Day 6

Hard-wired for love: the ethics of robot sex

UN officials gathered this week to talk killer robots. But what about robots that make love, not war? Can we really control them, or are they controlling us?

When it comes to sex and love, the human-robot relationship can get tricky

A still from the movie "Ex Machina", which features a highly sexualized artificially-intelligent robot. (ExMachinaFilm.com)
Listen13:28

This week, the UN gathered a meeting about controlling lethal autonomous weapons, also known as killer robots. But robots aren't only engaging in warfare, they're also engaged in a more intimate activity with their human counterparts: sex.

The romantic relationship between humans and robots is also central to the new film Ex-Machina.

For John Sullins, ethics professor at Sonoma State University, robot sex raises a lot of ethical issues. He specializes in the philosophical issues around artificial intelligence, and wrote a paper called Robots, Love and Sex: The Ethics of Building a Love Machine.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Gillian Deacon: This is a completely foreign idea for a lot of people. Can you explain how, exactly, people are having sex with robots?

John Sullins: Well it's kind of in the seedy corners of the world right now. In Japan would be where it's most accepted. There, you can order these very realistic love dolls and they'll show up at your hotel and disappear later with technicians who take them away. But in the United States and most of the Western world, you can find these things just by ordering them on the Internet and they're quite expensive. They're usually a few thousand dollars and they're not really very robotic, they're really more of a complex and highly-realistic silicone love doll.

So it's sort of human shaped with all of the appropriate orifices. And what, you just put it in position and off you go?

Yeah pretty much. I don't know what the attraction is but for some people they really like that.

In the movies we see robots that can have these meaningful conversations with humans. They can interact and they can feel emotion. The sex robots that we're talking about here, are they able to do any of that?

They can't do any of that now. Probably the most complex one is this machine called "Roxxxy", which has little bit of mechatronics - the ability to move a little bit. I saw it at one event and it kind of reminded me of a washer on the spin cycle or something like that. And then it also plays back kind of a dialogue which seems to have been written by a horny teenager, but it can't have a conversation with the user. 

I think there are probably a lot of people who think that the very idea of this is sort of sad. But are there positives around the idea of creating machines that can fulfil our sexual and emotional desires?

It's easy for us to laugh at these kind of machines, given that we might be in healthy relationships. But there are certain people who can't be in a healthy relationship for physical or emotional reasons and this kind of technology might really solve a deep human need for them.

You've looked at the ethical issues around this. Do you think sex robots are a good thing?

What I worry about is the fact that we might cause a certain number of people to seek out these very simplistic relationships because human relationships are very difficult. Just imagine if this choice was available to you in your adolescence when things were hard and you didn't understand this world of love and relationships, and this was just an alternative that was quick and easy and fun. I could see why you would.

Ron Arkin, an American roboticist, has suggested that sex robots that resemble a child could be used as a treatment for pedophiles. What do you think of that approach?

I know Ron and don't agree with him on it. These robots look and can act so realistic that in a sense you are committing the crime even if you know it's not an actual person. So in a way I feel this legitimizes a behaviour that we should not legitimize at all. 

The UN is trying to establish guidelines for these killer robots. Do you think we need some kind of ethical guidelines that define what robots can do, around love and sex?

South Korea has already beat us to the punch by many years. They already have been working on a policy that says right from the start, "no sex robots" and strictly delineates the relationships that future robots can have with humans. So I think that every country is going to eventually have to come up with policies about this technology that makes sense within their laws.