There are some inflection points, cultural and life bends, that, when you encounter them, should make you pause and reassess the landscape. Marriage is one. So is having your first child. Entering and leaving college is another. And, now, the media’s contemplation of the possibility of having sex with robots.
Christine Ro at The Week, for one, opines on the impending development and chalks up the negative reaction to unjustified Luddite concerns by “sexbot haters.” She sees a spectrum of behavior along which fall robots built for sex. Since it’s a continuum and, as a culture, we’ve tacitly approved of the other behaviors, she sees no reason for us to not embrace sex with Artificially Intelligent automatons. Woody Allen’s
The devices Ro has in mind have not, and will not, achieve the science-fiction fantasies unleashed in movies, such as the malevolent and hypersexual robots of Ex Machina, whose duplicitous wiles put a sexual face to the AI fears. She does expect sexual machines “that look human, but don’t think human”; basically, zombie dolls capable of the full response range without a clue as to what’s taking place. After proposing a few benefits these AI-empowered action figures might offer (such as, enabling freedom to explore pleasure and balancing “mismatched libidos”), she suggests that we treat the “hysteria over the future of sex tech” with skepticism and instead embrace this latest advance.
I could accept her conclusion that sexbots are the next step in acceptable sex toys. Even so, I would still need to consider how these devices might affect the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, what they might mean for prostitution and a range of other sexual avenues Western culture has generally frowned upon. Those are important questions, but they are not the most important questions. Robot sex is an inflection point that raises, more sharply than self-driving cars and autonomous package-delivery drones, the question of what are we doing with our technology? What kind of world do we want to have? And, most pivotal, what does it mean to be human?
For writers such as Ro, humans are a flawed bundle of “messy interactions” that technology can improve. We are an accident awaiting refinement. A collection of amoral desires needing fulfillment. Any tech-toy that eliminates the mess, refines the process, and fulfills the desires is good and useful. Further, the locus of Ro’s attention is the individual, not the community; all is okay or good if it benefits, or at least does not harm, the person engaged. Her position is the natural and logical outcome of a thoroughgoing evolutionary mindset: It’s each person for himself in a never-ending battle to get more.
Perhaps, however, our instinctive revulsion at sexbots is yet another indicator — like the integrated, engineered complexity of the human body — that we’re more than mere reproducing machines with misbalanced libidos. Perhaps we are, as Dougas Axe puts it in Undeniable, “busy wholes”; complete persons with designed intent and capabilities. If so, sexual automatons, with or without a face, demean us as human beings, introducing into our most intimate sphere, that one place where we join more closely than nearly all others, a faux replacement, a fake. If sexual activity entails more than achieving satisfaction, but has overtones touching profoundly on what it means to be human, we cannot, without damage to ourselves, replace the face of another with that of a mindless, amped-up toy.
We have a choice. We can put technology to use in ways that, as I’ve suggested before, either enhance us so that we become better than ourselves, or replace and shrink us. What kind of world do we want to have? What role do our inventions have in achieving that world? As we reassess the landscape, we will see that it’s not only Victorian prudes who will disavow sex with robots, but also people who believe humans are more than mere machines.