June 14, 2017
Sex Robots: Technology, Ethics & What The Future Holds
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Sex-bots are coming and the future is rather exciting! This week, Neil McArthur, The Director of the Centre for Applied Ethics from the University of Manitoba, joins us to discuss his research with sex robots. He shares his insights on the ethics of “using” sex robots and their potential benefits from a compassionate perspective.
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This is a computer-generated rough transcript, so please excuse any typos. This podcast is an informational conversation and is not a substitute for medical, health or other professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the services of an appropriate professional should you have individual questions or concerns.
Sex Robots: Technology, Ethics & What The Future Holds
Hello. Hello. This is Jess O’Reilly. I am sex with Dr. Jess. And as usual, I am here to give you practical information grounded in science that you can put into practice today or tonight to make your relationship and sex life more fulfilling. And today’s episode is brought to you by Desire Resorts, one of my favorite spots in the world to visit one of my favorite spots to get naked on the beach and meet new friends from all around the world. So make sure you check them out at Desire Resorts. Now, I am really intrigued by today’s topic, partly because I don’t know a lot about it, and partly because it’s just blowing up when you look at the numbers, the billions of dollars in this industry. And we are talking about the industry and research area of robot sex. That’s right. Robot sex. And I was reading about a new sex robot that costs about $15,000. And this robot laughs at your jokes. It makes its own jokes. She remembers your favorite foods knows your birthday. She can quote Shakespeare. And of course, the robot is fully equipped for sex in multiple holes, so I can’t wait to learn more to teach me. I’m going to be learning along with you. I have with me today. Neil MacArthur, a Winnipeg based sex researcher director for the center of Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. Hi there, Neil. Hi, Jess. Thanks for having me. How are you? I’m really well now, Neil, you just came back from Paris and Prague, two cities of sex. Did you go to the Sex Machine Museum in Prague? I absolutely did go to the Sex Machine Museum. It was fascinating. It’s nice to see the history and how long the history is of people having sex with machines. How long have we been having sex with machines? Well, you certainly find lots of I guess you could call the machines going back to the Victorian era. There’s probably things that might count earlier than that, but certainly for the last 150 years, we have been coming up with various kinds of contraptions. Originally, doctors were very worried in the 19th century about women’s inability to have orgasms. And so they started coming up with various technological solutions to do that. And so there’s been medical technologies. And then, of course, also people just inventing things for pleasure. My goodness. Okay. So I have to ask, how did you get into robot sex? Well, that’s an interesting way of putting it. As a researcher, I got into robot sex. I must say, I’ve always been interested in technology, and I’ve always been interested in sex. And I’ve always been interested in the ethical problems that each of those fields raise. And this was a natural intersection. I don’t think we know a lot about the future and what’s coming in terms of technology. There’s a lot of uncertainty, but I do think we know one thing for sure. And that is that very soon people will be having sex with robots. And so these are coming. And I just figured if these are going to happen, we should start thinking about what it means. All right. And you have a book coming out. Tell us about your book because it focuses on robot sex.
