I was going to start this article about robots with a not-so-clever reference to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. But then I spoke to Blay Whitby, a philosopher concerned with the social impact of emerging technologies and the trivialisation of robots in the media – and I decided otherwise.
Because when it comes to robots, it’s simply no use discussing them through the lens of our favourite film or science fiction book. Cliched as it may be, the future is here; we can and should talk about reality. Within a matter of decades we’ve become entirely reliant on technology and robots are increasingly part of our everyday lives.
The latest chapter comes courtesy of Dr Trudy Barber, a pioneer in the impact of technology on sexual intercourse. Speaking at the International Congress of Love and Sex with Robotics, Dr Barber said people’s growing immersion in technology means it’s only a matter of time before it takes a mainstream role in sex.
Put simply: sex between couples will increasingly be saved for special occasions as robots step in to satisfy our everyday needs. Dr Barber predicted the use of artificial intelligence (AI) devices in the bedroom will be socially normal within 25 years and that the machines would enable people to appreciate ‘the real thing’.
“I think what will happen is that they will make real-time relationships more valuable and exciting”, she added.
Devices such as Rocky or Roxxxy True Companion can currently be bought for around £7,000, but advances in the field are predicted to make sex robots increasingly lifelike and affordable.
Indeed, in April this year, a man figured out a way to make a robot in his own home that resembled a woman they don’t know.
Ricky Ma, 42, a Hong Kong-based man with no formal training in robots, spent £35,000 to create a robotic woman who looks exactly like Scarlett Johannson. And there’s absolutely nothing she can do about it.
Unlike the vivacious and intelligent actress, his robotic counterpart was programmed to respond to questions like ‘you are very beautiful’ and ‘you’re so cute’ with little more than a coquettish smile and a wink.
It’s an utterly disappointing reflection of the way women are portrayed in society – Ma’s clever three dimensional creation is about as one dimensional as you can get.
Is all this cause for concern? Of course. Because right now more money is being spent on making these things than thinking about the ethical and societal ramifications. We already know porn provides a terrifying reflection on how society views women, which can manifest itself in real life.
But what happens when machines start contributing to the objectification of women too?
There’s also a real worry that people will abuse robots assigned human traits – whether it be in a sexual or physical way. Whitby thinks it’s a legitimate concern: “Will people mistreat robots? Oh yes, I’m sure. The reason I’m sure is because they already do. The way people first meet artificial intelligence is in a character in a video game that they’re shooting at.”
As we are yet to truly understand the effect that playing violent video games has on young minds, it will be years before we even begin to comprehend the knock-on effects that the mistreatment of human-like robots has on our behaviour towards each other.
Dr Kathleen Richardson, a Senior Research Fellow in the Ethics of Robotics at the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility, has done extensive research into this area – especially in regards to women. She says: “A machine, like the portrayal of women in pornography, prostitution and the media are entirely objects for male gratification. But women aren’t like what males see in pornography or in prostitution or in popular media.
“In these areas women are coerced or told how to be have act or behave with a threat of money or violence. In real life, women really have their own thoughts and feelings and preferences and desires. It seems logical that if this extreme control can’t be experienced by men with real women, the only next step is to create artificial objects.”
The people creating these robots are also partly to blame. A 2014 Nesta study titled ‘Our Work Here Is Done: Visions of a Robot Economy’ examined how gender is assigned to machines in the workplace. Researchers found that ‘male’ robots are thought to be better at repairing technical devices while ‘female’ robots are thought to be more suited to domestic and caring services.
In other words: people with gendered ideas make robots that conform to gender norms, which then perpetuates existing stereotypes.
As long as these norms go unchallenged, and robots are designed to fulfil perceived gender roles (has anyone yet talked about a male ‘sex robot’?) this vicious cycle will continue.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. What if the people programming and designing these robots didn’t have such stereotypical views? What if they used this amazing new platform to defy gender stereotypes, and rather than serving as a poor reflection on society, instead inspired us to look at ourselves in new ways?
It’s a nice thought. But as long as manufacturers stand to make a profit from robotics, and see these types of characterisations as a means to creating more humanised, relatable machines that sell better, not much is going to change.
At the 2016 AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science – the world’s largest scientific society) annual meeting, Yale ethicist Wendell Wallach spoke of his concerns about AI. He said: “There’s a need for more concerted action to keep technology a good servant – and not let it become a dangerous monster.”
While codes exist to guide the creation of machines, the lack of law in place means that time and effort is being ploughed into manufacturing and programming, and no one is thinking twice about the effects this will have on living and breathing humans. Being cautious isn’t sexy in the business of technology – and it rarely comes with financial rewards.
Whitby urged us to act now, before it’s too late. “We need to have these discussions instead of waking up one day when robot companions are normal and question whether it was a good idea or not,” he says.
And as this kind of technology is rolled out around the world, he had a stark warning about where the democratisation of technology is taking us: “How would you feel about your ex boyfriend getting a robot that looked exactly like you, just in order to beat it up every night?”
It’s a shocking idea, isn’t it? On the one hand, it’s a machine – it isn’t you. But then, it is you, because it stands for you, and who you are.
Whitby added: “I mean, it might be alright, it might mean he can be calmer and more normal with you – think about Aristotle’s theory of catharsis. But we really haven’t discussed this as a society. We’re drifting towards it and the technology is very close to being available, but we just aren’t talking about it.”
It’s time we started having these conversations, before those oft quoted science fiction dystopias become a nightmarish reality.