What Are The Ethical Implications Of Having Sex With Robots?

August 4th 2017

The advent of any new technology is always accompanied by a host of ethical questions. From the invention of the atomic bomb to modern birth control, innovations invariably lead to debates over how these changes affect humanity, from a variety of perspectives. And of course, as progress bends towards the artificial intelligence epoch, humans are left to ponder: so, are we going to have sex with robots? 

And while that's still a ways off  —  more than 25 years by some estimates — questions over the ethical implications of having sex with robots have already arrived. And while advances in sextech range from the fairly trivial (such as robots that orgasm) to the very serious (“artificial offspring,” for instance), such questions represent the growing pains of our evolution.

For example: if we begin to rely too much on tech-assisted sex, will human intimacy be threatened? When we can artificially replicate human sex acts and reproductive matter like sperm and eggs, are we irrevocably altering what it means to be human? 

For some ethicists, the answer is easy: sextech can potentially enhance human interactions, with limits.  

Julie Carpenter, a research fellow at Cal Poly’s Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group, sees our interactions with sex robots akin to any new technology, big or small: it is a means to potentially enhance our lives. 

“If you’re supplementing your human interactions with technological ones, I don’t think that’s necessarily wrong,” Carpenter told ATTN:. Carpenter says that “disruptive” tech like sex robots will be handled like all new tech — and  we'll adjust accordingly. “We have to change cultural expectations, how we categorize things, how we talk about sex,” Carpenter says. “These things take time.”

Brian Patrick Green of the School of Engineering and Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University agreed that there is potentially nothing wrong with mixing relationships and technology. “AI and robots could teach humans to be better people and thus enhance human relationships,” Green explained to ATTN:. But he said things could get complicated if these advancements increase our ability to “monetize, objectify, infantilize, and exploit people.”

“There's not a lot of money in doing the right thing,” Green said. “By replacing a human partner with a robot, sex becomes intrinsically objectifying and dehumanizing.”

For theologians, the answer is tangled in centuries of dogma.

Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman, director of Sinai and Synapses, believes that the introduction of robots as sexual partners would augment our lives for the better, akin to any new innovation like fire or the wheel. “It's rooted in our evolutionary history,” Mitelman told ATTN:. “The challenge is that technology always outpaces ethics, and from a religious perspective, that's also rooted in our traditions.”

Mitelman said he saw sextech as offering a potential activity for Shabbat. “Shabbat is also a day when we are supposed to enjoy worldly pleasures, including food and sex,” Mitelman said. Of course, he also noted that Shabbat is traditionally reserved for disconnecting and turning off electronics in the hopes of being "fully present with ourselves and our loved ones."

Offering some perspective from the Christian tradition, Kutter Callaway — an assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary — told ATTN: that there is a distinctly sex-positive thread in Protestantism stretching back to Martin Luther. “You can celebrate God’s good gifts of our bodies, creation,” he said. “You can celebrate those things for what they’re inherently worth. It doesn't have to be tied to procreation.” With that in mind, he said he believed that sextech could serve as an “outward expression of giving oneself to another.” 

However, this gets at the central question of how we define "another." As Callaway noted, “If the ultimate end is more self-directed or exclusively self-satisfying, then the Christian theological tradition would say that is less ideal.

While such technology is still in the future, the questions it raises are already relevant. 

Like any emerging technology, the practice of sexual congress with robots will be navigated both culturally and personally. 

“Every person has to decide the boundaries in their life with technology and sexuality,” Carpenter said. “For some of us, that's whether they feel they’re okay with PDA or who we talk to about sex. These are already difficult question with humans — and we will have to ask these same questions with technology.”

Callaway likened the situation to how some religions view alcohol. “It’s easy to say there is nothing wrong in consuming alcohol,” he said. “There is a point in which the consumption of alcohol is debilitating and detrimental and the end of which it leads you is destroying yourself."

"I think the same thing with pleasure technologies," Callaway continued. "It would be wrong of a Christian to condemn or judge another Christian purely on the fact that it is a technology that has to do with sex.”

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