It is called Robot Sex, Social and Ethical Implications. It is being published by MIT Press. It’s an academic book. It’s a book that’s mostly researchers. But I think that the essays will be of interest to lots of different people. It’s coedited with my colleague John Danaher, who teaches in Ireland, and it brings together a number of different experts from all sorts of fields social psychology, law and philosophy, of course. So there’s just economics. There’s a wide range of essays, and I think a lot of people will find something of interest if they are at all interested in this topic. Now, I never thought about this, Neil, but I realized that you are a researcher in the area of sex robots, but also a researcher and expert in the area of ethics. And the way these two fields intersect are rather interesting because I was reading some work by are you familiar with Dr. Kathleen Richardson? Yes. She’s been very active in well, yeah, you can maybe say more, but she’s obviously someone who is not looking forward to robots coming per se. She will not be buying a sex robot. So she’s the founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots. And she claims that owning a sex robot is comparable to owning a slave and that individuals are buying the right to only care about themselves and that we’re, eroding human empathy and commodifying the female body. I mean, you obviously, as a researcher, have researched both sides of the aisle on this issue. Where do you stand on the ethics of robot sex? One thing I want to be clear is that I don’t think this is a one way bet. I’m not going to stand here and say there’s nothing to be concerned about. I think that there are a lot of legitimate concerns, some of which Dr. Richardson has raised. I, however, think they’re going to be on balance. I think they’re going to be great. I think that they’re going to be something that people will want. First of all, I think that they are things that will have a lot of positive upsides for people and for society. And so I think there are a lot of risks. I think there are a lot of challenges, but I’m going to say flat out that I think at the end of the day we’re going to be happy that this is happening. Yeah. So my thought is that it’s a robot, it’s not a human being. So I don’t see the same ethical issues. I don’t know how she can draw that parallel to slavery because it’s just a machine, a machine that we build. Where do you stand on that. Yeah. I think there’s a couple of things to say about that. First of all, I think we don’t know where artificial intelligence is going. We don’t know if robots are going to reach the point where they’re genuinely conscious. Obviously, from Blade Runner on, there’s a million movies that speculate about that. But I think we’re a long way off. We’re a long way off, at the very least, from the point at which robots will be conscious. And we’ll have personalities and we’ll have, I think, rights. So I think we’re going to have sex spots before we have conscious sex bots. I also think even it’s an interesting question, but even when they have a certain level of consciousness, if something is designed to do something, it’s hard to say that you’re enslaving it by making it do it. I think of the analogy of bees making honey, right. Bees make honey. And sometimes we have them make honey for us. But preventing a Bee from making honey would be much more cruel than allowing a Bee to make a honey. A Bee wants to make honey. And I think that sex bots are being designed to have sex, and they’re going to want to have sex. I think even if they reach the point of consciousness, it’s going to be a long way before we should worry about them having sex. But I think at the very least, in the short term, what we’re talking about are not conscious agents. What we’re talking about is basically, Siri, with a body that makes sense. And these bodies are so realistic, they are now the one thing. So here’s the one thing I’m not a technology expert. Exactly. I’m certainly not an engineer, but I do know that the one thing is very hard to get a robot to do is walk. So that is kind of where a lot of researchers who are trying to design human like robots are hung up if they can’t get the things to walk. Now. Luckily, walking isn’t the absolute necessity you need from a sex robot. So you can create quite a realistic sex robot as long as you don’t want it to walk around and make you breakfast in bed and do all that sort of stuff. Yeah. We’re getting to the point because people have been saying, oh, this is 50 years away. This is 100 years away. It’s not 50 years away. It’s not 100 years away. It’s very close. And they’re getting better all the time. Right. And as they get better, what that ultimately means is that they will become more affordable because most people aren’t going to go buy a $15,000 sex robot. But you remember when those hoverboards came out, right. And they were like, $3,000.
