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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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Low-angle shot of three police officers standing in front of the Armenian Government Building in Yerevan on Sept. 19

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