Sex Robots: No Reason to Panic

People are going to be having sex with robots within five years – Henrik Christensen (2006)

Robots have always provoked fascination and fear. Adding sex creates a synergistic effect. From the classic tale of Pygmalion and Galatea, to the current television series Westworld, the very idea of creating machines to act as our lovers continues to provoke us on many levels. But as the quote above demonstrates, there is desire and imagination, and there’s reality. So before we ask what the social and ethical ramifications of having sex robots might be, we still need to ask about both the technological feasibility and economic accessibility of such devices.

Just around the corner?

Reading various news articles, I’ve observed several entrepreneurs claiming to be able to get a working sex robot available within a certain number of years – and none of them have reached that goal. Perhaps the one company that has come closest is Abyss Creations, founded by Matt McMullen and manufacturer of the RealDoll silicone sex dolls. Yet McMullen acknowledges that there are many hurdles to overcome, from animation to vocal interactions. Even a simple breakdown of the technology involved – and the costs behind them – shows how daunting the challenge is behind this project:

  • Realistic appearance – McMullen’s dolls have come closest to resembling actual humans, both visually and tactilely. They are also quite expensive, starting at $5,500 and with more customized models going over seven thousand. While other companies provide similar models under two thousand, that’s still quite a dent in one’s bank account.
  • Animated limbs – Medical prosthetics have come a long way, now using microchips and advanced materials. The cost of a full limb can reach, or in some cases, exceed $10,000. Even so, there are still significant limits in terms of the mobility of smaller and more complex joints in the hands and feet, not to mention combining all of that with a realistic appearance.
  • Facial animation – Yes, some robots are able to move eyes and lips, even appear to make simple expressions. McMullen’s Abyss Creations has been working on such a project as a steppingstone towards a full sex robot, with its projected cost at $15,000 each. But even these prototypes are rather primitive compared to the desired goal, so expect both the timeline and the final price tag to be many times that of current expectations.
  • Passing the Turing test – McMullen has said that the biggest challenge to his project is having a robotic lover that is capable of realistic behavior and interaction. Add to that keeping the hardware and software responsible within the confines of a realistic animated human figure, and one appreciates the difficulty. McMullen is working on an app, where users would be able to “create” an artificial personality with which to interact. Still, he admits it’s much tougher than he expected.

All of this technical complexity means that folks like McMullen are still a long ways off from achieving their goal. Even when that goal is achieved, the first models are likely to be priced in the six or seven figure range.

Crossing the uncanny valley

Robotic roustabouts, gardeners, firefighters and the like need not resemble humans too closely to fulfill their tasks. Indeed, the most commercially successful robot looks like an oversized hockey puck. For a robotic lover, however, appearance and behavior are absolutely crucial. With an automated vacuum cleaner, you program it to clean a certain area of floor in a certain time period, and you’re done. But sex isn’t just about completing some task – it involves interaction with another, in a manner that will (hopefully) provoke positive emotional and physiological reactions. That requires a blending of complex abilities with aesthetic presentation and the ability to perceive and respond to one’s partner.

This brings up the concept of the uncanny valley – the idea that human simulacra appearing not quite like real people will elicit discomfort or even revulsion in many who see or interact with them. The concept has been accounted for by animators, video game designers, and even some media critics. When applied to dolls and robots created for sex, it pushes the production standards practically to a state of perfection, especially regarding the movement and behavioral responses of the latter. Imagine having a romantic partner who provided no emotional cues, from facial expression to vocal tone to body language, or who reacted in ways that seemed inappropriate or “out of sync” to you. Preventing that in a robotic partner is perhaps the greatest technological gap; add the other challenges involved, and one realizes why previous attempts at sex robots – such as Roxxxy, introduced in 2010 – have never taken off.

Unpacking the panic

So, if fully functional and economically accessible sex robots are that far off, why are people like Kathleen Richardson – founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots – so determined to preemptively ban them? Richardson is no Luddite (she supports the use of robots in providing therapy to children with autism), yet she’s convinced that the very idea of robot sexual partners will somehow promote greater gender inequality and exploitation. Her logic appears to be that, since robots are objects, sex robots would promote sexual objectification of women and children (apparently, she doesn’t realize that women could have sex with male robots).

But she believes without hesitation that sex robots are bad despite the fact that there are no sex robots around with which to test her thesis. Apparently, because another person wrote that he saw a parallel between sex robots and sex work, and because she opposes prostitution as inherently exploitative, that means that using sex robots would promote exploitation. By this logic, because some people think consuming cow’s milk is unhealthy, then substitutes like almond milk and soy cheese ought to be banned.

Keep in mind, I’ve yet to take a position here on whether sex robots are good or bad. I tend to think that, unless you’re able to prove that a given technology will unavoidably cause harm while providing no demonstrable benefit, I’m not ready to defend its prohibition. Explosives, for example, have been used to cause enormous harm, but careful and knowledgeable application of them also yields great benefits. So, it may be possible for people to utilize sex robots for therapeutic ends, such as becoming more comfortable with nudity, or learning basic interaction skills. Robots could also be programmed with safeguards and instructive dialogue, thus providing negative reinforcement against potentially harmful actions.

So if positive applications may be found for robots designed as surrogate sex partners, then why prohibit this based solely on ideological conjecture? Indeed, if Richardson is so concerned about men having sex with robots, why isn’t she crusading against the high-end lifelike sex dolls that are already out there, and have been on the market for more than two decades? Why not do an impartial study to see if the use of sex dolls has actually changed the attitudes of their owners towards women, and in what way? Did any of them manage to find flesh-and-blood sex partners, and did they find having the doll beneficial towards that end? Granted, there is still speculation involved in going from a study of people who have sex dolls to the possible consequences of having sex robots, but at least such a study would provide a more empirical grounding.

Technology is rarely “good” or “bad” in itself. It is how people choose to use them with which we need to be concerned. Given how far off in the future the likelihood of this technology appears to be, I’d say we have plenty of time to think about how it might be put to good use. Of course, some would argue that sex robots will never replace real people as erotic partners, whether romantic or professional. In that case, there is not only no harm in speculating on positive applications of sex robots, but that such thought experiments could encourage improvements in the interactions between sex workers, their clients, and the rest of society.