Yeah. And now, unfortunately, they’re much cheaper. That’s right. That happens with all technology as it gets mass produced. And as it gets more advanced, the price drops radically. I will say, too, that also, even though sex bots may further foreseeable future be a fairly expensive buy. Well, at the same time, you don’t necessarily need to have it 24 hours a day. And there are already sextal brothels in Japan, and they command pretty impressive audiences. And so I think once we are assured that the sanitation issues have been dealt with, I think people may find that they’re willing to rent a sex club. Yeah. That makes a lot more sense, because then when you have your friends over your in laws over she’s not just sitting on the couch. That’s right. Well, and I say she because this seems to be a very hetero male centric market. Is that correct? Am I missing something? There no at the time right now. That’s true, obviously, because they don’t really exist right now. We don’t have a lot of data, but we can sort of extrapolate based on the sex doll market. And so we know based on in particular, I think you’d say the most prominent company making sex dolls is the real doll company. And the owner of Real Dog says that he does have female clients, and he does have couples that come in and does have gay and lesbian clients. But the vast majority is right now a straight man. As social values change, and as the technology advances, that may change, too. But yes, I think for the foreseeable future, it is going to be a straight, petrol, CIS male market. Right. Okay. So this is a little concerning to me. I was reading that the latest robot is designed to be the ideal companion, and this is the description I read of the ideal female Companion docile submissive built like a porn star and always sexually available. And I was thinking, Is this really what people want? Yeah. And I think when we talk about the concerns here’s, one thing I will say, too, by the way, is that given the state of artificial intelligence technology right now, it’s a lot easier to design something that’s sort of docile and agreeable, because that’s just a simpler text as well. But nevertheless, it is true that that also is going to be probably in the short term what people want. And I think that is a legitimate grounds for concern is that we are going to create a situation where we already have, let’s be honest here, we already have a society where an awful lot of dudes think that the ideal female companion is all those things. And so we’re not creating that situation with sex life. But it is true that we’re fostering those kinds of attitudes potentially. And I think we should be worried about that. And I think that we should be willing to think about that and possibly try to make sure that we’re countering that sort of thing. I think that this isn’t an issue that is created by sex, but I don’t think it’s an issue that’s going to be solved by sex. Plus, I think this is a society wide problem. I think that we should be doing sex education from an early age. I don’t know if you agree with that, Jess, but I know that you have very strong views about sex education and about the kind of education we should have around gender roles and so on. And I think those are all the right things to do. And I think we should do those whether there are sex spots in the world or not. But I think that sexbots should remind us that this is a challenge we can never let slide. Right. So it’s a reflection of gender roles. I mean, to me that just blows my mind because I wouldn’t say I’m dawsol or submissive or always sexually available. And I’m thinking, how am I going to fare out there? I’m not suggesting that I’m competing with the sex spots, but I wonder if this is a very thin slice of the population who are currently purchasing these sex spots, and that’s what they’re into, as opposed to what the masses are into. I think that probably is true. Again, in the short term, I think in the long term, we don’t know. I think that in the long term, you’re going to see I mean, look, once upon a time, I’m old enough to remember when once upon a time there was basically one kind of pornography. There isn’t one kind of pornography. Now there’s certainly a dominant kind of pornography. But at the same time as the market has expanded, you see a lot more diversity. You see a lot more different kinds of things being introduced into the market. And I can hope that that’s going to happen with sex blocks as well. Okay. Yeah. That makes sense to me. And from an ethical perspective, I’ve been reading in preparation for this conversation. I was also reading about companion robots, which are not sex robots that they’re using in Japan and elsewhere in nursing homes that bring comfort to people with dementia. So, again, this isn’t about sex, but about companionship. So this AI technology must be really coming a long way. That’s right. And that’s right. When we talk about the technological advances around sex bots, obviously, it isn’t just being developed for sex bots. This is part of a larger trend towards artificial intelligence, towards robotics, towards companionship. And I think if we wanted to move the conversation away from the challenges with Sexbox, which I don’t think we should ignore. But I think there’s definitely, as you say, another side of the aisles. And I think when you start talking about the positives of Sexbox and you have to start looking at people who don’t have access to companionship and don’t have access to sex, I really get a little frustrated because we talk so much about inequality. We talk about economic inequality, we talk about healthcare inequality. We talk about educational inequality.
