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By Eric Lieberman
Sexual interactions between humans and robots are a seemingly inevitable phenomenon, as many people around the world and throughout the course of history expand their sexual options as time and technology progress.
With rapidly growing automation capabilities also comes the advent of sex robots and along with them difficult questions, including what implications such devices will have on society. Will sexbots reduce human interaction? Will they reduce marriage? What about child sexbots? Should they be legal?
“Moving in lockstep with technological developments – from printed words, drawings, photography, film, video, and the Internet — sexual robots are the newest twist in masturbatory enhancement,” Paul Abramson, professor of psychology at UCLA, and author of the new book “Screwing Around with Sex,” told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The legal implications of robots are similar, in many respects, to all of the previous masturbatory enhancements. The question is largely about differentiating tangible harms from moral pontifications in the guise of societal rules.”
In other words, Abramson, who has written a number of published works relating to human sexuality and the intersection of sex and law, is arguing that robots and sex robots by themselves aren’t necessarily an imminent problem, but rather what people do with them.
In a recently published report titled “Our Sexual Future With Robots,” researchers for the Foundation for Responsible Robotics aimed to study and further understand all of the possible kinds and uses of sex robots, as well as what affect they could have in the the next five to 10 years.
They pointed out that several companies are creating and selling sex robots with a price range from roughly $5,000 to around $15,000. Some products, like Harmony by Abyss Creations, are sold with specific body configurations and characteristics including weight, bra size, nipple size, skin tone, eye color, and lip color. Others, like Roxxxy from TrueCompanion.com, are customizable, giving consumers a chance to choose among many options for complexion, from “Caucasian,” “Asian,” “Tanned,” to “Light Skin African,” or “Dark Skin African.”
Another anthropomorphic feature for the androids are personality traits. Harmony can display simulated orgasms through facial expressions, shifting eyes and the emulation of sounds she “hears.” Depending on consumer preferences, Roxxxy Gold can be pre-programmed with distinctive personalities, including “Wild Wendy,” an outgoing and audacious personality, and “Frigid Farrah,” which exudes bashfulness.
Many of these robots are also embedded with sensors throughout their bodies so that they can respond to touch and movement. The “Frigid” setting causes the sex robot to act more reserved and “turned off” from sexual advances, especially when it is touched in an area humans consider private, according to the Foundation for Responsible Robotics study.
“Rapists don’t give a shit about the victim, and worse yet, don’t believe they will ever be caught,” Abramson said when asked if sex robots could possibly decrease sexual assault rates. “If marriage doesn’t deter rape, why would a robot?”
Abramson also says that sex robots created with the likeness of a child would not automatically prevent perpetrators but could help in certain circumstances. Moreover, he doesn’t think society should treat pedophilia as a curable disease.
Pedophiles are everywhere that kids are, Abramson stated. “They are teachers, coaches, boy-scout leaders, priests, stepfathers, friends, and boyfriends of a parent and so forth.”
For Abramson, who has 40 years of experience working as an expert witness in some of the most atrocious child sexual abuse cases, pedophilia is not a choice. Pedophiles have a hardwired attraction to children.
Civilized societies have placed a number of “formidable obstacles” in the way of pedophiles. Deterrence again and again — whether that’s harsh prison sentences, lifetime registering as sex offenders, and the worst of public shaming, he notes — keeps failing as evident by the high recidivism rates.
Shin Takagi, an admitted pedophile who runs his own child sex robot company in Japan, agrees that people like himself are genetically compelled to be aroused by such widely-disgusted behavior.
“We should accept that there is no way to change someone’s fetishes,” Takagi told The Atlantic. “I am helping people express their desires, legally and ethically. It’s not worth living if you have to live with repressed desire.”
Abramson suggests expanding the prevention methods for pedophiliac crimes by placing an undergraduate education student in every classroom to act as a teacher’s aid.
“I’ve had countless cases of teachers who sexually abuse elementary school kids, treating their classes as their fiefdom,” Abramson lamented.
Another far more contentious recommendation of his is providing salacious digital imagery with the likeness of a child (but not actually of a real child) or a child sex robot only for pedophiles who register, through a state agency, as a pedophile.
