Sexbot Report Sparks Ethical Debate on Child Sex Robots

Robotics non-profit calls attention to troubling issue to help prevent abuse.

The Foundation for Responsible Robotics released a report exploring the state of sex robots and related ethical concerns.

Does it matter what we do to robots? Recent progress in the creation of functional sex robots raises new and difficult ethical conundrums. In particular, some experts worry that sexbots could reinforce gender inequalities or encourage sexual abuse of minors.

This controversial topic made headlines following the release of a new report from the Foundation for Responsible Robotics (FRR) called “Our Sexual Future with Robots.” The paper examines developments in the field of sexual robotics and explores their potential impact on society. In particular, it addresses the issue of child sex robots, suggesting that we perhaps need “new prohibitive laws to be enacted internationally”.

Speaking to the media, computer scientist Noel Sharkey, who co-authored the report and is Emeritus Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robots at the University of Sheffield, called for a ban on child sex robots. He argues that governments should outlaw the distribution of sexbots with the likeness of minors, as their proliferation could “encourage paedophilia and make it acceptable to assault children”.

Sharkey is best known for his work in artificial intelligence, and publicly for numerous television appearances, particularly on the BBC’s Robot Wars. He also chairs an NGO opposed to the militarization of robots. But his research for the report has led him to speak out about new areas of concern.

Controversial views on child sex robots

Child sex robots don’t exist, but there are fears that they could be created in the foreseeable future. There are already several companies in Japan and China manufacturing anatomically correct dolls with childlike statures and facial features. Given recent advances in the robotization of sex dolls, it isn’t far-fetched to assume the same could happen to child sex dolls.

For many, the idea of a ban on such robots might seem like a no-brainer. But arguments in their defense have also been made. For example, clinical psychologist Dr. James Cantor, who controversially believes that paedophilia is an unchangeable sexual orientation, argues that sex with a child sex doll is a victimless crime that should not be prosecuted. His comments were made in defense of a Canadian man currently on trial for possessing child pornography after ordering a child sex doll from Japan.

Self-confessed paedophile Shin Takagi, the founder of Japanese company Trottla, claims that the dolls have therapeutic value. He argues that they help paedophiles “express their desires” and thus prevent them from committing crimes against actual children. As Responsible Robot’s report notes, Takagi is not the only one making this argument. New Scientist reports that robotics engineer Ron Arkinh has even suggested that paedophiles could receive prescriptions for child sex dolls in order to redirect their desires.

The case against child sex robots

To dig deeper into the topic, the report cites legal philosopher John Danaher, who wrote a 2014 paper considering arguments for the criminalization of child sex robots. Focusing on cases in which the robot can’t be deemed a “victim,” as it is not a conscious being he argues that it might still be reasonable to ban them on two counts: first, because use of such robots could be considered morally wrong even without extrinsic harmful effects; and second, because criminalization could improve social sexual morality. He admits that these arguments are not conclusive, but do offer “a framework for future debate.”

Others argue that child sex dolls might frustrate or encourage paedophiles, pushing them into action. American psychologist Peter Fagan says they could have a “reinforcing effect” that actually strengthens, rather than abates, paedophilic desires.

And robot ethicist Patrick Lin draws a powerful analogy between the idea of child sex robots and racism: “Treating paedophiles with robot sex-children is both a dubious and repulsive idea. Imagine treating racism by letting a bigot abuse a brown robot. Would that work?” If the expression of racist sentiments was a cure, he continues, racists would soon run out of racism, which is not what happens.

Perhaps the most disturbing idea discussed in the report is the idea that child sex robots could be designed with the likeness of a particular child. As Sharkey deplores in an interview with The Memo, “Would anyone want a sex doll replica of their child?”

According to Sharkey, the answer to our initial question is an emphatic yes: it does matter what we do to robots. Responsible Robotics’ report calls for public debate on these moral issues sooner rather than later.

Image sources: Foundations for Responsible Robotics, C_osett