The relationship between humans and their artificial counterparts runs right back to the myths of ancient Greece, where sculptor Pygmalion’s statue was brought to life with a kiss. It is the stuff of legend and of science fiction.
But just as we should avoid importing existing gender and sexual biases into future technology, so we should also be cautious not to import established prudishness.
If robots oughtn’t to have artificial sexuality, why should they have a narrow and unreflective morality? It’s one thing to have a conversation and conclude something about the development of technology; it’s another to demand silence before anyone has had the chance to speak.
Machines are what we make them
But robotics also allows us to explore issues without the restrictions of being human. A machine is a blank slate that offers us the chance to reframe our ideas. The internet has already opened up a world where people can explore their sexual identity and politics, and build communities of those who share their views. Aided by technology, society is rethinking sex/gender dualism. Why should a sex robot be binary?
And sex robots could go beyond sex. What about the scope for therapy? Not just personal therapy (after all, companion and care robots are already in use) but also in terms of therapy for those who break the law. Virtual reality has already been trialled in psychology and has been proposed as a way of treating sex offenders. Subject to ethical considerations, sex robots could be a valid way of progressing with this approach.
To campaign against development is 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? It is time for new approaches to artificial sexuality, which includes a move away from the machine-as-sex-machine hegemony and all its associated biases.
Machines are what we make them. At least, for now—if we’ve lost control of that then we have a whole other set of problems. Fear of a branch of AI that is in its infancy is a reason to shape it, not ban it. A campaign to stop killer robots is one thing, but a campaign against sex robots? Make love, not war.
Senior Lecturer, University of London