We don’t talk about inequality and access to sex because there are a lot of people in the world who just do not find it easy to meet people either, because of their personalities, because of where they live geographically. If you’re a gay and lesbian person living in small town Alabama, you’re going to have trouble meeting. There’s a podcast cereal that talked about how difficult it is being gay in that kind of situation. There’s lots of people who are in prison who are in mining camps. So there’s lots of people in situations where they just simply can’t meet people very easily. And I think we should be willing to say this is a problem we should worry about. And sex bots are potentially at least they’re not the ideal solution, but they’re a way of addressing them. Yeah. And not just the sex, but the human touch. I always think about the privilege I live with as a young woman, as an attractive woman, as somebody with a partner, how much touch I have access to and not even with my partner with friends. I can hug so many people, and not everybody has that privilege, and that has to do with gender and age and appearance and income and ability and my build and all of those things. That’s true. So do you see sex bots as part of the solution to that, the challenge that exists. And again, I’m with you that we should be reframing, retooling our culture, to be more loving, more inclusive, create greater access to these things that are universal human needs. But in the meantime, or as part of the solution, do you see sex bots as essential to that? That, for me, is the big sell. I think that it’s for people, the ability of sex bots to give some companionship and honestly, some pleasure to people who really struggle with that. And I think another big piece of this picture is people who have had trauma in their past. It is very difficult to have a relationship if you have a history of traumatic events and having we say, oh, well, who would want a companion that you just can control and it’s totally docile and isn’t threatening to you in any way. Well, if you’ve had a history of trauma, either sexual or otherwise, having a companion that you can know is totally safe and can help you sort of have companionship and maybe transition to human companionship. I think that’s incredibly important. It’s interesting the sensitivity with which you address this issue, because I think most people kind of laugh it off. Like there’s this judgment that exists with regard to, oh, it’s just some lonely guy in his mum’s basement, and there seems to be a lack of empathy when it comes to people who have difficulty dating, connecting or having sex. Yes. Is this something you came across in your research? Yeah. Absolutely. I think that’s right. And I think the image we have of the high libido dude who just needs a robot because they can’t get enough. Maybe there’s some of that. But yeah, I think we’re going to see the market data pretty clearly when this comes out, the kinds of people who use this and the kinds of people who need this. And I think that that’s something that we absolutely should do with compassion. And I think that there’s the lonely people. There’s also people I think who within relationships struggle with sexual incompatibility or desire discrepancy. And I think that that also is something we should not laugh off. And we should view with some empathy. And I think that sex bots, if they’re introduced both partners, are understanding of what’s going on. I think that sex lots can have a lot of uses within relationships for desired discrepancy. One partner wants sex more than the other. There may be partners who have kinks or who want things that the other person doesn’t want. And again, you can just dismiss that as well. That’s so weird. But I think a lot of partners are under a lot of pressure to satisfy their partners in ways that they don’t want to do. And I think sex bots can really help resolve tensions in those kinds of relationships. That’s really interesting. And I can see one day perhaps these sex bots being like a vibrator in that if we look 100 years ago or even 50 years ago, the stigma attached to sex toys, you think about a lonely person and it’s in their bedside. And now we see that most couples are embracing. So I think that if sex bots become affordable, that’s the big barrier. Right now, I would presume the stigma, but also the financial burden, for sure. I could see it being something that people play with. It may not even be about overcoming a specific challenge, but about something that is simply a sexual accoutrement in the bedroom, something else. Like I think about how many couples come to me with a threesome fantasy, right? Yeah. Exactly. And I think again, when you say, well, isn’t it terrible to have the idea that, well, isn’t it concerning that we have these personalities that are so docile and so on? Well, within the context of a relationship, I’m not sure if my partner was going to have a sexbot. I don’t think it would bother me, but at the same time, I’m not sure I would want that sex bot to be more interesting than me and more intelligent than me. I might prefer someone who is pretty low key. What about their skills? What are their skills? Well, right now the technology is under development, so I think that we can only sort of use our imagination.
