Anti-Sex Robot Activists Might Be Wrong About the Future

Sex robots aren't killer robots, after all.

Campaigners and academics clashed on the future of sex robots at a London event on Monday, questioning whether machines like the RealDoll and Samantha are symptomatic of a consumerist society, or whether they can unlock new sexual possibilities.

The Campaign Against Sex Robots models itself on the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, but experts disagree about whether an anti-sex robot cause requires the same approach as one against the proliferation of autonomous weapons of mass destruction.

“It’s not very clear what the objectives of the campaign are…so we accused them of committing the motte-and-bailey fallacy,” John Danaher, lecturer in law at the National University of Ireland and co-author of Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications, said at a Virtual Futures event attended by Inverse, in conversation with Kate Devlin, computing lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Researchers have made some big steps to developing a sex robot that could use artificial intelligence to respond to a user’s stimulation. Spanish engineer Sergi Santos released the $5,000 Samantha sex doll last year, with promise to eventually expand its limited voice activation to become an Amazon Echo-like personal assistant. Though Santos and ventures like Abyss Creations are a start, academics see future bots enabling better exploration of desires, aid for people with disabilities, and even a rethink of marriage.

The anti-bot campaign, in Danaher’s words, claims sex robots are the ultimate expression of a commodified property-style relationship. Kathleen Richardson, the senior research fellow at De Montford University who founded the campaign in September 2015, writes in a paper that warned sex workers are commodified by buyers and robots will take these issues to new levels.

While the campaign originally started as pushing for an outright ban, it later moved to simply asking academics to consider some of the issues around the technology.

John Danaher at Monday's event

Virtual Futures

“I describe this as a symbolic consequences argument,” Danaher said, noting the campaign’s argument rests on the issue that the robot-human relationship will have “terrible consequences” further down the line that exacerbate the issues seen with sex work.

Danaher’s book analyzes the campaign in the fourth chapter, co-written by Brian D. Earp, and Anders Sandberg. It notes that Richardson’s argument rests on a uniform image of sex work as inherently exploitative, while other academics see it as a debate that requires nuance. For this and other reasons, the chapter concludes that there is little reason to preemptively cut development of the robots.

During the question-and-answer session, two representatives from Richardson’s campaign drew issue with Danaher’s description of the campaign. Nika Mahnič, a masters student in big data at Kings College, London, spoke alongside artist and activist Kate Davis.

“We believe that sex robots are a symptom of a consumerist society”

“I think there’s a difference between being an activist and an academic, and I think when you analyze a campaign against you should not use formal logic to do that,” Mahnič said, noting that she had “some problems” with the way the campaign had been portrayed. Mahnič claimed the campaign is in favor of the Nordic model that criminalizes buying sex and decriminalizes selling, but that sex robots take these issues to a new level. “We believe that sex robots are a symptom of a consumerist society that went somehow, to a certain extent, to excess.”

Danaher noted that the chapter was written two years ago and, while there may be more academic literature against sex robots now, he approached Richardson’s paper in academic terms.

“I still stand by the notion that the understanding or interpretation of prostitution within [Richardson’s] paper is something that is highly contested,” Danaher said in response. “I think it presents a one-sided view or understanding of sex work.”

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