Robot lawn mover
Sex robots are here. It’s not just a gimmick of science fiction. Granted, the artificially intelligent sex robots of such films as “Ex Machina” and “AI” are not here yet, but it’s only a matter of time.
Most sex robots now are little more than slightly animated sex dolls. Perhaps the most advanced sex robot that we know of is “Samantha.” A creation of Synthea Amatus, Samantha is designed to be capable of enjoying sex.
But Samantha is not all about sex. She can also talk about science and philosophy. She can even tell jokes (although hopefully not while you are having sex with her). Consent is even an issue with Samantha. If you are too rough with her or she doesn’t like your behaviors, she is programmed to go into “dummy mode” and completely shut down. Currently, robotic partners can go for prices in excess of $10,000.
The question here is not whether or not sex robots are coming (they are) or how they are going to be continually evolving. The question here concerns the psychological and social ramifications that may accompany this brave new sexual world. As with any technology, there is a laundry list of pros and cons to consider.
I recently asked several married couples how they would feel if they walked in on their spouse having sex with a robot. In each case, the reactions were the same. On the one hand, they felt it was little more than masturbation—the sex robot being nothing more than a very advanced sex toy. On the other hand, they worried about their partner reifying the sex robot and forming an emotional attachment to it. Not one of the couples could give me a firm answer as to whether they would consider the act to be infidelity. All voiced several pros and cons with sex robots.
Source: Illustration by Amy J. Goetz, used with permission
Factors contributing to an individual’s sense of well-being, in the use of a sex robot, include sexual and, perhaps, emotional companionship for those who are unable to find human partners. With an advanced enough AI form, a human could form a potentially satisfying relationship with a robotic partner.
Those supporting the use of sex robots argue that sexually transmitted diseases are not transmitted through a sex robot; it may release sexual frustrations in those who would otherwise vent in public via sexual harassment or assault; or it’s a good tool to learn from and garner sexual experience before having human relations.
It may be as simple as a fun addition to the sexual canon for both individuals and couples. Couples who have considered having a threesome even suggest that it may be a healthy alternative to add a sex robot as a third and bypass the complications of including a third human. Finally, in many cases, it’s seen to be a natural progression of social interaction for those who are champions of technology.
For as many pros that can be listed, those who are against the integration of sex robots into society are quick to point out the potential problems this new technology will cause. First, when it comes to couples, there is the moral question of whether or not having sex with an AI form is an act of infidelity.
For many of the arguments against sex robots, morality comes into play. Some see having sexual relations with a female robot as an act of furthering the idea of women as objects in the perceptions of some men. Furthermore, they feel as if a person who is predisposed toward sexual aggression or harassment will be fueled by using a sex robot for their negative future actions. This may even go so far as to embolden those who crave non-consensual sex. This is the very reason that many are concerned about companies producing sex robots in the form of children.
Overall, there is a fear that robotic partners will result in a reduction of human empathy. There is a concern that misplaced emotional connections will have negative psychological consequences for the vulnerable. Lastly, some worry about the interactional dynamics amounting from the use of sex robots providing unrealistic expectations when an individual moves from sex with a robot to human sex.
What the Science Says
As of now, studies on public attitudes toward sex robots are far from reaching a point of saturation. Scientists may be shying away from the topic for reasons that range from viewing it as a novelty discussion to being too embarrassed to pursue it as a research study. However, the topic of sex robots does have moral, psychological, and social relevance that merits serious study. As it stands, there are wide, admitted gaps in current studies.
In one recent study by Koverola, Drosinou, Palomäki, Halonen, Kunnari, Repo, Lehtonen, and Laakasou (2020), participants generally considered sex with a robot to be sex, with the robot being perceived as a robot. In a bordello environment, participants viewed paying for sex with a robot as being more acceptable than paying human sex workers.
Another study by Scheutz and Arnold (2016) produced data that pointed to women being less inclined to use sex robots than men and millennials finding having sex with robots being less appropriate than older generations. In the case of the Scheutz and Arnold study, the researchers concluded that “attitudes toward using sex robots have less to do with what a sex robot is, or how sex with a robot is categorized, than they do with different takes on the conditions and purposes of both personal relationships and society’s interests” (2016:352, italics in original).
Certainly, the introduction of sex robots changes the landscape of human interaction and intimacy—but how and to what extent are the unanswered questions. It is the responsibility of researchers to get ahead of this. What are the socio-psychological implications? Can a robotic partner ever truly be a substitute for the human experience? Will sex robots be viewed as little more than the latest advancement in sex toys? Does this industry need oversight? And, if so, who would impartially provide such oversight?
In a world where sex sells, there will always be someone willing to provide anything for a dollar. We have to ask these questions and pose hypotheticals in preparation for a time when science fiction shifts to the reality of our socio-sexual world.
Koverola, Mika, Marianna Drosinou, Jussi Palomäki, Juho Halonen, Anton Kunnari, Marko Repo, Noora Lehtonen, and Michael Laakasuo. 2020. “Moral Psychology of Sex Robots: An Experimental Study – How Pathogen Disgust is Associated with Interhuman Sex but not Interandroid Sex” in Journal of Behavioral Robotics, 11(1): 233-249.
Scheutz, Matthias and Thomas Arnold. 2016. “Are We Ready for Sex Robots?” in 11th ACM/ IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction (HRI):351-358.