Here’s one for the file of lascivious pseudo newsstories designed not to inform but to provoke idle, lewd speculation. I’ll take the bait. Via BoingBoing comes this article from the London Times, in which scientists fret about the possiblity of humans having sex with robots. ” ‘People are going to be having sex with robots within five years,’ [ethicist Henrik Christensen] said. So should limits be set on the appearance, for example, of such robotic sex toys? The greatest danger, however, is likely to lie with robots that are able to learn from their ‘experiences’. As systems develop, robots are likely to have much more sophisticated self-learning mechanisms built into them and it may become impossible to predict exactly how they will behave.” This stuck me as a bit cryptic and it took me a little while to figure out what the concern was—that people will be having sex with robots that are designed to simulate children or something. That seems distasteful to say the least, but “sex with robots” still equals “masturbation” for all intents and purposes, so regulating what kind of robot you can use to get yourself off with seems essentially the same as regulating what kind of fantasies a person can have (which is itself a kind of perverse sexual fantasy, seizing control over what turns another person on). The implication also seems to be that robots will learn some frightening new behavior from having sex with humans—perhaps they will learn to reject us, to disappear while we are still sleeping. (Then, of course, some owners would probably delight in such a robot partner; they might want their kicks spiked with real emotional pain. Some will probably want robots that resist and fight back when sex is forced upon them.)
Perhaps the first step toward robotic sex will come in the form of robot sex chat—a computer-programmed erotic speech generator that can replace live phone-sex operators, an automated customer-service system on Viagra. Sexual imaginations aren’t necessarily expansive. For fetishists, they can be marked by a regressive fixation on repetition, on continual replayings of very precise scenarios. So it wouldn’t be surprising to be able to program a robot to enact such scenarios, to say the magic words in response to the appropriate cues. Take an ambiotronic Realdoll fitted with a system that can montior a person’s heartbeat and blood pressure and perhaps a penile plethysmograph and it is easy to see how robots can come to dominate the sexual-services industry, especially for people whose sexuality is wholly instrumental, goal-oriented. Of course the real problem for such an industry is that vast majority (I hope) of humans who actually delight in giving sexual pleasure and generally only experience such pleasure reciprocally. It seems unlikely they will ever be duped into feeling that the robot is experiencing real joy in response to anything one is doing to it. Some people might be encouraged into a more instrumental sexuality because of the convenience of robotic love, and perhaps sexual reciprocity will come to seem as quaint as land-line phones. Achieving the dream of being able to enjoy sex without feeling would make it that much more managable, that much more like shopping. But if robots could draw off frustrated sexual energy, would innovation stop? Would sublimation come to a stand still? It seems that part of the fear of sex robots must stem from a belief that all forms of social energy are basically sexual—they will sap us of our will to create, and leave us enfeebled and our world primed for the big robot takeover.