Sexbots and the Singularity

What will happen when machines built to love humans become truly intelligent?

Sex robots were once the fare of science fiction. But today, anthropomorphic sex dolls are just around the corner, with several companies developing prototypes capable of speech recognition, learning, and autonomous facial expression. Realbotix’s robotic love dolls will even feature customizable personalities, courtesy of a smartphone app

The buzz around mechanical lovers has led experts such as David Levy, author of Love and Sex with Robots, to predict that physical intimacy between humans and robots will be commonplace by 2050. Futurist Ian Pearson thinks that by this date human-on-robot sex will be even more common than human-on-human sex. In the Future of Sex report our site predicts that by 2045, one in ten young adults will have had sex with a humanoid robot.

One of the biggest hurdles in creating lifelike robots is the development of advanced artificial intelligence. But this could change more rapidly than most people think. In the recent science-fiction movie Her. computer operating system “Samantha” exhibits signs of consciousness and even human feeling, leading owner Theodore Twombly to fall head over heels for her.

But Samantha’s intelligence eventually increases exponentially, far beyond human limits. The idea might seem far-fetched, but many computer scientists predict just such a “technological singularity” in the future of AI. The ability of an artificial intelligence to endlessly upgrade itself, they argue, will lead to a superintelligence that surpasses our own.

The possibility is certainly troubling. Recently, Stephen Hawking warned that artificial intelligence could lead to human extinction. And tech mogul Elon Musk calls AI our biggest existential threat. Advanced AI could be our greatest achievement or our last mistake.

Robot revolution

Fears of robot takeover aside, what might advanced artificial intelligence mean for sexbots?
On the one hand, such a development could push the autonomy, sophistication, and interactivity of robots to unimaginable levels. Sexbots could become real companions, able to converse, emote, and develop individual personalities.

Levy believes that this will be a good thing, people who struggle to form positive romantic relationships. Similarly, bioethicist Arthur Caplan foresees therapeutic uses for robotic lovers, particularly for people with social anxiety.

Also seeing the positive side of robotic sex machines, researchers at New Zealand’s Victoria University project that robots could replace human sex workers, reducing human trafficking, by 2050: “Robot sex is safer sex, free from the constraints, precautions, and uncertainties of the real deal.”

But the possibility of super-intelligent machines also provokes certain practical and moral questions. At last year’s Love and Sex with Robots Conference, Swiss researcher Oliver Bendel wondered: Should robots, with their superior ability to manipulate human behavior, be allowed to entice us? Should they be obligated to reveal they’re just machines? And should they have the ability to refuse us?

The issue of robot consent is a big one. If intelligent robots can make their own choices, will they be able to choose not to be sexbots? If so, will that defeat their purpose? And if they cannot, due to either programming or external constraints, will they be, in a sense, our slaves?

Too much of a good thing?

Such dilemmas have led robot ethicists Kathleen Richardson and Erik Billing to launch the Campaign Against Sex Robots, arguing that androids built for intimate relations will increase social isolation and reinforce gender inequalities. The introduction of programmable women, Richardson argues, will encourage the objectification of human women and relationships in general. Robots cannot replace humans, because machines, inanimate objects, can’t do relations.”

Others disagree. Matt Mullen, CEO of Abyss Creations, is currently developing advanced artificial intelligence for his popular line of RealDoll sex dolls with the above-mentioned Realbotix project. He  believes customers will form real emotional relationships with robots: “I want to have people actually develop an emotional attachment to not only the robot but the actual character behind it — to develop some kind of love for this being.”

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Taking this a step further, Gary Marchant, the Faculty Director of Emerging Technologies, Law, and Ethics at Arizona State University, predicts that we might even want to marry robots in the future: as robots get more sophisticated and humanlike, more and more people will find love, happiness, and intimacy in the arms of a machine.”

The real danger to human relationships could actually be that robots will do these things too well, surpassing humans in providing physical and emotional satisfaction. Robots can be customized, individualized, and upgraded with all sorts of psychological and physical attributes impossible for humans to achieve.

There are grounds for optimism, however. Dr. Trudy Barber, a Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Portsmouth, hopes that sex robots will reinforce attachment behaviors and complement, rather than replace, human relationships: “I think what will happen is that they will make real-time relationships more valuable and exciting.”

In a similar vein, researcher Julie Carpenter envisions that tele-operated robot sex workers could couples remain connected over long distances or when one person falls ill. Even Bendel has a hopeful, if cautious, message: sex robots could be beneficial, provided we establish the right ethical constraints.

One thing is for certain: sex robots are coming. And, at least in their initial stages, they’ll be whatever we make of them.

Image sources: gravitat-OFF, Michael Coghlan, abyssrealdoll