The promises and perils of sex with robots

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This is, I suppose, as good as time as any to discuss sex with robots. I've been putting it off for a while now because it's, you know, sex with robots. But the topic can no longer be avoided. Talk of making the machine/beast with two backs is everywhere these days.

Most recently there was the news that the human/robot sex in the upcoming Westworld TV series has required extras to sign releases for all manner of sexual acts. Westworld is set in a theme park full of androids, including android sex workers.

That news came after the company that makes the Pepper humanoid robot required customers to sign an agreement that they won't have sex with the little android. Why? Because someone had hacked Pepper's chest screen to display breasts. Over the summer we saw sex slave robots in the series Humans and in the film Ex Machina. And then there's the Real Doll company, that is adding a bit of AI into its plastic pal that's really, really fun to be with. There's a smell of robot sex in the autumn air -- the smell of WD-40 and brow sweat. 

The argument is that since artificial intelligence and robotics have made such remarkable strides of late, it's only a matter of time before an AI housed in a fully articulated humanoid armature and wrapped in an attractive silicone skin will become sexually attractive to humans. 

God (and Real Dolls) knows for some folks, an inflatable doll in a cheap French maid's outfit already does the trick. And, as the parent of any teenage boy will tell you, so does a well-oiled catcher's mitt and a picture of Scarlett Johansson or Justin Bieber. Or in the case of curious young women, any manner of produce, longer than it is wide.

Since before the Marquis de Sade wore short pants, human beings have dallied with each other and with animate, inanimate and inorganic objects for their own satisfaction. 

We have examples that suggest the Bronze, Iron and Stone Ages had their own bronze, iron and stone dildos and all manner of domesticated animals that lived in fear. The invention of electricity brought with it all sorts of titivating devices that Victorians and Edwardians were left to of an evening, including, of course, the electric vibrator. Victorian gentlemen could take, as carry-on for a Cunard, an inflatable Femme de Voyage, a rubber vagina they could pack in their hat. Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) was a good friend of Nikola Tesla and was said to enjoy being sexually stimulated by the powerful currents his friend generated in spinning metal discs.

So, the notion that handmade and electrical devices should be used as erotic toys, human substitutes and even sex slaves has worn a deep groove in the human psyche. 

So, why is it that the idea of putting a genital in a robot, or letting a robot do the same to you, seems so frightening, immoral and perverse? 

Frightening, I think, because, as is the case in the popular entertainment this season, when you have sex with robots, you piss the robots off. Since the robots are smarter and stronger, once they become sensate, they are inclined to kill the folks who raped them. 

In the West, we fear robots, we worry about their potential power and believe, probably rightly, that one day soon they will become faster, wiser, more agile and more dangerous than us. 

It's one thing to ejaculate into an inanimate object, or dehumanize a person enough to force sex on them. It might be quite another to rape something that might just rip your head off come the android uprising.

And sex with robots raises all sorts of moral issues. Arguably, short of blue box recycling rules, no other topic has more taboos. Even before the robots achieve any kind of sentience, we project ourselves onto them. Right now we treat robots as toys, appliances, tools and slave labour. But, we also anthropomorphize them. We see them as helpmates, co-workers, friends, and, when we program them and send them out into the world, as our children. 

There is a taboo against sex with children. The same goes for sex with creatures of another species. And, if we see robots as near human, the way we see chimpanzees, the social revulsion about bestiality will kick in.

And, when robots do gain sentience, or a simulation of it, how will it give consent?

And what does consent from a robot that may only act human really mean? Does consent even factor into it? We don't imagine that people have consensual sex with inflatable dolls and Fleshlights. Why would robots be different? 

There is proof that men and women can fall in love with their life-sized dolls. But we do not imagine for a moment the dolls love them back. What if robots can do exactly that or simulate the emotion to the point that the besotted can't tell it from authentic human feelings? Could consensual sex come from that kind of mutual love? 

And, finally, here's a more interesting scenario. Imagine it's the year 2060. Robots have achieved not only human sentience, but consider it a primitive form of intelligence. Will a robot take to the web with a column wondering about the morality of sex with humans -- those weak, cruel children of a lesser God that are not even of the robot species? And given our history together so far, how could we imagine they would love us and care what we think, feel or consent to when the urge arises?

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

Image: Alex LA/flickr

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