Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Will sex workers be replaced by robots? (A Precis)

Daryl Hannah, Blade Runner

I recently published an article in the Journal of Evolution and Technology on the topic of sex work and technological unemployment (available here, here and here). It began by asking whether sex work, specifically prostitution (as opposed to other forms of labour that could be classified as “sex work”, e.g. pornstar or erotic dancer), was vulnerable to technological unemployment. It looked at contrasting responses to that question, and also included some reflections on technological unemployment and the basic income guarantee.

I hate to say this myself, but I thought the arguments in the paper were interesting, and I’d like to hear what other people think about them. But since people are busy, and may not be inclined to read the full 8,000 words, I thought I would provide a brief precis of the main arguments here. That might persuade some to read the full thing, and others to offer their opinions. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to focus solely on the arguments relating to the replacement of sex workers by robots, leaving the basic income arguments out.

This is the first time I’ve ever tried to summarise my own work on the blog — I usually focus on the work of others — and it comes with the caveat that there is much more detail and supporting evidence in the original article. I’m just giving the bare bones of the arguments here. No doubt everyone else whose work I’ve addressed on this blog wishes I added a similar caveat before all my other posts. In my defence, I hope that such a caveat is implied in all these other cases.

1. The Case for the Displacement Hypothesis
Those who think that prostitutes could one day be rendered technologically unemployed by sophisticated sexual robots are defenders of something I call the “displacement hypothesis”:

Displacement Hypothesis: Prostitutes will be displaced by sex robots, much as other human labourers (e.g. factory workers) have been displaced by technological analogues.

As I note in the article, a defence of the displacement hypothesis is implicit in the work of several writers. The most notable of these is, perhaps, David Levy, whose 2007 book Love and Sex with Robots remains the best single-volume work on this topic. In the article, I try to clarify and strengthen the defence of the displacement hypothesis.

I argue that it depends on two related theses:

The Transference Thesis: All the factors driving demand for human prostitutes can be transferred over to sex robots, i.e. the fact that there is demand for the former suggests that there will also be demand for the latter.
The Advantages Thesis: Sex robots will have advantages over human prostitutes that will make them more desirable/more readily available.

I then proceed to consider the arguments in favour of both.

The argument for transference thesis depends on a close analysis of the factors driving demand for human prostitution. Extrapolating from several empirical studies of human demand, these factors can be reduced to four general categories: (i) people demand prostitutes because they are seeking the kind of emotional connection/attachment that is typical in romantic human sexual relationships; (ii) people demand prostitutes because they are seeking sexual variety (both in terms of partners and types of sex act); (iii) people demand prostitutes because they desire sex that is free from the complications and expectations of non-commercial sex (basically, the inverse of the first reason); and (iv) people demand prostitutes because they are unable to find sexual partners through other means.

To defend the transference thesis, one simply needs to argue that sex robots can cater to all of these demands. So you must argue that it will be possible to create sex robots that develop emotional bonds with their users (or not, if that is the user preference); it will be possible to create sex robots that cater to the need for variety; and it will be possible to supply sex robots to those who are unable to find sexual partners by other means.

The argument for the advantages thesis depends on identifying all the ways in which sex robots could be more desirable and more readily available than human prostitutes. In the article, I list four types of advantage that sex robots could have over human sex workers. First, there are the legal advantages: prostitution is illegal in several countries whereas the production of sex robots is not (I also suggested that sex robots could cater to currently illegal forms of sexual deviance, though this is more controversial). Second, there are the ethical advantages: less need to worry about trafficking or objectification. Third, there are the health risk advantages: less risk of contracting STDs (though this depends on sanitation). And fourth, and finally, there are the advantages of production and flexibility: it might be easier to produce sex robots en masse to cater for demand, and to re-programme them to cater to new desires.

When combined, I suggest that the transference thesis and the advantages thesis present a good case for the displacement hypothesis. An argument diagram summarising what I have said and clarifying the logical connections is provided below.

2. The Case for the Resiliency Hypothesis
Although I accept that there is a reasonable case for the displacement hypothesis, one of my primary goals in the article is to suggest that there is also a case to be made for the contrasting view. Thus, I introduce something I call the “resiliency hypothesis”:

Resiliency Hypothesis: Prostitution is likely to be resilient to technological unemployment, i.e. demand for and supply of human sexual labour is likely to remain competitive in the face of sex robots.

As with the displacement hypothesis, the case for the resiliency hypothesis rests on two theses:

The Human Preference Thesis: Ceteris Paribus, if given the choice between sex with a human prostitute or a robot, many (if not most) humans will prefer sex with a human prostitute.
The Increased Supply Thesis: Technological unemployment in other industries is likely to increase the supply of human prostitutes.

In retrospect, I possibly should have called the second of these, the “Increased Supply and Competitiveness Thesis” since the claim is not just that there will be an increased supply but that those drawn into sex work will do everything they can to remain competitive against sex robots (thereby countering some of the advantages robots have over humans). I think this is clear in how I defend the thesis in the article, just not in the name I gave it.

Anyway, I rested my defence of the human preference thesis on three arguments and bits of evidence. The first was largely an argument from philosophical intuition. I suggested that it seems plausible to suppose that we would prefer human sex partners to robotic ones. I based this on the belief that ontological history matters to us in matters both related and unrelated to sex. Thus, for example, we care about where food or fine art comes from: it’s more valuable if it has the ontological right history (not just because it looks or tastes better). We also seem to care about where our sexual partners come from: witness, for example, the reaction to transgendered persons, who are sometimes legally obliged to disclose their gender history. (I’m not saying that this reaction is a good thing, just that it is present).

It has been pointed out to me — by Michael Hauskeller — that my ontological history argument may simply the beg the question. It assumes that sex robots will have an ontological history that fails to excite us as much as the ontological history of human sex workers, but in a way that is the very issue under debate: would we prefer humans to robots. On reflection, Hauskeller looks to be right about this. Additional evidence is needed to show that the ontological history we desire is a human one. I would also add that if our concern with ontological history is irrational or prejudiced, it may be possible to overcome it. Thus, even if humans are preferred in the short term, they may not be in the long term.

Fortunately, there were two other arguments for the human preference thesis. One was based on some polling data suggesting that humans were not all that willing to have sex with a robot (though I did critique the poll as well). The other was based on the uncanny valley hypothesis. I reviewed some of the recent empirical literature suggesting that this is a real effect, and argued that it might not even be a valley.

The defence of the increased supply thesis rested an a simple argument (the numbering may look a bit weird here but remember that’s because everything I’ve said is going into an argument diagram at the end):

  • (16) An increasing number of jobs, including highly skilled jobs, are vulnerable to technological employment. 
  • (17) If an increasing number of jobs are vulnerable to technological unemployment, people will be forced to seek other forms of employment (all else being equal). 
  • (18) When making decisions about which form of employment to seek, people are likely to be attracted to forms of employment: (i) in which there is a preference for human labour over robotic labour; (ii) with low barriers to entry; and (iii) which are comparatively well-paid. 
  • (19) Prostitution satisfies all three of these conditions (i) - (iii). 
  • (11) Therefore, there is likely to be an increased supply of human prostitution.

I looked at each of the premises of this argument in the paper, though I focused most attention on premise (19). In support of this, I considered evidence from economic studies of prostitution. I also followed this with some argumentation on the way in which human prostitutes could address the advantages of sex robots.

That gives us the following argument diagram.

That’s it then. I hope this clarifies the case for the displacement and resiliency hypotheses. For more detail and supporting evidence please consult the original article. There is also some follow-up in the article about the implications of all this for the basic income guarantee.

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