We already know robots are gunning for our jobs. If you haven’t caught up with the news, check out our story on job-stealing robots here. And it isn’t only menial jobs that are going to the bots. As Artificial Intelligence (AI) becomes more sophisticated, we expect even more jobs to be lost to automation — including the world’s oldest profession, prostitution.
A race to build the first sex robot is underway. Engineer and futurist Ian Pearson thinks robophilia, or the act of sleeping with robots, will overtake human intercourse by 2050. “A lot of people still have reservations about sex with robots at first but gradually as they get used to them, as the AI and mechanical behaviour and their feel improves, and they start to become friends with strong emotional bonds, that squeamishness will gradually evaporate”, said Dr Pearson.
Robot or human?
While current AI technology still trails far behind human brains, there have been some surprises. A chatbot named Eugene Goostman came close to clearing the Turing Test in a contest a couple of years ago. Detailed in this The Age article, Goostman convinced a third of the human judges that it indeed was the real deal.
The Turing Test assesses an AI’s ability to hold a conversation via a computer terminal, or text, without any physical cues. The trick is to convince a human judge that it is human. The objective is if a judge was less than 50 per cent accurate – or if he was unable to identify who’s computer and who’s human, then the AI is a passable simulation of a human being and therefore is intelligent.
However, it may also choose to avoid answering a question and sidestep any “trick” questions to uncover its identity. Computational linguist James Curran from Sydney University said: ”Goostman avoided answering most of the questions – so he might make a good politician but not a human.” Together with Dr Curran, many experts are skeptical that a bot today would be able to pass the Turing Test convincingly.
If Hollywood movies and American television are any indicators, people want robots that are sentient. In fact, British tabloid The Sun reported Luxembourg politician Mady Delvaux is leading a bill to grant legal status to all robots. And these androids are to be referred to as “electronic persons” so as to not offend them.
Robots as companions
However, robots – sentient or not – as human companions throws out some questions of ethics. When do we cross the line with robot sex? While some people have argued that it is no different from self-pleasure with sex toys, others maintain it could alter the way sexual deviants react in real life.
For the sake of argument, technically a sex robot manufacturer could build a child robot. This could isolate and dehumanise the deviant – not to mention criminal – act. People who indulge in this undesirable act could even harm human children in the future. Without people calling them out, sexual predators may never get the psychiatric help they need.
However, proponents of robot prostitutes argue it could eliminate human trafficking and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Scientist Ian Yeoman and sexologist Michelle Mars co-authors of the Robots, Men and Sex Tourism paper based their assumptions on the shuttered Amsterdam brothel, Yub-Yum. Once considered one of the most exclusive brothels in the Netherlands capital, the new Yub-Yum “would be a modern and gleaming (establishment) with about 100 scantily clad blondes and brunettes parading in exotic G-strings an lingerie.
“Entry starts from €10,000 for an all-inclusive service. The Yub-Yum is a unique bordello licensed by the city council, staffed not by humans but by androids,” reads the paper. The pair details how the brothel would come about as an answer to a spike in human trafficking in the 2040s, reported UK’s The Mirror. The urgency for the sex robot brothel would be compounded by new strains of sexually transmitted diseases that are resistant to vaccines.
Even as the club alleviates health and trafficking problems, it will put human sex workers out of business as they will not be able to compete on price and quality of service, said the pair.
On the flipside, Senior Research Fellow in the Ethics of Robotics at De Montford University in Leicester Kathleen Richardson warns against such as future. Dr Richardson is leading a Campaign Against Sex Robots. She believes the types of robots we are making may enforce certain archetypes in society – the ones who would like to suppress and dehumanise even minority groups among humans.
Dr Richardson is worried about the social problems that could arise from a culture that turns a blind eye to blatant sex acts with humanoid prostitutes. It could perpetuate an already worrying rape culture, enforce misogyny and feed the idea that humans, especially female sex workers, are nothing more than sex objects.
