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Symbols and Consequences in the Sex Robot Debate (TEDxWHU)

[Note: This is (roughly) the text of a talk I delivered at TEDxWHU on the 4th February 2017. A video of the talk should be available within a few weeks.]

There is a cave about 350km from here, in the Swabian Jura. It is called the Hohle Fels (this picture is the entrance to it). Archaeologists have been excavating it since the late 1800s and have discovered a number of important artifacts from the Upper Paleolithic era. In June 2005, they announced an interesting discovery.

They had unearthed an unusually shaped object. It was 20 cm long and 3 cm wide, and made from highly polished stone. It was estimated to be 28,000 years old. Its intended shape and function were, according to Professor Nicholas Conard of the dig team, ‘clearly recognisable’. I'm going to put a picture of it on screen now and ask if you agree: Is its shape and function clearly recognisable? I won't state the obvious, but artifacts of this sort have been discovered at archaeological dig sites around the world, many dating back thousands of years. Most were probably used in religious rituals or ceremony, but some members of the archaeological team at Hohle Fels speculated that, due to its reasonably lifelike size and shape, this one may have been used for sexual stimulation.


Why am I telling you about this? I am telling you because it illustrates the long history that human beings have had with the creation and use of artifacts for sexual stimulation and gratification. This is a history that stretches from the Hohle Fels artifact all the way through to the first mechanical and electronic vibrators in the mid-to-late 1800s, to the dazzling diversity of sex toys available on the market today. In January 2010 we got a glimpse of where the future of this industry may lie. At the Adult Video Network expo in Las Vegas, Nevada, Douglas Hines — founder of the company TrueCompanion — unveiled Roxxxy the world’s ‘first sex robot’. Though sex robots have been a long-standing trope in science fiction, it now seems like they might become a reality. And indeed since 2010 several other companies have entered the market and started to develop prototype models.

I am a legal academic/ethicist and I have an interest in the social, legal and ethical implications of this technology. I want to focus on some of those implications in this talk. Now, the official title of my talk is ’Symbols and their Consequences in the Sex Robot Debate’, and this probably prompts several questions one of which is: is there really a debate going on about this? When I mention that I have an interest in this topic to my colleagues they usually respond with a mix of derision and bemusement. But I’m here to tell you that there is indeed an academic debate about this technology, admittedly small and niche at the moment, but growing in size everyday. And within that debate some people take the topic very seriously indeed. The clearest example of this is Kathleen Richardson, an anthropologist from De Montfort University in the UK who, in September 2015, started the Campaign Against Sex Robots, modelling it on the longer-standing Campaign Against Killer Robots (which tries to preemptively ban autonomous weapons). The campaign argues for an organised effort against the development of sex robots. What I want to ask in this talk is whether this attitude of resistance is warranted? I do so by considering what I take to be one of the most common arguments against the development of this technology — an argument that focuses on symbolic meaning and social consequences. I’ll try to convince you that while this argument is worth taking seriously, it is ultimately unlikely to justify a campaign against the development of sex robots.

So what’s the argument? It’s best explained by way of an example. I don’t know if anyone here has seen the Channel 4 television series Humans, but for those who haven’t it is a provocative and sometimes insightful drama about social robots. It depicts a near-future society in which realistic humanoid robots have become commonplace, acting as workers, home helpers, carers and sexual playthings for their human creators. The majority of the robots are less-than-human in their intelligence and ability, and apparently lack consciousness and awareness (although the main plotline concerns a group of these robots that has achieved human-level consciousness and intelligence).

In one episode, a group of (human) teenagers are having a house party. At the house party there is a robot serving drinks and catering to the attendees’ needs. The robot looks like a human female. Some of the young men hurl abuse at her. One of them switches her off and then tells his friends that he is going to drag her upstairs to have sex with her. He is goaded on by his friends. At this point one of the main (human) female characters intervenes, telling her male peers to stop. When asked why, she responds by asking them whether it would be okay for them to knock out a real human female and have sex with her in similar conditions? They renege on their plan.

