To Treat a Potential Predator

Can robots and virtual reality help pedophiles stay away from kids?

Jul 15 2015, 12:24pm

Image: Donnie Ray Jones/Flickr

If there's any group in the world more universally reviled than terrorists, murderers and rapists, it's pedophiles and child molesters. They're easy subjects to mill for shock value—such as when Jared Fogle, former spokesman for Subway, brought down the brand when his house was raided on suspicions that he possessed child porn.

But what of actually researching and potentially helping pedophiles before they're the center of huge unfixable tragedies?

"I think the stigma around pedophilia makes it more difficult to reach out to pedophiles in terms of prevention and treatment. I don't think it's hyperbole to suggest that pedophilia might be the most stigmatized condition there is right now," Michael Seto, forensic psychologist and sexologist at the University of Toronto told me.

Current treatments that work closely match those prescribed for other mental disorders, he told me. Those include cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of psychotherapy used to treat people suffering from anxiety, as well as medication or antidepressants.

There are two other potential avenues considered for research: robotics and virtual reality.

If those sound like lines out of a science fiction playbook, it's because they currently are: they're only in their early stages of development. But they both reveal some potentially big advances into researching potential sexual offenders and understanding how their attraction works.

There's no way to "cure" pedophilia, but there are ways to manage it

Robotics is a more recent development that's still being thought over. Child-like robots could be used in therapy with pedophiles, or simply to satisfy their sexual urges so they don't molest children. After all, wouldn't that mean less children would be victimized if it works? That's a win for everyone but robots.

This idea has been on the receiving end of criticism, however, and it will probably take a while before anyone actually considers it a research idea worth funding.

"No research in this area has been conducted yet, nor do I know of any pending by anyone anywhere (funding for such an effort would clearly be a challenge)," said Ronald Arkin, roboethicist and roboticist at Georgia Tech and source of a much-maligned quote about how pedophiles could use child sexbots like heroin addicts use methadone.

The initiative on using robots to treat pedophilia in some form has been seriously lacking, Arkin said, because there is little evidence to suggest it would be successful.

Virtual reality seems a little more promising, because work has already been done to address a current flaw in a system used in a legal process to peg potential pedophiles. An article in The Atlantic recently delved into some of the problems with this system, the Abel Assessment. The test works by showing photos of males and females of different ages to the viewer asking them to rate the person's attractiveness.

The creator of the assessment, Gene Abel, has been panned for its validity and not revealing methods on how it could be effective. Texas appellate judge Brian Quinn, skeptical of the test, wrote that Abel's methods "could be mathematically based, founded upon indisputable empirical research, or simply the magic of young Harry Potter's mixing potions at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry."

And there are allegedly ways to cheat the test completely—some pedophiles can find ways to exhibit no physiological response after shown children.

Virtual reality, as researchers at the University of Montreal's Philippe-Pinel Institute are using it, is more sensually encompassing: test subjects enter a virtual reality where they'll be able to interact with an avatar instead of looking at a static photo.

Meanwhile, the researchers are measuring eye movement, heart rate monitors and brainwaves in a virtual reality chamber that lets them control the age of avatars displayed in the environment. It's a more flexible and more cost-effective way of understanding what makes pedophiles tick that doesn't involve manufacturing a lot of robot parts and dealing with ethical quandaries.

There's no way to "cure" pedophilia, but there are ways to manage it. As of now, there are two ways pedophiles can go about seeking help: they can deal with it on a purely psychological level and seek therapy or find fellow pedophiles in peer support groups, like the Virtuous Pedophiles. Or if their urges are unmanageable, they can seek out surgical or chemical castration—two already well-documented methods of managing sexual attraction.

But none of those experimental methods will get support if we continue viewing pedophiles as threats meant to be exiled, jailed, and disowned. After all, they're perfect fodder for moral outrage—it's the sort of story that drives evening news chyrons. The defrocked priest. The disgraced football coach. The playground bogeyman. Even the proverbial trolls under the bridge. These are stock characters that have come to define a not-insignificant number of people who are attracted to prepubescent children; researchers peg estimates at about 1 percent of the male population.

So it's likely that you know a handful of people harboring some very dark and guilty thoughts.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the psychologists' Bible, classifies pedophilia as a disorder. Mental health professionals are required to report potential child abusers, however, and that's caused some angst among pedophiles who haven't ever acted on their urges but were rejected or ridiculed when they admitted their desires. (Germany has had some success with encouraging pedophiles to sign up for confidential treatment.) It's that sort of stigma that forces them to withdraw into online communities, especially through the darknet, the internet's anonymizing alleyways, where they're less detectable by authorities.

If you only follow traditional media, the story is that pedophiles exist in a binary state: having molested, or seeking to molest. But the efforts to treat them or render more understandable have gained traction over the past few years. There have been multiple accounts of pedophiles seeking support in each other to prevent the worst from happening, like Luke Malone's story following Adam, a leader of an online non-offending pedophile support group.

That fact is at the very center of a sea change in understanding what needs to happen if we ever want to treat the approximately 1 percent of the male population who are pedophiles

"For a pedophile, there is almost no place to go and get information or any sort of help. I'm sure that there are pedophiles who kill themselves who never come out as that. Who never admit to it, even in a suicide letter. I think there's probably a lot more than people would realize," Adam told Malone.

James Cantor, a psychologist who specializes in sexuality, posted an op-ed on CNN on the precision of language in dealing with pedophiles. Child molestation, he said, had been long conflated with pedophilia. The difference between them: the former is preventable, the latter, some experts say, is unchangeable.

That fact is at the very center of a sea change in understanding what needs to happen if we ever want to treat the approximately 1 percent of the male population who are pedophiles. They're potential threats, but they're also dealing with a curse they never asked for. Better that they're granted safe avenue and potential treatment rather than to leave them stewing in secrets that'll come forth in far more tragic ways.

Modern Medicine is a series on Motherboard about how health care and medical technology can move forward so rapidly while still being stuck in the past. Follow along here.