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The Problem with Fucking Robots

Two doctors have launched a campaign against sex robots to save humanity from endless sadness.

It was only a matter of time until robotics and AI technology crossed paths with the sex industry. A company called True Companion has turned humanoid sex robots into reality, with models ranging from $999 and $6000.

True Companion's female sexbot, Roxxxy, is apparently "always turned on and ready to play," though as the FAQ page makes clear, she does have an off switch for when the robot shagging is over and it's time for her to get back into the cupboard. Customers can select the skin tone, hair colour and eye colour of Roxxxy. She can even come with pubes in a variety of styles, but this costs extra.

Roxxxy is suggestive of a time when men all over the world will be able to forgo the trouble and inconvenience of a real girlfriend, with all their PMT tantrums and feminist sexual demands, and simply go online, design their ideal sex pet, and wait for a woman-sized cardboard box to be delivered to their door.

"We're campaigning for human rights, and what creating these technologies says about how we view one another"

Dr. Kathleen Richardson wants to stop us hurtling towards this bleak version of the future. A senior research fellow in the Ethics of Robotics at De Montfort University, she's recently launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots, along with Dr. Erik Billing of the University of Skövde in Sweden. Their campaign manifesto points out that by creating robots for sex, society is reinforcing patriarchal ideas about how women should look and behave, as well as normalising the idea that a relationship can be purely physical.

I spoke to Dr. Richardson about the campaign and her worries about what a world filled with sex robots will do to us.

MOTHERBOARD: Hi Kathleen. So what prompted you to launch this campaign in the first place?
Richardson: When I first heard about sex robots I thought it would be harmless and just fine. But then I started researching a paper on them and took issue with some of the thinking behind sex robots. The idea being, as we live in a society where people can buy sex without taking into account the other person's thoughts or feelings, we could transfer this type of relationship onto machines. However, the thing with prostitution is it actually legitimates a world where people can see another human being as a thing. I thought to myself, "Is this something we really want to reproduce in our world of technology?"

Is it more unethical because they look and act human? Would it be ok if they were faceless mechanical machines?
I think if that was what's happening I'd have to adjust my ideas. But that's not what's happening, they do look like women.

This company, True Companion, claim to be making a male sex bot. Does this disrupt the patriarchy these things are reinforcing?
Well I think the target market there is homosexual men. Which is a large part of the world of prostitution already. It still feeds into that market of male sexual use of bodies. There's still this idea that because men have a high sex drive, different to women, they somehow have an entitlement to have that satisfied. Sexual desire is organised around male sexuality, not female sexuality.

If someone was to come along and make one of these robots that's genuinely for women, would it still be problematic?
If there were women practicing the same power structure relationships that men are, it's still exploitation. The central idea of the campaign is that, as a human subject, we can't decide to impose our will on another, just because we have more recourses or power.

So, by creating sex robots all we're doing is normalising these immoral power dynamics?
That's right. We aren't saying the robots themselves have rights. We're campaigning for human rights, and what creating these technologies says about how we view one another as human subjects. Also, there's no such thing as a technology that isn't a product of its culture. You can go to a lab and people think they're creating technology and it's neutral, it's gender-free and it's racially-free. That's a load of rubbish. You need to think about the ideas that go into a technology and what the consequences are if that technology is then produced.

What are the laws around this? Your website mentions child sex robots, surely that would be illegal.
The problem is, the law is always one step behind technology. We won't be able to know until somebody tries to do it.

Do you see a world, say in 50 years' time, when we're all wandering around with robot boyfriends and girlfriends instead of human ones?
If that happened, we would be so distressed. We wouldn't actually be able to live in that world without developing serious mental health issues.

"We've created a society where we think we can live alone, and that it's shameful to feel lonely"

And there's already evidence for this: In the 1940s Harry Harlow did a series of experiments. He took baby monkeys and gave them robotic substitute mothers. They had a choice between a metal mother that provided food and a comforting mother covered in soft material. Given the choice, the monkeys chose the comfort over the food. Then they all developed terrible mental health issues, couldn't interact with real monkeys, couldn't breed, and they died.

So we can tell ourselves that we can live with these substitutes, and as long as it meets our physical needs we'll be alright. But I'm afraid that's not how it works.

Isn't it possible the people who buy a sex robot are just very lonely?
I knew this question was coming as soon as I launched the website and I'm glad it has. This is one of the closest issues to my heart. We've created a society where we think we can live alone, and that it's shameful to feel lonely. The way to address that is by having a discussion about human connection. Every human being needs other human beings. You can keep giving people machines and technology, but that won't get to the heart of why people are lonely and can't form relationships. In fact, it makes it worse.