But here’s what I would say. I would say that I think that we can ultimately probably program them to do anything we ourselves can imagine, and probably physically they’ll be capable of things we can’t do. So I think that it will add to the fun of it all that they can do all kinds of things, they never get tired. We worry so much about sex education. Again, I think it’s wonderful. All the work that you’ve done just around sex education. But I think this could be a tool for educating people and especially younger people, because we worry, oh, they’re all watching porn, and they’re getting a terrible view of what sex involves. Well, if you can program a robot to actually educate somebody in a way that is responsible and useful, then I think this could be incredibly great. That’s really interesting. You’re bringing up issues of compassion and empathy and education that I hadn’t considered. I guess, of course, on the surface, you see sex bots as something amusing and entertaining, and I think about, oh, so they’re going to be able to do something I can’t do. My goodness, when I want, like, a Thursday night off, I’ll be like, Babe, just go to the sex bot show, obviously, or he will have a name. So this is definitely interesting. And what would you like to see for the future of sex bots? What comes to mind first for me, and I like the analogy you drew to porn is that I’d love to see more diversity of bodies and functions and personalities, but you probably have some interesting thoughts in terms of the tech and the function. Yeah. Again, I’m not an engineer. I think that diversity is definitely important. And I think that we’re not just talking about human diversity here in terms of race. I think it’ll be important to have different racial categories, different body types, all those things. But who knows, people may come up with some fairly wild sort of shapes and sizes of things that they want. One of the things I ask my students is if you are going to have a sexbot, would you want it to look like a human being, or would you just want it to look like a straight up robot in some kind of cool way? A lot of people say, yeah, they wouldn’t mind having a sex bot that looks like a robot. I don’t know if you imagine R 2D two or God knows what, but there’s all kinds of wild configurations that we can imagine, which, I mean, why not? And I think that I definitely would like to see the tech go in a female centric direction. I mean, I think that what you’ve seen in the last ten years in the sex toy industry. Is that industry really sort of saying, wait a second. You know, women don’t just need a vibrating dildo that we can do all kinds of interesting things around vibrating fingertip attachments and all kinds of things that make sex really much more satisfying for women. And I think that if you extend that research into the robotics field, I think you could see that women find that there are robots that can do all kinds of things that really are able to focus on their pleasure in a way that, unfortunately, male partners aren’t always that great. That’s certainly interesting. And certainly women are the primary force behind growth in the adult toy novelty industry. And we don’t necessarily buy dildos or sex toys that look like phalluses or that are anatomically correct. So again, I didn’t even think of that because the first sex robot I saw was an AVM a few years ago, and I was able to put my fingers inside of her vagina and her anus and her mouth. And it’s awfully humanlike. Yeah. And again, that is a development that has sort of an offshoot of developments you’ve seen within the sex toy industry. That the materials they’re using. Because I think here’s what I would say. I think that the development of sex robots depends on two things. One, it depends on the developments and artificial intelligence kind of reaching the point where they can move around and interact a little bit. But then it just depends on development of realistic materials because 20 years ago, that’s right. You couldn’t design a flashlight. You couldn’t have these things that in any way simulated human material, whatever you want to call it a human flesh. But now we’re getting much better at that. We see sex toys that are much more able to emulate human bodies. And so that’s all going to be deployed by sex bots. This is really fascinating to me. And honestly, you flushed out some areas that I don’t think I had considered until you took us in that direction. So thank you so much, Neil. We have to wrap it up. Where can people find you and find your new book Sex Robots? Well, my new book, Robot Sex, is called if you look up Neil McCarthy robots sex on Amazon, you can preorder it’ll be out. It’s not out until September, but I would love it if people pre ordered it, and then they can find me, I guess, by Googling, I don’t have an easily memorable URL, but I do have a website that they can find. All my research. Okay, excellent. Link to the book and your Amazon page. Obviously, they can find you through your Amazon page as well. And my Twitter handle. Sorry, I should give my Twitter handle that’s maybe the easiest thing is moral lust to us. Okay, excellent. Really interesting stuff. Neil, thanks so much for being with us today. Well, that was really great, Jess. Thanks so much. Thank you, folks. Make sure you follow Neil. I certainly did a lot of learning here and what I’m thinking about now, maybe I have to have Neil back to help to dig a little deeper. But how do those of us who maybe won’t buy a sex robot? How do we benefit from the technology? And I can imagine that some of the technological advancements from the sex bot and robotics field will be passed along to the simple field of vibrators and sex toys. So I’m certainly looking forward to what’s to come, folks, that’s all the time we have. Make sure you’re following Neil and follow me at sex withDoctor Jess. Thank you so much as always to Desire Resorts. I’m coming for you soon. And if you guys have questions or comments, be sure to get in touch. We do our best to get back to every single one of you. And the easiest way to reach us is on Facebook or Twitter at sex. Withdraw Jess thanks so much and have a great weekend. Bye.