Sex and Social Robots

May 15, 2017

Social robotics is a burgeoning field, exploring many new applications for robots. Sherry Turkle, a social scientist and author of Alone Together, suggests that “social robotics people to relate to machines as subjects.” Once restricted to the factory floor, robots are now finding their way into our homes and even our hearts.

Kuri is one such social robot, described by the manufacturer as “a loyal little home robot with a cheerful personality.” Kuri is a two-foot-tall robot that roams around your home and interacts with your family. It is equipped with expressive, blinking eyes as well as cameras, microphones and sensors that enable it to respond to voice, facial expressions and touch. It can also respond using sounds and head gestures and can indicate its “emotional state” using a warm, glowing light. The idea of a social robot is not new; robots have already been developed for use in areas such as elder care and child care.

But robot companionship has gone even further. Companies and researchers are actively developing sex robots, machines which are intended to act as substitutes for human partners. In his book, Love and Sex With Robots, David Levy argues that robots will become more human-like in appearance and many people will fall in love with them, have sex with them and even marry them. First introduced in 2010, a sex robot named Roxxxy has synthetic skin and can even carry on a conversation. Artificial intelligence is being employed to give sex robots personalities and the appearance of loving you back. Other work in this area is on display at the annual “International Congress on Love and Sex With Robots” which will be held in Eindhoven, The Netherlands later this fall.

Helpful or harmful?

Some of these ideas have been explored in myths and fiction. An ancient Greek myth describes a sculptor named Pygmalion who falls in love with his statue and brings it to life with a kiss. Recent movies such as Her and Ex Machina depict people falling in love with machines. These stories may seem bizarre, but David Levy predicts these relationships will eventually become commonplace and that human-robot marriages will be legal by 2050.

It is argued that robot companions are helpful for those who would otherwise be lonely, but opponents of sex robots suggest such developments are potentially harmful. The online “Campaign Against Sex Robots” argues that sex robots are harmful because they perpetuate the objectification of women. In her book Alone Together, Sherry Turkle suggests that “robotic companionship may seem a sweet deal, but it consigns us to a closed world” and puts us into a relationship “that makes us feel connected although we are alone.” She suggests that it reduces love to a “performance” and cheapens companionship to simply “interacting with something.” She concludes that such relationships are essentially narcissistic; relationships with robots are “only about one person.”

We shape our tools and then our tools shape us. Before technology is applied to companionship, we need to think carefully about how that may shape us. Technology has both a structure and direction: it relies on the possibilities in creation but it can be directed in ways that are more or are less obedient to God’s intentions for his people. Not only technology but also our desires and loves can be misdirected. Like pornography, sex robots disconnect sex from its intended context. Whereas prostitution essentially treats a person as a thing, sex robots treat a thing as a person. Both activities distort God’s gift of sexuality (as well as technology) and will involve consequences for human participants and likely for society.

The path to sex robots may seem far-fetched, but it will begin with simple things that gradually normalize the notion of social robots in other areas of our lives. The goal of robotics should not be to mimic humans or to create human substitutes but to automate useful tasks that promote human and environmental flourishing. The irony is that social robots may lead to greater loneliness. In the end, you become what you love, and shaping machines to resemble ourselves will likely shape us to be more like machines.

This article was previously published on Christian Courier. Used with permission.

About the Author
  • Derek Schuurman is Professor of Computer Science at Calvin College. He completed a PhD in the area of robotics and is author of a book about faith and technology titled, Shaping a Digital World.

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