Dr Richardson has even written a paper on how sex with humanoid robots is not the same as using sex toys for self-pleasure. To be clear, Dr Richardson says a vibrator is equivalent to a sex robot. It is when the sex robot has sentience, or very good AI – when they can “trick” a human into having unnatural sexual emotions – that we need to worry.
All experts agree that today’s sex robots are no more than enhanced sex dolls. They are not sophisticated enough to confuse human recognition. And if they ever cross that line, there is another human-connectivity they need to bridge: the uncanny valley. The more realistic a human-made entity is, the more we are creeped out by it. First hypothesised by fame Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. His theory that as robots became more human-like, people would be more accepting of them than their mechanical counterparts, reported the Guardian . However, he found that when robots are close to, but not quite human, people developed a sense of unease and discomfort. On the other side of the Uncanny Valley, Dr Mori found people were able to accept robots that came very close to being human.
In other words, for us to sustain an emotional relationship with robots the machines would need to be able to walk, move, have facial nuances and understand speech and culture nuances. As such, the robots envisioned by Dr Richardson, Prof Yeoman and Ms Mars would not be able to fool humans – yet.
The health benefits of robot sex
However, what if there was a need for robot sex – for our health and mental wellbeing? The White Hands organisation in Niigata, Japan provides sexual release for disabled men. The act is highly unerotic. The Shukan Post reports the act: “A young woman slips on disposable gloves. She removes the man’s clothes and covers him with a bath towel. She dips a cloth in warm water and rubs him down. She slips a condom on him. The woman is full clothed during the process. There is no sexual contact, usage of erotic DVDs or books. The entire procedure lasts five to 10 minutes on average.”
White Hands’ clients suffers largely from cerebral palsy or are paralysed who cannot engage in sex without assistance. “Sex, like eating, sleeping or excreting, is a basic bodily function,” explains White Hands director and founder Shingo Sakatsume. The controversial service could benefit from a fleet of sex robots, hence reducing the side-eye to human “medical care workers”.
Other demographics that could benefit from robots are empty nestors as well as shy people who are unable to connect emotionally with fellow humans. Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro from the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory believes a robot could help people reconnect, as would a grown-up child who had moved out.
However, anime director Yoshiyuki Tomino thinks it would sound a death knell for the Japanese culture. “My biggest concern is that people may stop making an effort. To do so would be dangerous to a person’s development. It would change our values,” said Mr Tomino. As it is, young people in Japan are having less sex than before, reported The New York Post . It cited a study that said more than 40 per cent of singles aged 18 to 24 are virgins.
Instead of dating, people are paying for companionships at host or hostess clubs where people pay hundreds of dollars per hour for men and women to pour drinks and talk to them. Virtual spouses that nag you to bring an umbrella out or text you sweet nothings can be bought for US$2,500. If single men crave human interaction, they can go to “soaplands” where women cover them with soapy water and slide all over them. Sex is not on the cards.
Cuddling cafes where guests pay US$35 to spoon with a stranger, or pat them on the head, are also rampant. The report also said 30 per cent of single women and 15 per cent of single men aged between 20 and 29 admitted to have fallen in love with an anime or game character.
Robot sex could kill off humans
(Image: 3P Learning)
As we ponder the possibility of human extinction due to more people choosing to have sex with robots, Swiss research Oliver Bendel adds another possibility: if we allow human-robot sex, the robots may leave humans with less energy for human sex. And that could lead to the extinction of the human race. However, other experts say Mr Bendel’s warning would lead to manufacturing creating “kill-the-mood” switches to prevent that from happening.
At current technology, sex robots in the near future will be limited to realistic sex dolls with minimal animatronics for facial movements. The realism will be further increased through virtual reality headsets that bridge the connection between human and virtual partners while the sex dolls provide tactile connection.
We cannot imagine people falling in love with them, or even the scenarios where husbands leave their wives for robot mistresses. That day may come eventually and, even as we prepare for a world run with robots, we cannot close the door on the subject.