Love and Sex With Robots Conference Sparks Controversy

Are sex robots a great development or a dangerous sign of the times? Will marriage to robots someday be legal? And how about those new gadgets, like an electronic kissing machine?

The many facets of sex dolls, electronic robots, and new interactive sex toys were the focus of the Second International Congress on Love and Sex With Robots held December 19 and 20 at the Goldsmiths campus of the University of London.

Sex robots have been hotly debated. Some see them as beneficial for people who are lonely, who have recently lost a loved one, or have disabilities. Genevieve Liveley, professor at the University of Bristol, mapped out two opposing views: David Levy, author of the 2007 best-seller Love and Sex With Robots has argued that by using sex robots, “many who would otherwise have become social misfits, social outcasts, or even worse, will instead be better-balanced human beings.” But British professor Kathleen Richardson, a co-founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots, has countered that sex dolls objectify women, and that using sex dolls to help pedophiles and rapists displace their darker impulses is a bad idea: “people who can’t make human connections – they need therapy, not dolls.”

A new kissing device delighted the audience at the conference who ran up to try it out. Emma Yann Zhang of the City University, London along with several colleagues has developed a whimsical and fun real-time, multisensory kissing device that lets couples and family members transmit kisses over a distance. In a demonstration, when a person pressed her lips into a sensor-laden pad, the feel of the kiss was transmitted to the second person holding another pad. When asked if it felt like a real kiss, “It wasn’t wet!” noted the recipient, smiling.

Sometime in the future, the Kissenger machine may be embedded in sex dolls, making them seem even more real. Said Zhang, the device could also be helpful to users of online dating websites to gauge how good a kisser their potential partner would be.

But new sex toys could also have unexpected drawbacks. Kate Devlin, professor in the Department of Computing at Goldsmiths drew attention to a class-action lawsuit launched by an American woman against the manufacturer of the We-Vibe vibrator—a sex toy that is smartphone controlled. Turns out the Canadian-based company was violating personal privacy by collecting intimate data about the users, including the vibration settings and temperature of the device.

State University of New York professor Julie Wosk, writer of this Huffington Postblog, described “A New Breed of Sex Robots” in films, television series, and plays. In her recent book My Fair Ladies: Female Robots, Androids, and Other Artificial Eves, Dr. Wosk cited men’s quest to create a robot in the guise of “The Perfect Woman”—a robot like the ones in The Stepford Wives films that were sexy, soothing, compliant, and never had any needs or ambitions of their own. But in today’s films like Ex Machina, and in television series like the hugely popular Westworld and Humans,female robots go rogue—sometimes even committing murder in order to retaliate against abuse or to gain their own freedom.

Speakers and the audience raised tantalizing questions. For people with very busy lives, would sex robots be an occasional alternative to help make marriages easier? What do we think about a recent robot clone of film actress Scarlett Johansson, who played the warm and seductive voice of the operating system in the movie Her ?

Should we be concerned with ethical issues, like the ones raised by Swiss professor Dr. Oliver Bendel about whether sex robots have the right to say “no” to certain extreme requests? Do we agree with David Levy who has provocatively predicted that with the fast pace of robot development, marriage to robots will be legal in the year 2050, if not sooner? For that, we’ll have to wait and see.