The Foundation for Responsible Robotics has released an extensive report on the current state of the sex robot industry — including the ethical and moral considerations surrounding the use of such robots, the need for privacy and data protection, and other information that may make the less libertine of readers a wee bit uncomfortable. This might sound like the beginning of a joke post, but some of the issues raised by the FRR are worth consideration in their own right. Early studies suggest that there’s a definite market for a robots with a decidedly different definition of “human-cyborg relations” than what C3PO was referring to back in Star Wars.
The report noted the human tendency to be, as the authors put it:
…easily be deceived into attributing mental states and behavior to robots, because of our natural tendency to project human characteristics onto appropriately configured inanimate objects. Such anthropomorphism (and zoomorphism) is commonly observed in response to all manner of robots. This illusion can aid in the development of sex robots by ultimately creating the perception of a genuine human sex partner. As a robot increasingly comes to resemble a human, our affinity with it increases to a point as shown in Figure 1 below.
The above deep trough is known as the “uncanny valley,” and it’s a well-studied phenomenon with applications beyond robotics. What it demonstrates, simply stated, is that our personal affinity for an object rises until the robot hits the point of beginning to look almost human — but not quite. You can arguably see it in other contexts as well. Think of classic horror movie effects, from jaws dropping wider than a human mouth can manage, to heads that turn 180 degrees, or to the infamous spider walk scene from The Exorcist. Each of these ideas is founded, to one degree or another, on the concept of depicting a person as nearly human, but with some distinct or particular difference that renders them profoundly unsettling.
The report says crossing the uncanny valley remains a major problem. Robots, even state-of-the-art models, have yet to look suitably human enough to fool observers into believing they’re people (at least not for very long). They can’t hold conversations with any believability. They can learn to recognize the characteristics of emotions (i.e. distinguishing between disgust and anger based on facial expression), but they have no grasp of emotional context. This goes a long way to explaining why many — but by no means all — of the various test poll subjects viewed sex with a robot as something more akin to using a sex toy rather than having a partner.
Other topics explored in the report include the question of whether sex robots could change perceptions of gender, whether sexbot-staffed bordellos would be considered morally acceptable in ways human sex work generally isn’t, whether robots could be used in sexual healing or therapeutic practice (and yes, this is a real thing), and whether they could be used to reduce recidivism in sex crimes. The report concludes with an interview with two CEOs of sexbot companies. The first True Companion, whose Roxxxy product comes in three versions, according to CEO Douglas Hines:
- Roxy Pillow, which is a head and torso of a doll attached to a pillow that responds to touch and speaks only sexually;
- Roxxxy Silver, which is a full body robot with the same features as the pillow;
- and Roxxxy Gold, which adds ‘personalities’ like Frigid Farrah, Wild Wendy or S&M Susan. It is customizable, can recognize speech and respond.
The second is Realbotix, by RealDoll, described by CEO Matt McMullen as “an ongoing endeavor to integrate emerging technologies with life sized silicone doll artistry, with three main components: Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, and Virtual Reality. ”
Why We Cover Topics Like This
I’ll admit to enjoying a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek humor, clever innuendo, and occasional horrified contemplation in stories like this. But that’s not why I write them or why ET covers them. While I share the FRR’s concern for user data privacy and protection, as discussed here, that’s not the sole reason, either.
The primary goal of ET is to cover both emerging technology markets and to put technological discoveries and innovation in context. Sex is an important part of most people’s lives, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity. The invention of Paleolithic cave painting also kicked off the invention of erotic depictions of people having sex (Wikipedia). Technology has shaped how we think about sex and human sexuality, while sex and sexual interest have had their own impacts on technology.
The FRR report is stuffed with uncomfortable factual reports on the state of the sex robot industry, practical ethical considerations, and informed speculation on just how big the sex robot industry could be, long-term. It’s not the most comfortable reading I’ve ever done for an ET article, but it’s definitely one of the most unique documents I’ve ever read.
Top image credit: Realbotix