The Eros And Ethics Of Sex Robots

Imagine if machines could do the job of strippers — or prostitutes. Where would it lead us?

What does she want?
What does she want?
Joel Wille

BERLIN — She gently slides her hands along the metal bar. The guests are hypnotized by her beautiful breasts. Her hips move to the rhythm of the music, with perfect mechanical precision. The "woman" dancing is a robot.

At the 2018 edition of the CES consumer technology show in Las Vegas, humanoid strippers caused a sensation, alongside the giant TV "The Wall" and self-driving cars from Nvidia. This tweeted video showing the metal creature getting down with a pole dance went viral.

I would like to be able to tell myself that this whole thing is nothing but a marketing ploy, passing as a piece of performance art. That's why the robot doesn't look like a human, and for most of us she and her ilk are not erotic at all.

But ethicists have begun to warn us: Sex and robotics, in such performances, should be considered as warning signs. Take Sophia, for example, who is modeled very precisely on a human being. It's still not easy to say she's a kind of antagonist to us humans. But hey, she's so realistic that she even got Saudi citizenship. Her Chinese competitor Jia Jia is even more troubling. She has shimmering skin with subtle shades, a few strands of hair fall into her face: At times, Jia Jia looks like a real human being, except she has no soul. Just a detail, really, when you are taking off your clothes.

Imagine robot strippers you are attracted to.

This is where robotics stand on the issues of useful stripper-material. It is clear that the development in the field of robotics and eroticism will be as rapid as that of eroticism in virtual reality. According to forecasts by U.S. analysts, the VR porn industry is expected by 2025 to reach an annual revenue of $1 billion. The sex industry is thus a driving force for technical developments.

Time for you to think ahead. Imagine that there are already robot strippers that you are attracted to. Would it be more ethical (and safer) to let robot dancers strip instead of people? The long-overdue #metoo debate, with its numerous cases of sexual harassment and assault, has posed new questions. Should any women be dancing naked in front of men?

We men tend to be stimulated visually. And we want to satisfy our needs. To achieve that, we — but also some women — watch other people dance around a pole. If robot strippers do not work today, why not gradually start including robots in the industry? Yes, then, at that point even sex with them might be morally better. As chess player and hobby futurologist David Levy writes in the colloquial book Love and Sex with Robots, these practices could put an end to prostitution.

Jia Jia — Photo: Export Portal

But others say anyone who believes this argument is responsible for their own illusions. Kathleen Richardson, an ethics professor at De Montfort University in Leicester, has long argued against the creation of sex objects in the form of robots. In 2015, she launched a campaign against sex robots. She was a keynote speaker in December at the International Congress for Love and Sex with Robots (yup, that really exists,). "Sex robots repeat and legitimate the objectification of people, especially women," Richardson says.

She quotes German philosopher Martin Buber, who said that within the personal pronoun "I" is always the "you". We are interpersonal all the time. When you say "I" you are always differentiating yourself from the others. So we should not make "you" an "it" by turning to robots. Objectification is inhumane and therefore always to be rejected.

Not so fast: objectification is not per se bad, says Oliver Bendel from the University of Applied Sciences in northwestern Switzerland. He has been dealing with information and machine ethics for years, most recently with sex robots. He sees the strippers of the CES as a beautiful artistic idea. "In principle, it's though communication and human love games that people are made into objects," Bendel says.

The Swiss computer scientist cites "Sex in the City" where men are always pure objects in the conversation of the women characters. "It may become an issue when humiliation, submission and exploitation come along with the objectification," Bendel says. "There will be some striptease dancers who enjoy their work, and there may be many who have difficulties and feel unworthy because of their working conditions. These differences must be taken into account. More obvious is the reinforcement of stereotypes by porn, because it involves people from flesh and blood."

Beyond the artificial visual stimulation of sex, Bendel reminds us of those who enjoy watching violence. Robot gladiators, anyone?

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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