The recently published Foundation for Responsible Robotics‘ (FRR) report revealed that sex robots, like all technology, have the capacity for good or evil. With these robots already in circulation and developing further, they have been considered for a variety of uses apart from fetishisation. These include being used for the elderly in care homes, replicated virtual sex for couples in long distance relationships, robot sex workers, victims of violent sexual assault who find sex traumatic, and more disturbingly, sex therapy for rapists and paedophiles.

Moreover – and this shouldn’t surprise anyone – there are consumers who want to feel like they’re forcing these robots to have sex with them. Of course many of them are men. Of course there are enough of them that companies are programming ‘reluctant’ personalities into their female sex robots, that aren’t too ‘appreciative’ about being touched in places. Where’s the line between rape culture and extreme BDSM play and the execution of rape fantasies? Consent. And consent should be a simple matter. Where do sex robots and sextech fit into this?

We’re a sadistic breed. Of course our first instinct is to control and abuse when we’re presented with something new we can control and abuse. Grand. Theft. Auto. Yes, hypothetically, manufacturers could engineer less stereotypical sexbots, but industry is profit-driven and it probably won’t play out that way. Can we let this be and accept that it exists simply to indulge fantasies? Maybe there are as many women gearing up to have violent sex with a male robot sub too – and this is all actually ok.

But it’s not that simple or that hypothetical. Introducing child sex robots and dolls. Well, they’re not that new. A Japanese manufacturing company, called Trottla, was founded by a self-confessed paedophile claiming never to have harmed a child because he uses a doll. The company sells life-like child sex dolls to paedophiles, anatomically imitating children as young as five – for over a decade. The argument here would be that it’s better to molest a child sex doll or robot than an actual child. This can be translated to: It’s better to rape a sex robot than a person. Patrick Lin, a philosophy professor and robot ethicist, was quoted making this comparison: “Imagine treating racism by letting a bigot abuse a brown robot. Would that work? Probably not. The ethics of sex robots goes beyond whether anyone is physically harmed.”

 

Firstly, sex robots are not going anywhere. Whether we like it or not, there’s clearly a market. Secondly, regulation is clearly extremely important and therefore, the topic desperately needs public debate.

 

So using sex robots to treat or prevent rapists or child abusers from executing crimes seems very misguided as it can normalise or worsen an already dire status quo. According to The Telegraph, “The authors said it may be necessary to criminalise ‘robotic rape’ and to build in ‘handled roughly’ sensors like those used in pinball machines to prevent users developing violent sexual tendencies. And they called for a complete ban on child sex dolls.” However, most of the sex robot manufacturers don’t reveal numbers, and even though there has been a call to ban child sex robots, the legal area is grey. A Canadian court is determining the legality of owning a child sex robot after a man called Kenneth Harrison was charged with possessing child pornography after ordering a doll from Harumi Designs (another Japanese manufacturer); he pleaded not guilty.

Dazed‘s Anna Freeman writes: “I don’t believe a product should be boycotted because of our ability to fuck it up”. A man based in Hong Kong recently spent over half a million rand to create a robotic woman resembling Scarlett Johannson. “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?” – philosopher Blay Whitby was quoted as asking. Freeman’s assertion is loaded. Firstly, sex robots are not going anywhere. Whether we like it or not, there’s clearly a market. Secondly, regulation is clearly extremely important and therefore, the topic desperately needs public debate.

According to The Telegraph, there are currently four manufacturers worldwide, but it is expected to escalate. And yet, this isn’t much spoken about or taken very seriously, despite the fact that they are “shipping quite a lot” according to Noel Sharkey, Emeritus Professor of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence at the University of Sheffield.  The price range currently is between R70 000 and R209 000, and customisable options include personality. With the incorporation of artificial intelligence, companies are starting to design robots, such as Harmony, that can respond to human emotions and talk. You can also choose the mood of the robot via app – affectionate, jealous, angry etc.

With some of the world’s most accomplished robotics academics, the FRR is looking to engage policy-makers, writers, academics, and the public in general. They are open to comments and engagement. We’re living in a sextech dystopia, people. Ask the questions, have your say and stay aware.