Saturday, October 14, 2017

Some things you wanted to know about robot sex* (but were afraid to ask)


I am pleased to announce that Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications (MIT Press, 2017), edited by myself and Neil McArthur, is now available for purchase. You can buy the hardcopy/ebook via Amazon in the US. You can buy the ebook in the UK as well, but the hardcopy might take another few weeks to arrive. I've never sold anything before via this blog. That all changes today. Now that I actually have something to sell, I'm going to turn into the most annoying, desperate, cringeworthy and slightly pathetic salesman you could possibly imagine...

...Hopefully not. But I would really appreciate it if people could either (a) purchase a copy of the book and/or (b) recommend it to others and/or (c) review it and generally spread the word. Academic books are often outrageously expensive, but this one lies at the more reasonable end of the spectrum ($40 in the US and £32 in the UK). I appreciate it is still expensive though. To whet your appetite, here's a short article I put together with Neil McArthur that covers some of the themes in the book.


Sex robots are coming. Basic models exist today and as robotics technologies advance in general, we can expect to see similar advances in sex robotics in particular.

None of this should be surprising. Technology and sex have always gone hand-in-hand. But this latest development in the technology of sex seems to arouse considerable public interest and concern. Many people have questions that they want answered, and as the editors of a new academic book on the topic, we are willing to oblige. We present here, for your delectation, *some* of the things you might have wanted to know about robot sex, but were afraid to ask.

1. What is a sex robot?
A ‘robot’ is an embodied artificial agent. A sex robot is a robot that is designed or used for the purpose of sexual stimulation. One of us (Danaher) has argued that sex robots will have three additional properties (a) human-like appearance, (b) human-like movement and behaviour and (c) some artificial intelligence. Each of these properties comes in degrees. The current crop of sex robots, such as the Harmony model developed by Abyss Creations, possess them to a limited extent. Future sex robots will be more sophisticated. You could dispute this proposed definition, particularly its fixation on human-likeness, but we suggest that it captures the kind of technology that people are interested in when they talk about ‘sex robots’.

2. Can you really have sex with a robot?
In a recent skit, the comedian Richard Herring suggested that the use of sex robots would be nothing more than an elaborate form of masturbation. This is not an uncommon view and it raises the perennial question: what does it mean to ‘have sex’? Historically, humans have adopted anatomically precise definitions of sexual practice: two persons cannot be said to have ‘had sex’ with one another until one of them has inserted his penis into the other’s vagina. Nowadays we have moved away from this heteronormative, anatomically-obsessive definition, not least because it doesn’t capture what same-sex couples mean when they use the expression ‘have sex’. In their contribution to our book, Mark Migotti and Nicole Wyatt favour a definition that centres on ‘shared sexual agency’: two beings can be said to ‘have sex’ with one another when they intentionally coordinate their actions to a sexual end. This means that we can only have sex with robots when they are capable of intentionally coordinating their actions with us. Until then it might really just be an elaborate form of masturbation -- emphasis on the 'elaborate'.

3. Can you love a robot?
Sex and love don’t have to go together, but they often do. Some people might be unsatisfied with a purely sexual relationship with a robot and want to develop a deeper attachment. Indeed, some people have already formed very close attachments to robots. Consider, for example, the elaborate funerals that US soldiers have performed for their fallen robot comrades. Or the marriages that some people claim to have with their sex dolls. But can these close attachments ever amount to ‘love’? Again, the answer to this is not straightforward. There are many different accounts of what it takes to enter into a loving relationship with another being. Romantic love is often assumed to require some degree of reciprocity and mutuality, i.e. it’s not enough for you to love the other person, they have to love you back. Furthermore, romantic love is often held to require free will or autonomy: it’s not enough for the other person to love you back, they have to freely choose you as their romantic partner. The big concern with robots is that they wouldn’t meet these mutuality and autonomy conditions, effectively being pre-programmed, unconscious, sex slaves. It may be possible to overcome these barriers, but it would require significant advances in technology.

4. Should we use child sex robots to treat paedophilia?
Robot sex undoubtedly has its darker side. The darkest of all is the prospect of child sex robots that cater to those with paedophiliac tendencies. In July 2014, in a statement that he probably now regrets, the roboticist Ronald Arkin suggested that we could use child sexbots to treat paedophilia in the same way that methadone is used to treat heroin addiction. After all, if the sexbot is just an artificial entity (with no self-consciousness or awareness) then it cannot be harmed by anything that is done to it, and if used in the right clinical setting, this might provide a safe outlet for the expression of paedophiliac tendencies, and thereby reduce the harm done to real children. ‘Might’ does not imply ‘will’, however, and unless we have strong evidence for the therapeutic benefits of this approach, the philosopher Litska Strikwerda suggests that there is more to be said against the idea than in its favour. Allowing for such robots could seriously corrupt our sexual beliefs and practices, with no obvious benefits for children.