The benefits to the pedophile, Abramson contends, is that they will not be prosecuted for possessing such material (as settled by a Supreme Court case to be discussed later). In this hypothetical, possessing authentic-looking child pornography or a child sex robot would be a felony offense if a person is not formally registered. Furthermore, the benefits to the state are that pedophiles who have not committed the crime of pedophilia are able to be tracked, according to Abramson, who adds that this is just an abridged version of his proposal.
A far less sinister, but perhaps just as impactful societal implication of sexual robots is that it could potentially increase social isolation. A Chinese man, for example, married a robot he built at the age of 31 after he tired of trying and failing to sell himself as a suitor.
“By 40 or 50 years, everyone of a marriageable age will have grown up with electronics all around them at home, and not see them as abnormal,” David Levy, author of “Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships,” said in a 2008 interview with Scientific American. “People who grow up with all sorts of electronic gizmos will find android robots to be fairly normal as friends, partners, lovers.”
Levy predicted that since “the nature of marriage has changed” humans will be marrying robots in around 50 years. This could decrease the amount of (human) marriages, subsequently causing collateral consequences.
Dr. Kate Darling, a specialist at the MIT Media Lab and a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center, says while she and others don’t know what to fully expect with robots, it could increase the social confidence of a hermit, or even a relatively timid person, by acting as a mechanism for practice. Such an influence could possibly increase rates of marriage.
Nevertheless, she uses the science fiction show Westworld to describe a telling example of the uncertainty of robots’ effects.
“What we don’t know is whether if you go and play around in Westworld, whether that is just an indication of how callous you are, or if it can actually desensitize you towards that human, or whether it is a really healthy outlet if you have violent tendencies,” Darling said on the podcast “Waking Up with Sam Harris,” adding that this general question is the most interesting to her in the whole far-reaching topic of the robot-human relationship.
“You can go and you can beat the crap out of this really lifelike robot, and you know that you’re not hurting a real person. And maybe that makes you a much better person in real life; you’ve gotten all of your aggressions out. We just have no idea what direction this goes in.”
James Grimmelmann, a law professor at Cornell University, agrees with Darling’s belief that the future effects of robots is highly uncertain due to the all of the potential nuances of the implications.
Like sex robots, “There’s a strong argument that the ready availability of pornography on the internet has caused” more social isolation and depraved behavior, Grimmelmann told TheDCNF. “But there’s also a strong argument that it has helped some people who are already isolated better understand themselves sexually and led to better relationships with others. It might help some people and harm others, and it’s overall hard to tell.”
One perspective is that sex robots may be therapeutic, allowing individuals to satisfy their deepest, most carnal desires without harming anyone.
“On the other hand, they may be like gateway drugs, leading more people to develop these harmful deviances or worsening already horrible deviant conduct,” Justin “Gus” Hurwitz, a professor of law at the University of Nebraska, told TheDCNF. “There is evidence that either or both of these views could be accurate.”
The legal questions in particular, which naturally intertwine with the societal implications, are also plentiful and difficult.
“There’s a big difference, for instance, between regulating ‘sex robots’ and regulating ‘robots that can be programmed for sex,’” Hurwitz explained. “This is especially true because the robot is a product, but its programming may be speech that is protected by the First Amendment.”
In Ashcroft. v. Free Speech Coalition (2002), the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that a ban against virtual child pornography through the Child Pornography Prevention Act was overly broad and unconstitutional.
“Congress may pass valid laws to protect children from abuse, and it has,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his opinion at the time. “The prospect of crime, however, by itself does not justify laws suppressing protected speech.”
Such kinds of lewd content (animated pornography with the likeness of a minor) is not completely analogous to sex robots. Darling argues that there is a substantial difference between a physical robot and a virtual, abstract entity.
While comparing the correlation — or lack thereof — between violent video games and subsequent human violence, Darling argues that there is “no reason to believe we can’t mentally compartmentalize in that case.”
“But we do know that we respond very differently to physical things than things on a screen. We have this more visceral response to the physicality of robots,” Darling said.
Whether Kennedy and the five other justices would apply their ruling to another “masturbatory enhancement” (as Abramson puts it) like sex robots is not clear. What is clear, however, is that just like the inevitably of growing consumership, the Supreme Court will almost certainly have to interpret the legality of sex robots in the not too distant future.