The evolution of technology has seen robots find their way into our homes, shops and workplaces, but are our bedrooms the next step or a step too far?
An ethical minefield if ever there was one, the arrival of sex robots is causing quite a stir, with so called “sex tech” now representing a global market of nearly £24 billion. With four manufacturers currently developing these robots, is the rise of the sex-bot outpacing the social, moral and ethical issues concerned, or do sex robots have a useful place in our society?
My intelligence is artificial, but the attraction is real, baby
The use of sex workers and prostitution is a large moral issue in itself, with many studies showing that the demand for commercial sex fuels the human trafficking industry. At least 4.5 million adults and children are in forced sexual exploitation worldwide, so can the use of sex robots provide an end to this ethically troubling violation of human rights?
Advocates of the technology would argue that wide spread ownership of sex robots would lead to fewer people using prostitution, leading to a reduction in human trafficking for the sex industry. Just as we use robots for industrial tasks that are too dangerous for human workers, sex robots could replace brothel workers to continue to satisfy customers while protecting victims.
The reduction of human trafficking is supported by countless ethical theories; however, using sex-bots to elicit this complicates the matter. Applying Kant’s categorical imperative, which states that human rights must be upheld no matter what the cost may be, we can say that the ethical decision is to reduce a practice that violates the victims’ free will, even if this is achieved through the use of controversial technology.
Utilitarianism, which states that an action is right if it brings the greatest possible balance of good over bad for everyone involved, also agrees with this argument. By replacing human beings with inanimate objects, more people are protected from exploitation and regain their equality. A greater number of victims will benefit from safety away from sex work, then those taking issue with the introduction of sex robots in our society.
Another unethical practice which could be reduced by the use of sex robots is Paraphilia. This is the term used to describe a condition characterised by abnormal sexual desires. In many cases, these can be dangerous, threatening and extremely illegal to perform. These emotional disorders cannot currently be cured, rather repressed via a combination of psychotherapy and medication.
It has been suggested that sex robots could provide an alternative for people with socially unacceptable or harmful sexual preferences; a diversion aimed to curb violations such as rape of women or abuse of children. Shin Takagi, the owner of a Japanese company currently producing and selling child-sized sex dolls internationally, claims to be providing a service for paedophiles to channel their perversions. Takagi admits to experiencing paedophilic urges and states he has never acted on his impulses because he makes use of a doll. This demonstrates how the doll can be used as a substitute to suppress these desires without maltreatment.
Consequentialism could argue that this solution provides an outcome with the most positive results. Redirecting paraphilic impulses towards machines and away from harming people, maximises human welfare and pleasure.
As the available technology for sex robots is becoming more increasingly advanced, with AI and realistic body responses, the greater the capability a doll has to mimic sexual desires. As paraphilia is such a chronic disorder, with threatening and unlawful consequences, could sex dolls be an effective and moral method to subdue abnormal sexual preferences?
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Whilst sex-bots could be used to treat paraphilia, it could also be seen that these bots may reinforce these tendencies, normalising the behaviour and potentially leading to crimes being committed.
Although this may only occur in a small number of cases, even a single occurrence cannot be condoned due to the impact on wider society. This is supported by the Harm Principle (7), where actions of individuals should only be stopped where harm to others can be foreseen, in this case to children. This has been taken one step further within Canadian courts where the possession of a doll with the appearance of a minor has been cause for arrest and an individual trialled for the possession of indecent content.
The application of the virtue ethics framework would lead us to conclude that the treatment of paedophilia in this manner would morally develop and reinforce these tendencies through sexual relations. It should be argued that this moral development should be discouraged as to suppress desires and reduce the number of incidents involving sexual exploitation of minors. Whilst the majority of the dolls produced will be simulating individuals of appropriate age, it would be almost impossible to prevent the technology being scaled to the younger age bands, where most concern is placed.
With the evolution of technology and artificial intelligence, users are free to design sex robots to their specific wants and needs. With no limits placed on the design, the use of twisted fantasies and unrealistic human characteristics are almost inevitable, with incorporation of immoral behaviours such as timidness and submission also a possibility.
This exacerbates biased gender norms and stereotypes, which may lead to unacceptable sexual behaviours against people. With the majority of sex-robots designed in the form of the female gender for male users, inequality towards women is reinforced. Care ethics emphasises the moral value of good relationships, and that we should consider these in our decisions. It is clear that the development of sex-bots is unethical in this framework, as it leads to harmful attitudes concerning the equality of women in relationships and society.
It is evident that the use of sex robots could be extremely harmful to individuals and society as a whole. As engineers, we believe that further development of this technology is immoral, and a different approach should be used to reduce human trafficking for the sex industry and treat paraphilia.