The writers of the show do not pause at this point and have the female protagonist expand on her objection. Like all good fiction writers they have learned to ‘show not tell’. But I’m interested in the telling: I want to know why her objection had the effect it did. Presumably the objection had nothing to do with the potential harm to the robot. The robots within the show are after all — apart from the core group — deemed to be devoid of moral status, lacking the requisite consciousness and intelligence to be moral victims. What’s more, the assumption within the current debate about sex robots is that this is likely to be true for some time. We may create fully conscious and self-aware robots some day, but they are a long way off and for the time being the current incarnation of this technology will consist of machines that are not capable of being morally harmed. So there is something of a puzzle: if the robot cannot be harmed, why is it wrong for the young men to have sex with it? The answer, I suggest, must lie elsewhere: in the symbolic meaning of the act (the passive, switched off robot, standing in for real women), and the consequences that might ensue from its performance (how the young men will relate to real women).

This combined concern for symbolic meaning and its consequences is shared by several of the leading opponents of sex robots. Their concern can be expressed as a formal philosophical argument (and since I am an academic and dilettante philosopher this is the style of expression I favour). Let me introduce you to that argument now. It works like this:

  • (1) Sex robots (or the act of having sex with them) symbolically represents ethically problematic sexual norms (i.e. it says something negative about us and our attitude toward sexual interactions). (Symbolic Claim).
  • (2) If sex robots (or the act of having sex with them) will symbolically represent ethically problematic sexual norms, then their development and/or use will have negative consequences. (Consequential Claim).
  • (3) Therefore, the development and/or use of sex robots will have negative consequences and we should probably do something about this. (Warning Call Conclusion).

This argument is abstract (and not formally valid, in case any logicians are reading) — more like a template that can be filled in with particular examples of problematic symbolic meaning and negative consequences. Different opponents of sex robots fill out the template in different ways. Let me give two examples from the academic literature.

The first comes from an article by Sinziana Gutiu — a Canadian lawyer — entitled ’Sex Robots and the Roboticization of Consent’. In her article, Gutiu worries explicitly about the symbolism of sex robots, in particular the way in which they represent women. (Brief aside: although it is possible (and one presumes likely one day) that we will create male or transgender sex robots, there is little point in denying that, at the moment, they tend to take the female form and to be marketed at heterosexual men.) Gutiu worries that the robots that are and will be created will embody stereotypical norms of beauty and will represent women as passive sexual objects. To quote from her article:

[Robots like] Aiko, Actroid DER and F, as well as Repliee Q2 are representations of young, thin, attractive oriental women, with high-pitched, feminine voices and movements. Actroid DER has been demoed wearing a tight hello kitty shirt with a short jean skirt, and Repliee Q2 has been displayed wearing blue and white short leather dress and high-heeled boots

…sex robot[s will] look and feel like…real [women] who [are] programmed into submission and [who] function as a tool for sexual purposes. The sex robot [will be] an ever-consenting sexual partner and the user has full control of the robot and the sexual interaction.

She then worries about the broader social consequences of this. She worries that the encouragement of sex robots will undermine female sexual autonomy by perpetuating false beliefs about female sexuality and sexual consent. This will reinforce gender inequalities and may also have a negative effect on the men who use these robots: they will either treat women as sexual objects or may withdraw from society and become increasingly isolated and misanthropic in their lifestyles.

The aforementioned Kathleen Richardson — founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots — is another example of someone who is concerned with the symbolism and consequences of sex robots.  The major objection to sex robots in Richardson’s work stems from what she perceives to be the analogy between human-sexbot interactions and human-prostitute interactions. She argues that the goal of the designers and engineers of sex robots is to create an interactive experience between the robot and the human user that is roughly equivalent to the interaction between a sex worker and their client. 

This is problematic for two reasons. First, human-sex worker interactions are themselves ethically problematic. They are based on asymmetries of power. The client’s will and interests dominate over those of the sex worker. There is no concern for the inner mental life, wants or needs of the worker. The sex worker is thus objectified and instrumentalised. By symbolically mimicking such interactions, sex robots express approval for this style of interaction. Second, in doing so, sex robots will encourage their users to perpetuate negative attitudes towards women. In her paper she takes aim, in particular, at the work of David Levy, author of the 2007 book Love and Sex with Robots which makes the case for a future of intimate relationships with robots. Here’s a quote from Richardson that gives a sense of her concerns:

David Levy proposes a future of human-robot relations based on the kinds of exchanges that take place in the prostitution industry. Levy explicitly creates ‘parallels between paying human prostitutes and purchasing sex robots’…….by drawing on prostitution as the model for human-robot sexual relations, Levy shows that the sellers of sex are seen by the buyers of sex as things and not recognised as human subjects. This legitimates a dangerous mode of existence where humans can move about in relations with other humans but not recognise them as human subjects in their own right.

