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You don’t need a PhD to grasp the anxieties around sex robots

If you have a TV, you can explore most of the issues yourself.
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ianmcdonnell via Getty Images

NSFW Warning: This story may contain links to and descriptions or images of explicit sexual acts.

If you want to understand the myriad issues concerning sex robots that humanity needs to grapple with, you have two options. You can either spend several years studying for a PhD in either of those fields, or you can sit down in front of your TV.

Many of the preoccupations that were on display at the third International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots are ones that have already been explored in pop culture. From Futurama to Westworld, going back to Weird Science and The Stepford Wives, the questions that academics are currently pondering have already been played out, fictionally at least, on TV.

To spare you a lot of very dry reading, you can instead sit down with this (digital) cut-out-and-keep guide on what you should be watching. These shows and films should give you a very basic grounding in what areas the world of robotic ethics research is currently exploring. Oh, and don't read further if you don't want any spoilers for anything that's come out in the past few decades.

If last year's show was about the potential for humanity to cause harm to robots, then this year's was devoted to our anxieties about our transhumanist future.

Topic: Should robots fight us?

Watch: Janet fighting against deactivation in The Good Place

A key character in The Good Place is Janet, a version of Siri in human form that can do anything you ask of them. In one episode of the sitcom, two characters' attempt to reset Janet, and while "she" cannot feel real emotions, she's also been designed to fight anyone who attempts to harm her. The closer a person walks toward her big red reset button, the more Janet's self-defense mechanisms kick in. She begs for her life, screams in anger and even conjures up images of her "children," attempting to guilt her attackers into submission.

In the context of the show, it's funny, but academics are taking these ideas of conflict and self-awareness very seriously. Researcher Nicola Liberati, of the University of Twente, believes that AIs will eventually take on these characteristics in order to appear more authentic. Liberati cites Love Plus, a relatively old Japanese Nintendo DS game. In the title, you need to please your digital partner, who can be petulant, demanding and needy -- to the extent that players have been asked to declare their love (via the handheld's microphone) while on a busy subway train.

Liberati thinks that the next generation of AIs will be programmed to be combative or even angry about their role in our lives. If you attempt to power them down during a discussion, they'll demand to know why or, like Janet, attempt to stop you. Then there's the question of whether these behaviors are enough to make these artificially intelligent people real, which was debated in the first season of Westworld. In that series, the park's creators attempted to "bootstrap" consciousness onto their robots.

Should you be ashamed of loving your robot?

Watch: Poe Dameron's love for BB-8 in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi

Liberati also spoke about the snobbery of people who look down upon those who have virtual or online relationships. These connections are often treated as less authentic than ones involving two people talking in a room, but is that really the case? Is it true that different levels of relationship -- depending on the medium -- deserve different levels of respect?

Take hotshot Resistance pilot Poe Dameron's tender friendship with his astromech droid, BB-8, who is very much not a humanesque robot. The droid is treated almost as an equal by plenty of the characters in the Star Wars movies, who address him/her like any other person. In fact, there's a moment in The Last Jedi where Poe embraces BB-8, touching foreheads as if greeting a lost love.

In Liberati's eyes, having meaningful relationships with artificial entities is perfectly acceptable, so long as we're not engaging with them to the exclusion of all others. And in Star Wars we can see that Poe has plenty of other friends, including Admiral Holdo, so he's clearly in a very good place. Not to mention that it's not as if human beings don't already develop deep attachments to inanimate objects, such as when naming their cars and boats and assigning them personality traits. Personifying the objects in our home is a common practice, so why should it be seen as weird that we do it to artificial intelligence?

Should robots have a gender?

Watch: The relationship between Kryten and Camille in Red Dwarf

Professor Gabriele Trovato, of Waseda University in Tokyo, published the results of his controversial study examining how we, as people, perceive gender in robots. He showed people images of robots with various body shapes, namely, differing waist-to-hip ratios. The robots that were presented with more feminine characteristics -- like a narrow waist and broad chest -- were deemed to be more feminine than the stockier ones.

But since robots don't have genitals or breasts, and don't need those appendages to exist, why are we handing them genders? Take the Red Dwarf episode "Camille," from 1991, in which Kryten, a toilet-cleaning robot, meets his female equivalent. Why does a toilet-cleaning robot need a female counterpart? Since both devices are the same underneath, the external dressing is little more than presentation.

