From Westworld to Black Mirror to Humans, television has become preoccupied with the near-future dilemmas of human-android coitus. To be fair, this has been a topic of exploration in science fiction for a long time—Blade Runner, AI, Ex Machina—but TV writers seem to have turned to the topic en masse. And with good reason: Rapid advances in artificial intelligence and robotics mean this may not be such a ludicrously fictional question for much longer.
So we asked two experts: Assuming androids with people parts, would it be ethical to have sex with a robot?
Yes! It can provide relationships to lonely people.
David Levy, AI expert; chess champion; author of Love and Sex With Robots
There were times when certain sexual practices between humans were illegal. But I think the general view now is “anything goes” between consenting adults, so I see nothing wrong from an ethical point of view of having sexual relationships with robots.
People often bring up the issue of consent. If they’re programmed to consent, I think that qualifies as consent. Not everyone agrees with me. There is an argument that if we’re programming a robot to do something then it’s not genuine consent. But I think we should accept their actions at face-value.
I do think psychiatry professionals need to consider the side effects of such relationships. One problem that I foresee is anxiety due to performance. I think if someone is about to embark on a sexual relationship with another human, and they discover that this other human has already had fantastic sex with a robot, then the person who’s about to embark on this relationship might be anxious that they’re not going to be able to perform as well or provide the same satisfaction as the robot did.
Still, I think the really massive benefit is that there are millions of people in this world, who for one reason or another cannot make good relationships themselves with other human beings. And so they’re lonely and miserable. I think when they’ve got the option of having relationships with very sophisticated robots, that will for many of them fill a big void in their lives and make them much happier.
When we talk about hiring sex robots, people ask is that another form of prostitution? I don’t think so. It’s not really prostitution because it’s not with a human. One has to consider sex with a robot from a moral point of view as similar to a female vibrator, for example. Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with using electronic devices to create sexual satisfaction, so why should there be moral problems with hiring or buying a sex robot?
No! It perpetuates a culture that objectifies women.
Kathleen Richardson, fellow in ethics of robotics at De Montfort University in the U.K.; founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots
Sex is already thought of as instrumental, and women in particular are already treated like objects. There’s a long history of women and their bodies being literally traded and sold as property. Now, when you look at the trinity of prostitution, pornography, and child abuse, you see a culture where men relate to women not as people but as their breasts, their mouths. I read an interview with a woman who exited prostitution who said the pimp literally called her “merchandise.” So there’s a disturbing trend of dehumanizing women, especially through sex trafficking.
All this is set against the backdrop of a culture where we’re being encouraged to have relationships with our objects. Marketing executives have been trying to persuade humans that objects are more than just objects. They can make us feel cool, make us feel good. So when you bring sex dolls or sex robots into the picture, their use is just contributing to and elaborating on the idea that you can relate to an object like you can relate to another person, and, in turn, that you can treat a person like an object. If you ask a Silicon Valley executive why they’re investing in AI, they’ll say AI has huge commercial implications. It’s not a utopia that’s being created here.
I think you can look at the imagery that populates movies, video games, virtual reality, porn—a construction of a woman that doesn’t really exist, that’s been physically enhanced—and the development of sex dolls is a similar echo chamber of male desire. You cannot separate sex robots from the sexist nature of porn. They reinforce this idea that women are just sexual property.
Automizing people’s experiences of sex with robots contributes to that disconnect between sex and humanity, and exacerbates the trend of objectification and abuse.