Kinky Bots: Exploring Sex, Consent and Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics

Can artificial minds handle BDSM pleasure scenarios?

Start talking about robots and someone, somewhere will invariably bring up Isaac Asimov’s famed Three Laws of Robotics.

The science-fiction writer’s rules are so often mentioned during conversations on robotics, the inevitability of it happening has become almost a rule in itself.

The reason, of course, for the uptick in conversations about robots is the current boom in their research and development, especially regarding models designed for sexual pleasure.

Sexbots are here to stay

It doesn’t take an avid reader of Future of Sex to realize the rising prominence of sexbots and sex dolls in the media and popular culture.

The proliferation of sex doll brothels as well as cutting-edge developments resulting in more realistic gynoids are both becoming almost regular features in mainstream news.

The growing interest in this branch of sex tech sparked has debate people about the social and sexual ramifications of robots. Some of these discussions have even raised concerns that in the near future we’ll have to deal with some truly profound questions about free will, consent, and the full scope of what “pleasure” can mean.

Since, as of yet, we have no real consensus on how to handle the creation of true artificial intelligence, the rule that Asimov’s three laws will inevitably be brought up is coming into full effect.

But what exactly are the three laws and what, if anything, do they really have to do with understanding the possible impact of artificially intelligent playmates?

Most significantly, what happens when the type of desires people want to explore with their robotic lovers are more than a tad kinky?

The three laws

Created by the legendary science-fiction author Isaac Asimov, the laws are a set of interlocking principles designed to keep robots from running amok:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

A fourth, or zeroth law, was later added when it was determined that the robots needed a bit more specific instruction: that a robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

First appearing in Asimov’s story, “Runaround,” published in 1942, the laws soon became a staple of in many of his stories, especially the ones in his celebrated collection, I, Robot (1950).

The irony about the laws and their popularity today, however, is that Asimov never saw them as being a practical way to program real robots. After all, the basis of practically every story he used them in hinged on how the laws are totally inadequate or, even worse, could be easily misconstrued by a robot to disastrous effect.

Regardless, Asimov did say the laws formed a rational moral framework, for human as well as artificial minds, but with one caveat:

I always remember (sadly) that human beings are not always rational.

In October, Patrick Lin wrote a piece for Forbes that directly addresses the idea of using Asimov’s three laws for sexbots.

Lin first hypothesizes that the idea of harm would have to be rethought in a BDSM context: that, for example, whipping a consenting person might inflict a degree of physical injury on them but be received as physical or emotional pleasure.

Further on, Lin, who is a Professor of Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, delves into the idea that sexbots should be used to potentially encourage societally damaging behaviors such as non-consensual sex—which would fall under the fourth, or zeroth law.

This law could even be put into effect by even the existence of pleasure bots, as there’s the possibility that they could be so alluring that humans will prefer them over biological, and so procreational, sex.

Definitions and expansions

While Lin brings up a few good points, he misses out on a few critical ones: the biggest of which is a misunderstanding of BDSM in regards to the definition of harm.

While it is true that some kink activities run the risk of injury in the short or long-term, those educated in the reality of BDSM know how to be as safe as possible.

The goal for many in BDSM is not harm but rather play: to have mutual enjoyment through safe, sane, and consensual encounters that may, or may not, involve things like intense physical experiences.

A robot with similar knowledge would, in fact, be an expert dominant: knowing exactly what physical activities would be safe for whoever it is interacting with.

Similarly, it could be deft at physical but psychological play. In this way, it would have a perfect understanding of what to say and how to behave to protect its submissive’s emotional well-being.

A really interesting question is what happens when the roles are reversed. What happens when you have a conscious artificial mind that is also into BDSM?

Do you playfully threaten it with consensual deletion, or even carry out the threat knowing that its mind can be rebooted from a backup copy? How do you play with a submissive that doesn’t actually understand what many would call pain?

Robots and pain?

In regards to this last point, we actually may be seeing a form of robot that does experience something kind of similar.

As reported by TheNextWeb, researchers at Cornell University are working on a way to give robots a way of detecting when their bodies are being pushed to their physical limits, and so avoid being damaged.

But what if this new sense is coupled, by accident or the robot’s own consciousness, to a sense of pleasure? It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to picture a futuristic dominant playing with a robot equipped with this new sense: torquing or stretching its limbs to their limits—all the while being keenly aware of the robot’s safeword.

The reality of the 3 laws

It’s clear that we, as a society, need to talk about the potential impact of artificial intelligence on the economy, the arts, civil rights, and—of course—human sexuality.

And while it’s entertaining to play with Asimov’s three laws in how they might relate to pleasure bots, it’s important to remember that they were created as entertainment and not a sincere recommendation for their programming.

True, there is a brightness within them: the idea of a simple set of rules that would encourage altruism, self-respect, and care for the world around us—for both the natural and as well as the artificial.

But just as new stories and books are being written, and breakthroughs in sex tech are happening on just about a daily basis, we have to be willing to embrace new possibilities—and especially when they are not in our creations but in ourselves.

Image sources: R Crap Mariner, Miles Heller, Roberlan Borges, Gonçalo Nobre, Claudia Orsini