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Vol. 13, No. 2, 2014
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Robert J. Lewis
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pros & cons



Greta Christina blogs at Freethough Blogs, and is author of Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Ads for the computer love story Her are everywhere, and it makes me wonder about the ethics of sex robots. Would I ever have sex with one? Or would I find it ooky and gross -- in a moral sense, but also aesthetically and erotically? Here's what I decided.

I certainly don't have any objections to using sex toys. I don't have moral objections, or aesthetic/erotic ones. I think sex toys are awesome, and I use them enthusiastically. And a sex robot would essentially be a sex toy. Unless it had consciousness, from a moral perspective I don't see how using a robot for sex would be any different than using a vibrator for sex.

But I'm finding the idea ooky.

I think a sex robot would be different from a vibrator, in important ways. After all, isn't the whole idea of a sex robot that they would be a stand-in for a human being? That isn't true for a vibrator. It's not meant to be a substitute for people. It's meant to be a machine that creates a certain kind of sensation that feels pleasurable. But the whole idea of a sex robot would be that it would be like having sex with a person, except you would get to have any kind of sex you wanted, whenever you wanted, for as long as you wanted, except without all that pesky business of it having desires and limits of its own.

For the most part, I don’t think this would be much fun. A big part of the pleasure of sex for me is the connection between two (or more) conscious beings, the overlapping and intertwining of two (or more) sets of desires and limits. I enjoy other people's desires and pleasures, and enjoy fulfilling them -- and that would be entirely absent with a sex robot. Even when I'm feeling intensely dominant, even when I enjoy the fantasy of a deeply submissive partner who's discarded their volition and is catering to my every whim, I still want them to want it. So on that basis alone, I can't see a sex robot being a part of my regular sex life.

But if I were framing it as ‘vibrator’ rather than ‘human substitute’ . . . well, I use vibrators all the time, with no concern whatsoever about the fact that they're machines without desires or limits. So at the very least, I could see being curious about a sex robot, and trying it out for variety and novelty. I could see experimenting with it, as an interesting way to act out fantasies that I can't get a human partner to try -- or to tailor those fantasies as precisely as I want.

If the robot didn't have consciousness, I don't think there would be moral problems -- but for me, it would fall squarely into ‘uncanny valley’ territory. There's a theory about human simulacra, robots and cartoons and such, stating that they become more appealing as they seem more human . . . until they reach a certain point of human-ness, at which point their appeal drops off rapidly, and they start being disturbing and creepy. They stop looking like cute human-like simulacra, and start looking like people with something off about them, something subtly but seriously wrong. For me, a human-like sex robot without consciousness would fall into the uncanny valley with a resounding thud. And the closer they were to seeming human -- which presumably would be the goal behind their engineering -- the more unsettling they would be.

Off course, if a sex robot did have consciousness, having sex with it, or indeed creating it, would be morally reprehensible. The idea of designing a conscious being that existed to serve your desires and not have any of its own is reprehensible. I'm not sure what it would even mean to have consciousness and not have any desires of your own. If a sex robot were conscious, that consciousness would either have to be manufactured in a profoundly twisted way that perverted (and not in a good way) the entire idea of what it means to be conscious, or it would be a plain old consciousness. In which case the sex robot would simply be a slave.

And then, of course, we come to the tricky question: How do we know whether the sex robot has consciousness? If the engineering got so good that the robots were really close to seeming human -- if they acted and reacted like humans, if they had cognitive processes that were indistinguishable from humans' -- then at what point would they essentially be human? Once we understand that consciousness is a physical product of the brain, it's not at all implausible to think that an artificial intelligence of a certain type and complexity might have consciousness as well. It's the Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep problem: If androids are being designed to be more and more similar to human beings, does there come a point where there'snot a useful moral distinction between them?

So to a certain extent, moral issues and the aesthetic ones overlap. If the sex robot were human enough to seem really human, you start to run into the moral problem of whether it has consciousness. If it weren't human enough to seem really human, it would be missing the point, and would be disturbing as hell to boot.

But I'm curious if other people would do this. I'm wondering if I'm missing anything in my analysis -- either ethical or erotic. Thoughts?


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