So that’s how the symbolic-consequences argument works in practice. Is it any good? There is certainly something to be said for it. There probably is something symbolically questionable about robots that are used for sexual purposes (I didn’t even mention the most obvious example where the robot looks or acts like a child). And the consequences to which Gutiu and Richardson point have a degree of prima facie plausibility. But I want to close by defending two propositions that I think render the argument less persuasive than it first appears.

The first proposition calls into question the symbolic claims made against this technology. It is that:

Proposition 1: The problematic symbolism of sex robots is contingent in two important ways: it is removable and reformable.

This is a general point. We often think that the symbolic meaning of a representation or practice is fixed and that this should colour our ethical attitude toward those practice — for instance people think it is obviously offensive to eat the bodies of the dead or to pay people for bodily services — but the symbolic meaning of a representation or practice is usually highly culturally contingent and, in the right circumstances, capable of being changed. One of the most famous examples of cultural contingency concerns our symbolic treatment of the dead. In Herodotus’s Histories there is a famous passage comparing the burial practices of the Greeks and the Callatians. The story goes that King Darius of Persia once asked the Greeks if they would eat the bodies of their dead relatives as a mark of respect. The Greeks were abhorred by the notion, arguing that the way to show respect was to burn the bodies on a funeral pyre. Darius then asked the Callations if they would burn the bodies of their dead relatives as a mark of respect. The Callations were abhorred by the notion, arguing that this was to treat the bodies as trash. The proper way to show respect was to eat them. Both the Greeks and the Callations agreed on the need to show respect. But they had very different views about the symbolic act that best communicated this respect.

As the philosophers Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski point out, this cultural contingency has important ethical ramifications. It means that, under certain conditions, we should actively try to reform the symbolic meaning of a practice. They give the example of the Fore tribe from Papa New Guinea. The Fore tribe used to eat the brains of their dead relatives, believing this carried important meaning. Then they found out that doing so may be the cause of prion disease. As a result they changed the cultural meaning of the practice and encouraged people to stop doing it.

What this means is that the consequences of sex robots are all important to determining our ethical attitude toward them. If the consequences are good — if contra Gutiu and Richardson using them reduces harm to women and has positive social-psychological effects — then perhaps we should change the symbolic meaning that attaches to them. If the consequences are bad — if Gutiu and Richardson are right — then we may have some reason for concern. But this brings me to the second proposition that I wish to defend:

Proposition 2: The social consequences of sex robots are likely to be highly contentious and/or uncertain.

How do I know this? Well, obviously I don’t: the consequences are unknown right now because this technology is in its infancy. But there are parallel debates that might prove instructive. The obvious one is the debate about the social consequences of exposure to pornography, which has been raging now for over forty years. This debate has produced a large number of empirical studies, but very little agreement on the actual effects. Some studies suggest that it has a negative effect; some that it has no discernible effect; some that it has a positive effect. Many researchers lament the disorganised and oftentimes low quality nature of the research. This is unsurprising given that there are significant ideological agendas at stake in the debate. I suspect we will be landed in a very similar position when it comes to understanding the consequences of sex robots.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with an uncertain future and I think this means we ought to fallback on some fundamental value commitments. Either we commit to liberty and freedom and allow this technology to develop; or we embrace uncertainty and encourage experimentation; or we are risk averse and commit to close regulation or prohibition. In any event, I would suggest that focusing on the symbolic meaning of these artifacts and their consequences won’t give us the answer.

Thank you for your attention.

John Danaher holds a PhD from University College Cork (Ireland) and is currently a lecturer in law at NUI Galway (Ireland). His research interests are eclectic, ranging broadly from philosophy of religion to legal theory, with particular interests in human enhancement and neuroethics. John blogs at http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.com/. You can follow him on twitter @JohnDanaher.



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