The question we usually ask about robots is this: ‘could a human ever love a sex robot?’
I don’t think that’s the right question. In fact, I think it’s the opposite of the right question.
What I’d ask instead is this: if a robot were programmed to care for you, speak to you, hold you, and do all the other things a lover would do… how could you not fall in love with them?
Robot love and empathy
A couple of weeks ago I was on a podcast alongside Dr Kathleen Richardson who runs the Campaign Against Sex Robots. Essentially she says that the development of machines we can have sex with is encouraging us to ‘switch off’ our empathy. Then, swiftly, she moves on from sex robots to sex work – a ludicrous comparison which is chillingly lacking in empathy itself.
When we spoke, she explained that robotic technology is very basic at the moment – which is true. Although some companies are doing really exciting things with sex tech, we’re a hell of a long way from artificial intelligence which can even reliably mimic human behaviour, let alone give us cause to examine whether robots can be conscious. However, she then drew a direct comparison between the kind of sex you’d have with one of these ‘toasters’ and sex you’d have with someone you’re paying.
There’s a separate discussion to be had about how shockingly cold that comparison is. It pushes the idea that sex workers are no more than receptacles, and is compounded by Dr Richardson repeatedly insisting that sex work is the only industry ‘where you’re allowed to enter another human body for your own pleasure,’ as if the dick is the only thing we take into account in any sexual interaction and indeed that all sexual interactions necessarily involve a dick somewhere. It objectifies sex workers and porn performers in a more extreme, direct, and callous way than I have ever seen elsewhere.
But I don’t want to go too deeply into her comparisons – you can read what she thinks in this Wired article if you like, and if you are a journalist or ethicist then I would love to see her being challenged more directly, as the Guardian podcast did. I would also like her to stop presenting her work as if it is ‘tech news’ – it isn’t tech news, it’s opinion about sex work. Although all credit to her, by labelling it a Campaign Against Sex Robots she’s certainly managed to achieve a much larger platform than she’d have got if she was up-front about what she’s actually campaigning against.
Anyway. That aside, what I want to talk about here is empathy. Because the thing that surprises me most in any discussion of robotics and sex is when people discuss empathy without noting that robotics and AI provides some of the most fascinating examples of human empathy in action.
Robots and empathy
Meet PARO: he’s a cuddly, cute pet seal. Or rather, he’s a robot designed to look like a cute seal, and respond in certain ways to human touch and interaction. ‘He’ is essentially no more than a toaster himself and yet when they meet PARO, people stroke him, play with him, chat to him, and interact in the same ways they would if ‘he’ were a living creature.
People are currently using PARO for all kinds of different things, including supporting patients with dementia and alzheimers, relieving loneliness and stress, etc. There are research papers available if you’re into that kind of thing, but regardless of the medical benefits of having a ‘toaster’ you can stroke, it’s abundantly clear that no one interacting with this robot has switched off their empathy.
The Mars Rover
Responses to this tweet:
On the anniversary of landing on Mars, the Curiosity rover hummed the tune ‘Happy Birthday’ to itself to celebrate.
— The QI Elves (@qikipedia) February 16, 2016
…made me laugh. They include things like ‘poor lil fella’, ‘saddest birthday ever’ and numerous links to this utterly heartbreaking XKCD comic. Go and read that comic and tell me it didn’t pull even one of your heartstrings.
If you have a Roomba – the little robotic one that bumbles round your house cleaning up after you – there’s an 80% chance that you have given it a name. Check out this interview with the CEO of iRobot:
In the beginning of Roomba, we all took turns answering the support line. Once, a woman called and explained that her robot had a defective motor. I said, “Send it back. We’ll send you a new one.” She said, “No, I’m not sending you Rosie.”
‘Inhumane’ tests on robots
Linked from that same piece is a fascinating exploration of bomb disposal robots:
At the Yuma Test Grounds in Arizona, the autonomous robot, 5 feet long and modeled on a stick-insect, strutted out for a live-fire test and worked beautifully, he says. Every time it found a mine, blew it up and lost a limb, it picked itself up and readjusted to move forward on its remaining legs, continuing to clear a path through the minefield.
Finally it was down to one leg. Still, it pulled itself forward. Tilden was ecstatic. The machine was working splendidly.
The human in command of the exercise, however — an Army colonel — blew a fuse.
The colonel ordered the test stopped.
Why? asked Tilden. What’s wrong?
The colonel just could not stand the pathos of watching the burned, scarred and crippled machine drag itself forward on its last leg.
This test, he charged, was inhumane.
Sex and empathy
I don’t need, surely, to point out that many humans love their sex dolls. Not just in the same way I love my Doxy Massager, but in ways that confer intelligence and consciousness – ways that empathise. Not everyone does, of course, and that’s unsurprising: for the same reason you’re unlikely to name your vacuum cleaner if it isn’t a Roomba, even responsive sex dolls aren’t particularly good at faking personality just yet. I’m confident that as technology gets better, and sex toys (or sex robots) get closer to mimicking human behaviour, we’ll see more people falling in love with their robots. Or their software, like in the film Her.
One of the things I find fascinating about the Dr Richardson’s opinion on sex robots is that it’s founded on the totally false claim that robots will encourage us to have sex without empathy, while completely ignoring the part that empathy plays in the robotic interactions we have at the moment.
Robots are already serving coffee, hoovering floors, minesweeping, organising our schedules, talking to us, and so on, and not only do we often treat them as we would our human colleagues, we seem utterly incapable of not doing so. In fact, the only real way to avoid falling into this empathy trap is to understand the inner workings of the robots: we’re less likely to attribute personality to something we know to be a ‘toaster’ and more likely to give it personality if all we see are the external effects. This gets to the heart of why I find Dr Richardson’s sex work comparison so terrifying: she objectifies porn performers and sex workers so utterly that she fails to allow them any subjectivity whatsoever. That is how we erase empathy: when we cease to see people and only see ‘things.’
Could you love a sex robot?
One thing is clear from what we already know of robots: the more closely they mimic human beings, the better we empathise with them. We simply can’t help it. In fact, some robots are so good at mimicking humans they even run into the same problems as humans: Cortana (Microsoft’s version of the automated assistant Siri) encounters frequent sexual harassment. This does not occur because humans don’t see her as a person, but because they do. That they are sexist twats is annoying, of course, but the actual interaction only happens because – no matter how basic a robot – if it does things which are ‘a bit human’ then far from switching off our empathy, we cannot hold it back.
Can a human love a robot? Yes, of course – we already do. We get emotionally attached to our Roombas, we mourn bomb-disposal robots, we watch films like Ex Machina or Her and weep when robots get sad, or rage at them when they betray those we thought they loved.
Robots will not encourage us to switch off our empathy. It’s a ridiculous notion, and like most wrong answers it’s so much less interesting than the truth: robots, far from making us colder, are teaching us new things about human warmth.
Could you love a robot? Of course. And I suspect in your lifetime you will – whether a sex robot, a household helper, or a therapeutic friend. Because you are human, and you cannot help but love.