5. Will sex robots lead to the collapse of civilisation?
The TV series Futurama has a firm answer to this. In the season 3 episode, ‘I Dated a Robot’, we are told that entering into sexual relationships with robots will lead to the collapse of civilisation because everything we value in society — art, literature, music, science, sports and so on — is made possible by the desire for sex. If robots can give us ‘sex on demand’ this motivation will fade away. The Futurama-fear is definitely overstated. Unlike Freud, we doubt that the motivations for all that is good in the world ultimately reduce to the desire for sex. Nevertheless, there are legitimate concerns one can have about the development of sex robots, in particular the ‘mental model’ of sexual relationships that they represent and reinforce. Others have voiced these concerns, highlighting the inequality inherent in a sexual relationship with a robot and how that may spill over into our interactions with one another. At the same time, there are potential upsides to sex robots that are overlooked. One of us (McArthur) argues in the book that sex robots could distribute sexual experiences more widely and lead to more harmonious relationships by correcting for imbalances in sex drive between human partners. Similarly, our colleague Marina Adshade, argues that sex robots could improve the institution of marriage by making it less about sex and more about love.

This is all speculative, of course. The technology is still in its infancy but the benefits and harms need to be thought through right now. We recommend viewing its future development as a social experiment, one that should be monitored and reviewed on an ongoing basis. If you want to learn more about the topic, you should of course buy the book.

~ Full Table of Contents ~

I. Introducing Robot Sex
1. 'Should we be thinking about robot sex?' by John Danaher 
2. 'On the very idea of sex with robots?' by Mark Migotti and Nicole Wyatt

II. Defending Robot Sex
3. 'The case for sex robots' by Neil McArthur 
4. 'Should we campaign against sex robots?' by John Danaher, Brian Earp and Anders Sandberg 
5. 'Sexual rights, disability and sex robots' by Ezio di Nucci

III. Challenging Robot Sex
6. 'Religious perspectives on sex with robots' by Noreen Hertzfeld 
7. 'The Symbolic-Consequences argument in the sex robot debate' by John Danaher 
8. Legal and moral implications of child sex robots' by Litska Strikwerda

IV. The Robot's Perspective
9. 'Is it good for them? Ethical concern for the sexbots' by Steve Petersen 
10. 'Was it good for you too? New natural law theory and the paradox of sex robots' by Joshua Goldstein

V. The Possibility of Robot Love
11. 'Automatic sweethearts for transhumanists' by Michael Hauskeller
12. 'From sex robots to love robots: Is mutual love with a robot possible' by Sven Nyholm and Lily Eva Frank

VI. The Future of Robot Sex
13. 'Intimacy, Bonding, and Sex Robots: Examining Empirical Results and Exploring Ethical Ramifications' by Matthias Scheutz and Thomas Arnold
14. 'Deus sex machina: Loving robot sex workers and the allure of an insincere kiss' by Julie Carpenter
15. 'Sex robot induced social change: An economic perspective' by Marina Adshade


  1. "Allowing for such robots could seriously corrupt our sexual beliefs and practices, with no obvious benefits for children."

    John, have you ever wondered whether adult sex dolls (due to their inability to grant any kind of consent and thus implicitly encouraging rape culture), rape fantasy roleplaying (due to it simulating an evil and forbidden act), and realistic ageplay (due to it simulating an evil and forbidden act) likewise corrupt our sexual beliefs and practices? If so, should all of these things also be banned according to you?

  2. For instance, it's not illegal for a person who is attracted to minors to have consensual sex with an adult who looks like a child, such as this woman: So, why should it be illegal for such a person to have sex with and/or to own a sex doll that looks like a minor? If you're going to argue that the childlike adult can consent to sex but that the child sex doll cannot, then isn't that an argument in favor of criminalize all sex dolls, even those sex dolls that look like adults? And if you disagree with criminalizing adult sex dolls, then what other argument would you actually be willing to use to explain why it's permissible for a person who is attracted to minors to have consensual sex with an adult who looks like a minor but not with a sex doll that looks like a minor?

    I mean, I suppose that you could argue that adults who look like minors are much rarer than sex dolls that look like minors, but what if we lived in a (hypothetical) world where this wasn't actually the case? Then what would the meaningful distinction between these two things be?