Are Sex Robots Unethical or Just Unimaginative as Hell? 


Last week, 42-year-old Ricky Ma made headlines for his creation of a life- sized robot he called Mark 1, which he modeled after Scarlett Johansson.

The robot, which the Hong Kong designer dedicated 18 months of his life to completing, was an easy sell to the viral internet. The story was titillating enough: a grown man fulfilling his childhood dream, an inventor spending thousands of dollars and teaching himself how to use 3D printing software to essentially create a bot that smiles when you tell it that it’s beautiful. And the robotic re-creation of Johansson is uncanny and compelling; doll-like, it approaches the look of a flesh-and-blood woman, yet its empty eyes and blank synthetic face are an insistent remind that Mark 1 is not.

Mark 1 is ostensibly for recreational use. And maybe, in some limited fantastical sense, a smiling, winking Scarlett Johansson that only responds to its creator’s commands is actually good company. Ma hopes that an investor will give him money to build more celebrity-inspired robots, but as of now, his invention has raised the question of what it means to want this badly a physical replica of a real woman whose purpose is little more than to laugh and say “thank you” when told it’s beautiful.

In a piece at Wired, “The Scarlett Johansson Bot Is the Robotic Future of Objectifying Women,” April Glaser writes that Ma’s creation raised questions of consent and ownership:

If a man can’t earn the attention of the woman he longs for, is it plausible for that man to build a robot that looks exactly like his love interest instead? Is there any legal recourse to prevent someone from building a ScarJo bot, or Beyonce bot, or a bot of you?

In short, the answer is no, as long as the bot isn’t being built for commercial purposes. Dudes with $50,000 to spare are free to build their own personal pleasure robots, no matter who they look like.

In her piece, Glaser likens Ma’s robotic interpretation of Johansson to hackers who stole nude photos of the actress, arguing her eerie mechanical interpretation is literal objectification. Glaser warns:

As AI advances and robotic technology grows cheaper and easier to create at home, other women may soon know what it feels like to have a stranger own and control a version of them.

Glaser’s warning might seem dramatically ominous—technology is progressing, but there’s still a relatively high barrier to entry for anyone wishing to design a realistic and artificially intelligent robot that looks exactly like some particular woman—but it touches on a broader debate about technology, gender, and sex.

Aggressively gendered robots are burned into our cultural consciousness. From the terrorizing fembot future depicted in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Blade Runner, Serenity, Ex Machina and Johansson’s own soothing disembodied voice in Her, futuristic fantasies like their female robots sexually and emotionally available.

In his 2007 book, Love and Sex With Robots, Davy Levy argues that we are quickly moving toward a time in which people will fall in love with robots and want them as companions for friendship, marriage, and even sex. That time, Levy argued nearly a decade ago, was imminent. Levy predicted that by mid-century, robots would bring humanity to levels of unknown kink and sexual satisfaction:

Love with robots will be as normal as love with other humans, while the number of sexual acts and lovemaking positions commonly practiced between humans will be extended, as robots teach more than is in all of the world’s published sex manuals combined.

Levy, an expert on artificial intelligence, argues that “artificial-emotional technologies,” will eventually create robots like Johansson’s Samantha—empathetic and responsive, with emotional reactions custom built to reflect an owner’s needs. And certainly the last few years has seen a number of emotionally “intelligent” robots, like Nadine, a prototype developed by Singapore-based designers, and the “hot robot” that debuted at SXSW. They are all, unsurprisingly, gendered as women.

The emotional connection that this type of robot brings, Levy argues, is the bridge to human-robot sexual relationships.

Levy’s argument seems pretty plausible. The history of tech is bound to the exploration of sexual pleasure, from vibrators, to the commonality of internet pornography, to upgraded virtual reality pornography and more. Levy sees uncanny sex as the natural progression of tech’s pursuit of strange new worlds of sexual pleasure; others see it as the result of deeply ingrained sexism.

Last year, Kathleen Richardson, Senior Research Fellow in Ethics of Robotics at De Montfort University, launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots. Richardson’s campaign argues that sex robots are “potentially harmful and will contribute to inequalities in society.” Richardson finds parallels with prostitution (which, to be clear, her position is deeply anti-sex work), an institution, she argues, which reduces (human) women to objects and strips them of their subjectivity—and essentially, their humanity. In Richardson’s formulation, sex work reduces women to things, and male clients are subsequently allowed to remove empathy from the equation of human interaction.

In a position paper, Richardson explains:

I propose that extending relations of prostitution into machines is neither ethical, nor is it safe. If anything the development of sex robots will further reinforce relations of power that do not recognise both parties as human subjects.

For Richardson, the human-robot sex utopia that some technologically inclined men see as imminent is built on the prostitution model, and is not only unethical but harmful—in that it perpetuates stereotypes of passive women and active (male) creators.

Take, for example, the creations of Matt McMullen, the RealDolls creator who recently expanded his business into AI. In a video produced by the New York Times, McMullen describes his foray into sex robots, as well as his artistic impulses to “sculpt women.”

As you might guess, the Campaign Against Sex Robots takes issue with McMullen’s approach to AI, which they see as typifying and promoting the active/passive gendered dichotomies that define this particular approach to robotics. In a post on the campaign’s website, Lydia Kaye writes:

Female sex robots are modelled on the likeness of the human, female body. The sex robot is an object presented as ‘female’ that is bought in exchange for money. This subsequently enforces the view that the female body is a commodity. The female becomes regarded as something to be moulded and manipulated.
Because of this, the demand for, and creation of sex robots arguably exposes a disturbing social desire to own, to control, and to keep women.

Calling sex robots are a “brutal dehumanization” of women or the “literal objectification” of a well-known celebrity seems a bit excessive. There is undoubtedly an uncomfortable Pygmalion-like relationship that underpins the whole idea of sex robots, particularly since the tech’s development is largely one-sided and seemingly focused on the fulfillment of straight male desire. But the emphasis here is on abstract harm; it’s essentially a treatment of symptoms rather than the cause. Reducing a woman to a silent receptacle of fantasy isn’t done simply by robotics as much as it is by the uncreative male imagination. Ma probably isn’t the first or last man to fantasize about a compliant Scarlett Johansson: he’s just the first to spend a year and half of his life to make that fantasy three-dimensional.

Needless to say, the female of the future is not exactly how Donna Haraway envisioned her in her futuristic, still-influential feminist work, A Cyborg Manifesto. In the “common language…of the integrated circuit,” Haraway argued that technology could bring us to “the utopian dream of the hope for a monstrous world without gender.” Though female robots and AI might not be as damaging as the Campaign Against Sex Robots argues, in their present state they reaffirm a lot of boring stereotypes about both women and men.

Gif via Ex Machina/YouTube

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