Back in the day it hadn’t yet been decided that robots were sex symbols – when they showed up in pop culture they were trusty sidekicks or menacing villains, never quite what you’d call sultry. They’d crack a joke, get into a scrape or two or scare the kids into hiding behind the sofa – but back then you’d look askance at anyone who thought that, say, Gort of The Day the Earth Stood Still had any particular sexual charms. On the other hand, behind closed doors, there’s no doubt that the secret thought of creating one’s own custom-built sex-bot may have crossed a fair few adolescent minds. But, while some might occasionally have given it a few moments’ thought, no one could have foreseen that the sexbot might become a reality. Now, though, it seems that it just might be.
One devoted man hailing from Hong Kong has designed his own celebrity-inspired robot, modelled on the Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson. The robot can, apparently, move its limbs and change its facial expression. It’s unclear whether this is strictly a sexbot – the designer is understandably coy on that subject – but frankly, being able to jerkily move one’s limbs or crack an artificial smile doesn’t seem quite enough to fulfil the elaborately crafted sexbot fantasy for most men.
Still, it does raise an interesting question – just how close to a human do we want such robots to be? Are they supposed to be a replacement for a real relationship, or will they only provide pleasure, effectively serving as sophisticated sex dolls? And if they were designed to stand in for a relationship, would they be conscious? What would be the ethical implications of programming something conscious to have sex with you? While these might seem like far-off considerations, some are saying that sexbots really are the (near) future – and it’s better to think about tricky questions now, rather than once it’s too late.
Speakers at the wonderfully named International Congress of Love and Sex with Robotics have been claiming that within 25 years the use of AI in sex won’t just be possible, it will be socially acceptable. Just how sophisticated this AI will be is unclear – which is really where the crux of the matter lies. If the AI will be relatively low-level – the kind of thing that might be in your toaster in a decade or two – then it might be appealing for the few who are already happy to enjoy a sex doll, but probably won’t hold much appeal for anyone else. If researchers are imagining something more sophisticated – even conscious AI – then the obvious ethical implications (not to mention individual preferences) will probably prevent it catching on and becoming mainstream.
The truth is that sexbots are either intended as nothing more than machines, glorified sex toys, in which case they can never replace real sex in a loving relationship, or they are, like a character out of science fiction, designed to be conscious. Leaving aside the somewhat embarrassing idea that, should we as a species manage to create conscious AI, the first question on many people’s lips is whether or not we can have sex with it (one might hope we could find rather more useful purposes for such a creation), the concept of an AI sexbot does seem to encapsulate many of the moral quandaries which are currently causing qualms about AI in general. The questions of consciousness, free will, human responsibility and ‘playing god’ are all posed by the idea of sexbots in a way which seems uniquely immediate and relevant – and we can only hope these are questions we manage to answer before all human relationships have been replaced by life-sized, pliable models of Scarlett Johansson.