade. 

Even though the campaigners argue that there are strong parallels between robot sex and commercial human sex, they reject previous arguments that robots might simply replace human sex workers. Rather, Billing and Richardson say such technology would just "reinforce" the sex trade, "creating more demand for human bodies."

But how similar is sex with robots to commercial sex with humans? Robots are literal objects, while sex workers are human beings with thoughts, feelings and agency. And while Richardson and Billing maintain that a person who pays for sex views the seller as a “thing” -- like a robot -- other research suggests the phenomenon is more complex.

“Men buy sex because they want more sex, different types of sex, different types of women (and men), because of opportunity, loneliness, lack of a relationship,” sociologist Teela Sanders wrote in 2007. “Yet the sex industry is not always a place of fleeting, emotionless sexual liaisons ... men who regularly visit the same sex workers speak of their relationships in terms of intimacy and companionship.”

And whatever the implications for the commercial sex trade, some argue that the Campaign Against Sex Robots could stifle valuable research. The campaign's site states that one of its goals is "to encourage computer scientists and roboticists to refuse to contribute to the development of sex robots as a field by refusing to provide code, hardware or ideas." 

Computer researcher Kate Devlin calls that goal "shortsighted."

“Instead of calling for an outright ban, why not use the topic as a base from which to explore new ideas of inclusivity, legality and social change?" Delvin asked Tuesday. "Fear of a branch of [artificial intelligence] that is in its infancy is a reason to shape it -- not to ban it. Yes, there is a place for ethics in robotics. And, like sex between humans, talking about it can make it better."

But Billing defended himself against that criticism, saying fostering a dialogue is exactly what he and Richardson intend to do.

"We are not against research on sex robots," he said. "However, we are strongly against the development of sex robots without a consideration of the ethical and social consequences of such machines."

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