Sex with Robots? The Ethics [Good Life series]

A new generation of sex robots is upon us, and the joking has begun.

I don’t need one, says a wife, since my husband is already robotic in bed. Ha ha.

Sure, a husband replies, but you should see my wife in inaction. (No thanks, I think to myself.)

The next generation of sex robots promises to overcome the weaknesses of current sex dolls — that is, that the dolls do not simulate well the physical sensations of sex and that they cannot simulate the psychological features of sex. Newly-engineered materials and robotics have made the physical experiences closer to the real thing, and artificial intelligence has enabled the robots to respond verbally and non-verbally more realistically. Perhaps robots will soon be able to pass sex-and-romance Turing Tests.

So what are the big fears? There have been knee-jerk calls for banning sex robots, but let’s set aside the politics and focus on the ethics: Is sex with robots a good thing or a bad thing?

The key contrast is to sex with another actual human being, but robot sex is part of a continuum of sexual practices that begins with masturbation. So let’s follow the continuum and see if we can identify a point of concern.

1. Solo masturbation.
2. Add fantasies of a partner.
3. Add images of an attractive person.
4. Add video of an attractive person.

So far, we are adding increasingly realistic psychological elements — fantasies to still images to moving images — to the solo sex experience.

Now let’s add physical elements along a continuum:

5. Masturbation while using a sex toy.
6. Substitute a past-generation sex doll for the toy.
7. Substitute a next-generation sex robot for the doll.
8. Substitute a prostitute for the robot.

Now we are increasing the realism of both the physical and the psychological simulation.

From the consumer’s perspective, is there much difference between a well-made sex robot and a prostitute? The physical sensations are arguably similar, as are the psychological elements: the robot can be programmed by artificial-intelligence, just as the prostitute can be programmed by financial inducements, so to speak, to say to the consumer:

You’re so manly.
You are the most beautiful woman in the world.
I love it when you touch me like that.
Come here, you naughty girl, you need a spanking.

So the objections to sex robots, whatever they are, should be similar to the objections to prostitution, as should the arguments in favor of sex robots and prostitution.

Some differences do make a difference. In the long run, a sex-robot is likely less expensive than frequenting prostitutes, so we can expect sex-workers to object on economic grounds — the robots offer competition that undercuts the prostitutes’ livelihoods. And robots are safer, as they are less likely to transmit sexual diseases or bring with them the physical dangers of red-light districts — so we can expect that public health officials will encourage sex-robot production.

But it is the intensely personal aspects of sex that robots highlight most. Will their availability of further lessen the intimacy of couples, as one or both partners has sex with robots instead of each other? Will they cause more unattached people not to seek relationships at all, instead getting some measure of sexual satisfaction from the sex robots?

Which takes us to the core ethical issue: What do we really want from sex?

At its best, sex is an intensely physical and psychological experience — and the physical and the psychological are tightly integrated. You desire to have certain sensations, thoughts, and emotions with another person, and you desire for that person simultaneously to have similar sensations, thoughts, and emotions with you.

The mutuality of sex-at-its-best explains why some deviations from it are so disturbing. If your partner just lies there disengaged or fakes orgasm or is fantasizing about someone else, then you know that an important part of the experience is missing.

The desire for mutuality also explains the core dissatisfaction with prostitution and sex robots: they can provide genuine physical sensations but only simulated psychological experiences.

Of course, we do have a powerful ability to suspend disbelief — e.g., with books or movies that engage us. We know they are simulations, but they can nonetheless sweep us into their virtual reality for awhile and provide a satisfying experience.

So why not with sex robots? We can compare real sex at its best with robot sex at its best — and there really is no comparison. But we should also compare robot with real sex as it often actually is. And just as pretty-good sex is still pretty good, perhaps robot sex can also be a pretty-good second-best option.

Consider those in these situations:

* Those who have severe physical deformities that make it difficult for others to consider them as sexual partners.
* Those who have been widowed and who are not yet ready to seek another life partner.
* Those with psychological problems relating to intimacy and for whom a sex robot could be a form of therapy (as amusingly and sensitively explored in the movie Lars and the Real Girl).
* Those with highly-contagious sexually-transmitted diseases.
* Those who have destructive fantasies they are trying to control and who can find a catharsis with a sex robot.
* Those who just want to get laid and whose usual strategy is to pretend to be interested in someone so as to get sex but then use-and-forget them.
* Couples who have occasional fantasies of introducing a third person into their sexual life but fear the harm that jealousy could do to their relationship.

But while sex robots could be beneficial in such circumstances, it’s also true that robots could tempt many not to seek the best when it is in fact possible to them.

We all have self-doubts: My various parts are too large or too small or too firm or too soft. Or: I might be rejected, and that will hurt my feelings. So why not play it safe and go for the sure thing with the robot?

And we all have the potential for laziness: Relationships are so time- and effort-consuming. So why not settle for the easier sex-robot option?

Or we might be comfortable with ourselves and want to make the effort — but fear that our partner will settle for the virtual sex. Can I compete with a physically-perfect specimen?

But note that those concerns are as old as man and woman. Every generation has its doubts, fears, and worries. The development of robots doesn’t change those dynamics except to make make clearer what we really want and need from sex and to give us all more options.

Real intimacy is still as valuable as it has always been, and we all want the real deal — a response that is appreciative of who we really are and that enables us to be appreciative of who our partner really is. No robot can replace what only you can offer, which is you being you. And no robot can replace what only another person can give to you, which is genuine intimacy with his or her uniqueness.

And for those for whom real intimacy is not currently an option, why not have available robots that can nonetheless offer other sex-related values?

[This article was originally published at EveryJoe.com.]

[Related: The full archive of my articles in The Good Life series.]

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