If you’re not yet up to date on Channel 4’s uncanny-valley AI drama Humans, then please note that this blog post contains spoilers up to episode 5.
Never one to shy away from the big questions, this week I had a fairly heated debate with a gentleman about the issue of whether robot sex is cheating. I know, it doesn’t really seem relevant, right? After all, this is far-into-the-future shit that we won’t have to deal with for hundreds of years yet. How close are we really to creating a fuckable robot?
Well, depending on your definition of ‘fuckable robot’, one already exists. Sure, we’re still in the early days, but there are many cool techy pleasure toys on the market (I’m thinking fucking machines or masturbators with some kind of mechanical/buzzy element, toys designed with wifi/bluetooth apps, that kind of thing) but realistically we’re getting pretty inventive. There are toys which you can pair together over long distances (like this Kiiroo masturbator, which twins with an insertable vibrator, and aims to wank you off in time to the vibrator use). We also have fairly realistic-looking sex dolls, which – if twinned with this kind of technology – would create a passably robotic lover.
It is well exciting.
I’ve talked before about robot sex, when a bloody strange opinion poll reported that only 17% of people said they’d have sex with a robot. My answer to this question is ‘hell yes,’ especially if the robot is pretty good at sex. But what prompted the debate the other day wasn’t whether or not either of us would do it, but whether doing it would count – to either of us – as ‘cheating.’
Is it hot if you fuck a robot?
Here’s where the spoilers come in. In Channel 4’s Humans (which I enjoy because I fucking love anything that deals with the consciousness questions surrounding AI), a family acquires a synth (basically a house robot) and in one of the early episodes the possibility of sex is planted in the mind of the husband. He discovers a sealed packet with ‘+18 options’ written on the outside, and cheekily hides it in his pocket. Naturally, ever since this happened, I have been waiting for the inevitable moment when he activates those options and has a grisly, perfunctory hump of the family’s synthetic companion.
I was not disappointed.
I’ll admit, so you understand my bias here, that I am deeply aroused by watching a man have soulless, functional, guilt-inducing sex. That’s probably one for another day, to be honest, because I could spend a long time waxing lyrical about the delights of watching his face twist in self-disgust as he comes. It works with things other than robots, too. Basically, if a guy has a wank he’s a bit ashamed about, I will probably be having a shameful wank of my own while I watch it.
Anyway, that wasn’t the question. The question was:
Is it cheating if you fuck a robot?
My general definition of cheating is that it’s cheating if you do something that falls outside the boundaries you’ve agreed with your partner. For some couples this might mean a quick snog is cheating. For others you’re not ‘cheating’ unless you have full sex and you lie about it afterwards: we all have different ways of making things work. However, that comes with the massive caveat that your partner’s requests must be reasonable. I wouldn’t tell a guy that he’s cheating on me if he has a wank, nor vice versa. And if he’s just having a wank, then who am I to dictate how he does it?
Here’s the problem, though: while I could not possibly conceive of this type of robot sex being ‘just a wank’, the guy I spoke to did. Utterly and unequivocally. If a robot is not conscious, then it is not a person: therefore you’re just having a wank. Even if they look 100% human. Even if they have tits and eyes and speech and all that jazz. Even if – and I think here’s the crux of the issue – they give a passable impression of consciousness.
Here’s where I fall down. Because while I can accept that it’s perfectly possible for an unconscious object (like a robot or what have you) to fool you into believing that it is conscious, I can’t deal with the disconnect required for the guy in this situation. In the face of such a believable pantomime of consciousness, to maintain the belief that he’s just wanking seems very odd indeed.
If you have seen Humans, forget for a second that the robot (Anita/Mia) has consciousness hidden somewhere: we’re just talking here about a creature that, despite taking a passable swipe at the Turing test, is nevertheless definitely ‘a thing’ rather than ‘a person’. For him that was enough to demote sex to masturbation: his knowledge of the ‘thingness’, no matter how much personhood someone might appear to have. For me: just the impression of personhood was enough to make me feel like the whole affair should be approached differently. Perhaps given our radically different views, it would be cheating if I fucked the robot, but not if he did.
That sounds wrong, though. We’re both doing the same thing (in my hypothetical future-robot-sex scenario), so how can the only difference be what’s happening in our heads?
I think my issue here is that in order to actually do that – fuck a robot that appeared human in all other respects, yet still categorise it as a wank – you’d have to turn off whatever bit of your brain gives you a tendency to empathise. It’s not like we magically understand exactly what is and isn’t conscious, and to what degree. We don’t know for a fact, on first glance, that this pig is more sentient than that oyster: we just have instincts that point us in the right direction. And when our instincts kick in, we’re likely to treat things differently if we think they can understand the way we’re behaving. Of course these instincts misfire sometimes (like when we attribute complex personalities to hamsters, or cry if someone punches a muppet in the face), but in general they’re sound: if something looks like it thinks and feels, we’re best acting as if it can actually think and feel.
At the end of the day, I have no idea if you can think and feel, but I act as if you do because it feels like the safest option.
So, in the robot sex scenario, I can rationally comprehend that a robot may be no more sentient than a masturbation sleeve, and all the logical pieces fit together that tell me it’s not technically ‘cheating’ if my partner were to fuck one, and yet (I think) I can still have a rational reason to feel a bit squicky about it. Not because the act itself is bad, but because the robot does such a good impression of consciousness that treating it as if it had none makes me uncomfortable about the person who is ‘wanking’ with it. In the same way I’d be uncomfortable if they immediately dropped the knee-jerk politeness tics that help us all get along (please, thank you, sorry – that kind of thing).
If a robot acts, speaks, and behaves as if it’s a genuinely conscious person, then it can never be simply ‘a wank.’ In fact, faced with a robot that seems like a person, acting as if it isn’t is, ironically, quite robotic. Perhaps, if tech ever gets us close to a vision of human interaction with sex robots we’ll need to come up with a new word: something that describes a relationship that isn’t human/human, based on equal and mutual consciousness, but that isn’t human/machine either. Something more sophisticated than the kind of interaction you’d have with your toaster, or your vibrating masturbation sheath. I’m not yet sold on the cheating question, and it’d depend a lot on your individual relationships, but I’m sticking with my initial gutpunch discomfort on the broader topic: while robot sex might not be a ‘fuck’ in the way that we’d generally understand it, it’s definitely more than a wank.