Is society ready for mechanical lovers?
It seems like every week a new expert comes out predicting the arrival of sex robots. While many folks debate whether they’re expected in ten or 100 years, what’s perhaps most crucial is pinpointing how and when society might accept them.
Best not to put the cart before the horse, right?
Considering such questions is Julie Carpenter, a research fellow at California Polytechnic State University. She specializes in human-robot interaction, and in an upcoming anthology on sex robots from MIT Press, she explores how humans could gain emotional attachment to robot sex workers—as well as the importance of “renewable design.”
“One of the keys is going to be that these robots need to not just learn in a humanlike way from their owners what their owners’ preferences are, but they really need to be thoughtfully customizable in many, many ways by the user,” Carpenter told Future of Sex.
Design a sexual chameleon
In her essay, Carpenter uses the term “robot sex worker,” which she defines as any robot purposely created to give humans erotic pleasure. This also includes robots designed for unrelated functions, but that become sexualized by how someone uses them.
When she talks about customizing them, she means through more than body features such as hair color and weight. So people don’t lose interest, there must be infinite variations available like being able to switch between different personas.
“If I called it Lana, it would have one personality. If I called it John, it would have a masculine personality,” she said.
The robot’s scent, secreted fluids, and body temperature are just a few of the other options owners should have endless control over.
If creating a multi-purpose robot, it’s also crucial that how it’s built to carry out certain tasks doesn’t conflict with its sexual features. So an eight-foot-tall android designed to lift heavy objects likely won’t get much use out of its erotic functions.
“It’s probably a very safe bet that people aren’t going to want to be in any sort of physical relationship with a robot that appears physically intimidating and is bigger than they are in an extraordinary way or in an unusual way,” Carpenter added.
“That sounds obvious, but it’s really not if you’re developing a robot from a design standpoint.”
Are we ready?
But it can take time for cultures to embrace new technologies. Along with setting up infrastructures for building robot sex workers, new policies and laws must be developed.
“The technology will be there before we learn to accept it, but I do think it will become normalized,” Carpenter said.
“We have other technologies that we integrate into sexual needs market,” she added. “This one is very different. We’re talking about potentially something robust and rich that could be invasive physically, emotionally in new ways.”
Social acceptance will also be a process. Most people have never been around a humanoid robot, beyond sci-fi examples, so suddenly embracing ones meant for sex would be a jump.
A positive sign is Carpenter’s view that people are now more likely to see sexualized machines as a valid area of research. As a PhD student at the University of Washington, even though she had support from her academic advisor, she faced resistance to discussing robots and sexuality with some colleagues.
Don’t fear the sexbot
There’s also vocal public backlash against the notion of sexbots. Notably, a group of academics in the UK banded together last year and launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots. They argue sex robots will reinforce negative gender stereotypes and encourage the objectification of women.
While there is value in watching how different cultures interact and produce such robots, Carpenter said she won’t be jumping on the anti-sexbot bandwagon.
“It’s way too early to determine if how we might interact with robots in a sexual way, in the privacy of our own home, may or may not transfer to how we treat human partners sexually or intimately,” she said.
On the contrary, the therapeutic benefits could potentially outweigh the negatives
“It can be difficult to meet people for sexual purposes for many reasons. There can be a geographical distance; people can be isolated. They can be physically or emotionally disabled in some way or have challenges like social anxiety or there’s just a physical outlet of sexuality. Sex is a normal part of being a human being.”
Couples could also use the technology to “act as a tele-operated medium of a human lover at a distance.”
The controversy and ongoing buzz about sexbots prove, whether you are for or against them, they hold the human imagination captive.
“Even if people are repulsed and say, ‘I would never have sex with a robot,’ they’re still intrigued by the idea, there is an allure. Whenever you talk about sex, people open up their ears and want to listen,” Carpenter said
* Carpenter’s book chapter “Deus Sex Machina: Loving Robot Sex Workers, and the allure of an insincere kiss” (working title), is expected for release later this year in the anthology “Sex Robots: Social, Legal and Ethical Implications”, J. Danaher & N. McArthur, Eds. (MIT Press)
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