When it comes to automated sex, we humans are a bit… nervous. The media has labeled the idea of sex robots “upsetting,” and the people who might be interested in using their services are considered “bewildering.” There’s even a “Campaign Against Sex Robots!”
For many people, there’s an unquestioning ick factor attached to the idea of sex with robots. Why? The popular thinking goes something like this: It’s pathetic and creepy to sleep with inanimate objects. It’s another step on the dangerous path toward eliminating human contact, as flesh-and-blood lovers won’t be able to compete with humanoid ones. And it might even kill us.
It makes sense that we’d be freaked out by amorous androids. And looking back at how we’ve reacted to previous technological advancements over the years, our fears are downright predictable. But that doesn’t make them sound. In fact, our squeamishness about sex robots is rooted in a predictable kind of technophobia, one that greets every technological advance. Erotic writing, pinups, printed porn, online porn, point-of-view porn, VR porn, cybersex, sex in gaming — all were subject to moral hysteria. And all were eventually seen by researchers as potentially positive additions to sex lives. The same will eventually happen with sex robots.
One prevalent worry involves crossing a taboo boundary, the one that separates human-human sex from the human-object kind. Yet as things stand now, we’re already having sex with machines. A battery- or electricity-powered device that generates sexual pleasure? Check and check. Vibrators have existed for centuries now, and have only gotten more sophisticated with time. An artificial sex partner is a logical extension of what is now very familiar technology. Even before the integration of mechanical tech, as we know from archeology and literature, using objects as part of sexual experiences extends about as far back as civilization itself.
There are other examples. Artificial vaginas can be very realistic, if they’re molded on real people and approximate the sensation of skin as closely as possible. It’s not unheard of for people, even beyond drunk attendees of bachelor parties, to try to develop carnal knowledge of a blow-up doll. Clearly, the concept of beyond-human sex is already here. It’s just a matter of refining the technology.
In any case, the line between sex toy and sex robot isn’t so clear-cut. Is it just the addition of a face (and, in the most advanced case, artificial intelligence) that takes things from hot and/or useful to weird and/or disturbing? It wouldn’t be the biggest news flash in the world to reveal that many people already attach faces (in their fantasies) or personalities to masturbation devices.
Another concern of sexbot haters is that improved tech is going to desensitize people to so-called “real” sex, and that humans, with all their imperfections, aren’t going to be able to compete with flawless humanoids. Well, it’s a bit too late to put that cat back in the bag, given the widespread usage of sex aids already. If fears over human inadequacy were allowed to bar all people from making choices about integrating science into their lives, well, breast implants, bionic body parts, and pacemakers would be off the menu.
Of course humans are imperfect. But just as dildos haven’t done away with the need for penises, humanoid lovers aren’t going to eradicate Tinder signups. We’re messy creatures. We’re still going to want messy interactions. Just not all the time.
Part of the persistent fear of sexual engagement with human-like beings comes down to pop culture’s repeated feeding at the well of sci-fi paranoia. Movies like Ex Machina, TV shows like Westworld, and books like Alex + Ada suggest that humans, faced with realistic AI, will be driven by their own predictability to rampant sex and violence. This may well be true. It’s certainly entertaining. But the idea of scientists having free rein to insert sentience into robots is improbable both technologically and from a governance perspective. In terms of technological viability, forecasts about this sort of thing are often overly optimistic. A 2006 article in The Economist predicted that people would be having sex with robots by 2011, for instance.
Much more likely in the realm of advanced tech are devices that look human but don’t think human. So it might be more accurate to see sexual encounters with such sex robots as masturbation, which doesn’t displace the human search for intimacy.
Besides, sex robots have the potential to improve human relationships. A humanoid could be good training for sex newbies. Experimenting with technology that simulates parts of the human body can be helpful for those discovering their sexual and gendered identities, including trans individuals. Advanced sex robotics could help couples with mismatched libidos to be less frustrated. They could also provide valuable outlets for people with disabilities.
Like pornography — which can be harmful for couples or helpful for couples, depending on the circumstances — the technology itself isn’t inherently bad.
Thus, David Levy writes in Love + Sex with Robots that sex robots should be seen as supplementing rather than replacing conventional monogamous relationships. That is, “robot sex will become the only sexual outlet for a few sectors of the population — the misfits, the very shy, the sexually inadequate and uneducable — and…for some other sectors of the population robot sex will vary between something to be indulged in occasionally — when one’s partner is away from home on a long trip, for example — to an activity that supplements one’s regular sex life, perhaps when one’s partner is not feeling well or not feeling like sex for some other reason.”
So the hysteria over the future of sex tech should be treated like most hysterias. That is, skeptically.