Academics dream of electric sex workers

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on May 30, 2014

From The News Desk

Sex robots are not as far away from reality as you might think. From butt clenching muscles to dancing humanoids, there’s enough developments in robotics, artificial intelligence, and human skin rendering that if put together, could make a fairly humanoid sexbot.

None such bots exist yet, aside from clunky primitive ones like TrueCompanion’s Roxxxy, but that hasn’t stopped a group of British academics from furiously debating the future implications of the sex robot industry.

Yes, a group of stodgy, mostly British scholars is contemplating the future of sex, specifically how technology might transform it. Damn does that sound more exciting than “Theorizing Modern Capitalism: Controversies and Interpretations” which is the kind of crap I studied in college.

Computer scientist David Levy in 2007 pioneered the discussion, with a book titled Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships. He's convinced that sex robots will be huge in the future, wrongly predicting way back in 2009 that sex robots would happen "fairly soon." This year, he even convinced the British Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and Simulation of Behavior to devote an entire track of the four day annual convention to a symposium on love and sex with robots.

Then there’s Michael Hauskeller, Associate Professor from the University of Exeter, who is working on a book about “Sex and the Posthuman Condition,” based on this original paper, with plans to publish in summer 2014.  

There’s Ian Yeoman and Michelle Mars, a futurist and a sexologist respectively from New Zealand's Victoria University of Wellington, who penned a paper in the journal Futures, arguing that robots would be safe for prostitution clients and would reduce human trafficking. The paper predicted, “In 2050, Amsterdam's red light district will all be about android prostitutes who are clean of sexual transmitted infections (STIs), not smuggled in from Eastern Europe and forced into slavery. The city council will have direct control over android sex workers controlling prices, hours of operations and sexual services."

Neil McArthur, Associate Professor at the University of Manitoba, teaches philosophy and sexuality and discusses the ethics of sex robots in his classes with his students, debating whether sex robots are just like vibrators, or if they have the possibility to change the way we look at sex and relationships because we might establish an emotional connection with robots the way we wouldn't with sex toys.

Lastly, the academic who brought this issue to my attention initially is Keele University’s John Danaher. A philosophy and ethics lecturer with a Master’s and a PhD in law and philosophy, Danaher was brought into the discussion after penning an article for the Journal of Evolution and Technology, arguing an unusual view among the niche world of academics debating sex robots: That such robots would not, in fact, manage to displace prostitutes.

I love that that’s the “controversial” perspective on the matter.

Danaher hopped on the phone for a Q&A with PandoDaily, and we covered everything from why he personally cares about sex robots to whether prostitutes are going to be out of a job soon.

Best bits below, highlighted for length and clarity.

PD: What got you interested in sex robots?

My background is in law and philosophy. I’m interested in emerging technologies and their ethical and legal implications. I hadn’t ever written about sex robots before, so this was a fortuitous convergence of a few things.

I teach a course on law and ethics and part of it was about different legal regimes on prostitution and sex work. The head of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies in the UK was compiling a symposium on technological unemployment, and I happened to think there was an interesting overlap on sex work and technological unemployment.

PD: What does the average population not realize about sex robots and their potential for disrupting sex lives?

The most common reaction amongst people I talk to on a daily basis is similar to your own. It’s not something on their radar. There is a lot out there that people aren’t aware of.

PD: Like what?

One is that there’s a lot more ways the Internet and all different software and hardware are being leveraged by the sex industry. One of the most interesting recent developments was FriXion. They operate haptic technology online, where you can transmit touch or sensation over the Internet using different sensors. They’re trying to secure funding for devices that allow sex long distance.

The makers of Roxxxy, one of the things they advertise it for is people who want to try out having threesomes in a safe environment.

PD: In your article debating whether sex workers are vulnerable to technological unemployment, you wrote that we “must acknowledge” the possibility that humans could come to feel emotions for sex robots at some point. That seems totally unrealistic.

This is the weakest link in that chain of the argument [that sex robots could replace prostitutes]. It’s more difficult to see how people could develop the same bonds with robots as with humans. But there’s evidence to suggest there is attachment between humans and artifacts. I don’t think it’s implausible. There’s an academic called Julie Carpenter at Washington State University who does research between robots and humans. Soldiers form attachment to robots they use to disarm explosives.

It just seems to me that it’s not totally implausible that people could develop attachments to robots. I’m projecting into the future too — if the technology develops in certain ways it’s a possibility. People don’t always know what’s out there. The sex robots [in existence] are crude and unsophisticated, but you see other developments in robots that if they converged it could make for an impressive sex robot.

There’s developments in human impression robots, like humanoid robots that dance. There’s a Japanese one called HRP-C4 that’s a dancing humanoid. Just this year in Germany Tobit Software had a pole dancing robot.

Their robots don’t look like human beings, but there’s also people developing technology on touch so it would feel more like a human. The SHIRI robot is a pair of buttocks that have inflatable muscles to make it feel like real human muscle tissue underneath. It’s basically like watching butt clenches.

So you’ve got movement and touch and then obviously artificial intelligence — there’s lots of developments in that too. If you have all those trends converging on one robot, you can get something a lot more human like than what we currently have. I don’t know how many years away we are from that. It’s those future trends that are interesting in this particular debate.

PD: It seemed weird that academics are having this futuristic conversation.

Robot sex workers have been a long standing trope in science fiction. Obviously humans are interested in sex. I don’t think it’s that surprising that academics are interested in this possibility or this area.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]