Trovato's study came under fire at the event by some in the audience who felt that it had been badly designed, since it excluded respondents who believe that robots lack a gender. As the flaws in his study became more apparent, the researcher blurted, "Who needs a transgender robot?" in anger. But of course, that's the question: Why do robots need to have a gender at all?

Should we worry about robots taking charge?

Watch: Ex Machina's exploration of manipulation

Rebekah Rousi, from Finland's University of Jyväskylä, posed a series of questions about what happens when robots gain the upper hand in relationships. After all, they are likely to be smarter, faster, stronger and free from the frailties that meet most humans on a regular basis. Not to mention, of course, that robots can evolve with the ability to lie, and we may never realize that we're being deceived.

Rousi cited a study in which a cluster of small robots were tasked with, essentially, finding a usable food source and avoiding a poisonous one. The robots would tell their compatriots, which would then cluster around the good food, crowding out the original finder. In short order, some of the robots learned how to lie, pretending that they had not found the food and directing their compatriots to go elsewhere. Which reminds us of Ex Machina, in which a sentient robot manipulates her human creator and captor, and her observer, to her own ends.

Rousi also pointed out that, should robots reach a point where they develop their own preferences, those preferences may not include imperfect humans. In fact, it's entirely plausible that they may abandon humanity because they prefer spending time with other, similarly perfect machines. Which may force us all into embracing technological augmentation in order to remain competitive with that rich, handsome bodybuilding droid that lives in our building.

Should we worry about what the robots will be like?

Watch: The Stepford Wives' terrifying automatons.

Professor of art history Julie Wosk, of SUNY, wanted to talk about how the people who seem the most committed to creating sex robots also seem the most ill suited to do so. Specifically, she said, many have an interest in creating docile, bland representations of women that are little more than a Stepford Wife. In fact, there's a whole thread of fiction, running from Ibsen's A Doll's House through The Perfect Woman, Cherry 2000 and Weird Science, that shows this pattern of behavior.

Wosk believes that the first generation of sex robots -- typified by Abyss Creations' work and the AI that will eventually drive them -- buy into the Stepford Wife ideal. Which seems to stem from the Victorian notion of the cult of domesticity, a belief that a woman's place is in the home and that the only acceptable way for a woman to behave is as a docile servant, always available for sex and dedicated only to keeping home. And we have to wonder: Is that really what we want from our sex robots?

Further watching

One constant during the event was the appearance of Futurama images in so many of the presentations. After all, the show has often taken a sideways look at the world of robot ethics through the vehicle of its beer-guzzling star, Bender. As we pointed out last year, concerns that humans will abandon genetic reproduction in favor of screwing an android were pretty neatly covered in the episode "I Dated a Robot!" Not to mention that questions of robotic gender (and whether we need them at all) were, albeit crudely, addressed in "Bend Her."

If you've already seen Westworld and Humans, it might be worth rewatching them through the lens of our AI-infused future. I, Robot is another good examination of how robotics will alter how we see ourselves, not to mention dealing with the themes of transhumanism. Similarly, the original Robocop -- for all of its action movie trappings -- has something to say about the threats of digitization on our humanity. And Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049 and Her all feature forms of human-to-machine and machine-to-machine relationships that are treated as authentic.

It's not a story about artificial intelligence, but South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut is an easy lesson in understanding how some people are behaving now that sex robots are being developed. One of the conference's keynote speakers was Kathleen Richardson, the academic behind the Campaign against Sex Robots, a reactionary movement that seeks an outright ban on such devices. The right-winger believes that any sexual aid is a form of slavery, and she's also looking to ban masturbation tools, role-playing, BDSM and pornography. If you want to see what real-world opposition to this technology looks like, the South Park movie's a great place to start.

Of course, Richardson also wants to eradicate top-down power structures entirely, which seems odd, since they'd be required to enforce bans on the aforementioned. Her positions, no matter how incoherent, seemed to go down well with the crowd, who may believe that an outright ban is favorable, and possible. And while her views are currently on an extreme fringe, it's worth remembering that those who shout the loudest, no matter how nutty, often make themselves heard the most.

Richardson's cause may already be lost, since it would be nearly impossible to ensure global compliance, given how many companies are developing such devices. Not to mention that there's no guarantee that such hardware will be a flash in the pan, with people preferring to stick with flesh-and-blood companions for the most part. Perhaps, as in Lars and the Real Girl, the only real adopters of sex robots will be those who need an artificial partner as a therapeutic aid, which could be prescribed by a mental health professional. It's in this context that, at least for now, sex robots have the most utility, and warrant the least reason to protest against their use.

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