December 2017 Pulse
In its September 24, 2017, issue, The Mirror reported that a sex robot called Samantha has gone on sale in the UK for £3,500. Samantha, which can be purchased at Vibez Adult Boutique in Aylesford, Kent, ‘has a brain and can interact with you’, write Stephen Beech and Natalie Tipping. She can even switch ‘between a family mode and a sex mode setting’.
The idea of fabricating a woman to meet the needs of a man is not new; its origins can be traced to ancient Rome. For example, In Metamorphoses the Roman poet of erotica, Ovid, tells the story of the sculptor Pygamalion, who fell in love with the ivory statue representing perfect womanhood, which he names Galatea. The goddess Venus brings the statue to life and Pygamalion marries her.
With the ascendance of AI and social robotics, the Galatea myth has become a reality.
The philosophical, ethical and social issues generated by the advent of sex robots or sexbots have received serious attention by roboticists and ethicists in the rapidly expanding branch of ethics called roboethics.
Writers in this field have identified three possible uses of sexbots. Some have argued that sexbots can be used to help with the treatment or therapy of patients with diverse conditions in hospitals or homes. It has even been suggested that these robotic dolls could be made available to sex offenders and paedophiles during their incarceration.
Others have suggested that some individuals might find these lifelike silicon androids useful for physical or emotional companionship. Still others maintain that sexbots could one day replace human sex workers and prostitutes.
Very few Christian ethicists have thus far reflected on the theological, spiritual and ethical issues surrounding this application of social robotics. This would require nothing less than a robust account of the Christian understanding of sex and sexuality.
For the purposes of this article, however, it is sufficient to stress that the Bible and Christian tradition teach that sexual relationships must be confined to a man and a woman – a husband and his wife – who are joined together in the covenant of marriage.
More to the point, the Bible clearly teaches that humans are allowed to engage in sex only with other humans. The Bible therefore prohibits and condemns bestiality as the perversion of nature and an abominable sin (See Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 18:23; Deuteronomy 27:21).
While the Bible does not deal specifically with the question of having sex with a machine – for obvious reasons – what it has to say about human sexual relationships can be brought to bear on this issue.
What follows is an attempt to highlight some of the grave concerns of this particular form and application of social robotics.
The first thing to note is that the relationship between the human user and the sex robot is an ‘I-It’, not an ‘I-You’ relationship. The interaction between the human and the sexbot is unidirectional and asymmetrical in that the machine is entirely oblivious of the overtures, desires and affections of its human user.
AI and sophisticated robotics can create what scholars have described as ‘an anthropomorphic illusion’ that may fool the user into thinking that the simulacrum is the real thing – that the sex robot is human ‘in some sense’. But the fact remains that the sexbot is a machine, albeit one that is programmed to mimic human responses and expressions.
Robot ethicist John Sullins asks if it is ethical to create humanlike robotic sex dolls in the first place. It would be ethically objectionable, Sullins argues, if the illusion of humanness is used to ‘fool people into ascribing more feelings to the machine than they should’. Put differently, from the standpoint of ethics, the illusion of humanness that sexbots present can be said to be in some profound ways disrespectful of human dignity and agency.
This brings us to the question whether the use of a robot for sexual gratification can be properly described as ‘having sex’ in the conventional sense at all. At its most fundamental level, the sex robot is nothing more than a very sophisticated version of cruder forms of sex toys. This has led ethicists like Sullins to argue that using a robotic sex doll (with low level AI) is just an elaborate act of masturbation.
A number of ethicists have argued that sex robots have accentuated harmful stereotypes of women, especially women’s bodies. Roboticist Kathleen Richardson has pointed out that the representation of sex robots is usually based on pornographic images of women. She added that these robots reinforce the view of the female body as a commodity and encourages coercive attitudes towards it.
In a paper presented at a robotics conference, Sinziana Gutiu argues that ‘sex robots, by their very design, reinforce the idea that women are subordinate to men and mere instruments for the fulfilment of male fantasies. This type of harm has been explored in the context of pornography and is reproduced by the advent of sex robots. Like pornography, use of sex robots sexualises rape, violence, sexual harassment and prostitution and eroticizes dominance and submission’.
Scholars argue that the use of a sexbot is in many ways more harmful than viewing pornography because the user is physically and emotionally more intensely engaged. Sex robots provide a nearly complete sexual experience in a way that viewing pornography does not. Consequently, as Gutiu points out, ‘The user is therefore more likely to ascribe and internalise a primarily sexual and submissive purpose for women, through direct sensory experience’.
Sex robots will not only harm the user but also the wider society. The individual who uses a sexbot is engaged in a dehumanised form of sex and intimacy. Repeated exposure to this perverted form of sex would dehumanise the user. In fact, the more ‘humanised’ the android – that is, the more powerfully it presents the anthropomorphic illusion – the more dehumanising it is for the user.
Gutiu provides a list of possible harms: ‘Negative effects include alienation and seclusion from society, stunted emotional development, and an inability to compromise or handle rejection. A person’s need for sex with a robot could suggest a sign of physical and emotional withdrawal from efforts to connect intimately with humans’.
Blay Whitby and Kathleen Richardson concur.
‘An individual who consorts with robots rather than humans’, Whitby asserts, ‘may become more socially isolated’. Richardson maintains that the reason why intimate relations with robots will lead to isolation is because ‘robots are not able to meet the species specific sociality of human beings, only other humans can do that’.
‘User’s repeated interaction with sex robots’, Gutiu adds, ‘will solidify antisocial habits and confirm their fragility and unwillingness to overcome personal social challenges’.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.