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Between the Sheets

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Is It Possible to Degrade and Exploit Your At-Home Sexbot?

• February 03, 2014 • 12:00 PM

(Photo: Sex With Glass)

As artificial intelligence advances and our toys become more and more like us, we must consider the ethics of extracting pleasure from the machines.

If Immanuel Kant were still around, there’s no doubt he would be pro-sexbot. The term, once defined strictly as a physical robot made for sex (think “fembot”), now also encompasses any sort of artificially intelligent (AI) software made for sexual pleasure—and they’re becoming increasingly popular. While Kant makes it clear in his writing that he believes humans are rational beings because they can choose to follow a moral law, non-rational beings are merely “objects of our inclinations.” Under these terms, sexbots are no more valuable than animals—they are “means,” not “ends,” inherently valueless, given meaning only by that which humans ascribe to them.

And yet, as sexbots become more intelligent, transitioning from dolls and one-trick robots into artificially intelligent creations, ethical lines are blurring. Is using AI software now exploitative, on par with sexual assault and rape? At what point should we declare AI sexbots sentient beings? Is there a difference between sex slavery with a human and with an AI program? What really is ethical sex?

From January 22 to 25, the biggest names in the adult entertainment industry met at the W Hotel Hollywood for the XBIZ 360 conference. Most of the talk centered on how pornography will change with new technology like 3-D printing and Google Glass. The much-hyped application Sex With Glass, developed by students during a Hackathon at Central Saint Martins in London, made a particular splash. Set for launch in early February, the application allows users to record or watch either themselves or their sexual partner during the act.

Perhaps the most technologically impressive sexbot ever created was made to catch pedophiles looking for underage children online. Sweetie identified over 1,000 sexual predators without putting a real child in harm’s way.

What was most interesting, though, were the some of the under-reported technological debuts. Both the first sexbot (code named “Roxxxy”) and the first AI “erotic chat” site (Chatterbabes.com) were on show at XBIZ 360 only four years ago. This year, there was talk of computer-based reconstructions of pornography stars, virtual girlfriends, and artificial companions, all of which can be viewed—and interacted with—through both Glass and popular virtual-reality headsets like the Oculus Rift, most commonly used as a 3-D gaming device.

Sexbots have come a long way from the doll Ryan Gosling falls in love with in Lars and the Real Girl. While rent-a-doll “escort” services are still surprisingly profitable in countries like Japan and South Korea (and “fembots,” or basic “female” robots made for sex, are most popular with American men), technologically savvier sexbots are catching on more widely. Robot prostitution is set to overtake human prostitution by the year 2050, according to “Robots, Men and Sex Tourism,” a study conducted by researchers at the Victoria University of Wellington.

Perhaps the most technologically impressive sexbot ever created was made to catch pedophiles looking for underage children online. In November of 2013, Hans Guyt, the team leader of Terre des Hommes Netherlands, an organization trying to stop child sex slavery and exploitation, created an advanced CGI model of a 10-year-old Filipino girl named “Sweetie.” Because it would be both illegal and obviously unethical to create a sting operation where a real child would be obligated to solicit and perform sexual favors over webcam, Sweetie allowed Guyt and his team to identify over 1,000 sexual predators without putting a real child in harm’s way.

Sweetie was not technically an AI sexbot because her actions and words were determined in real time by the programmers, but her realism was so perfect that she duped nearly every user that contacted her. Prolific science writer Allen Boyle predicts that by 2029 computers will be able to match the capabilities and complexities of the human mind. That kind of computing capability coupled with the pixel-perfect realism of “girls” like Sweetie means that AI sexbots could be virtually impossible to differentiate from humans—all in the very near future.

Isn’t this a good thing? Wouldn’t it be nice to outsource the degrading, often harmful sex industry to robots and programs? In his article, “The Ethics of Robot Prostitutes,” David Levy adapts Kant’s human-versus-animal argument to the AI sexbot debate, arguing that AI sexbots are akin to vibrators so using them as a means to achieve orgasm is likewise permissible. And if using an AI program is the same as using a vibrator, why not use the program instead?

Arguably, AI programs can’t be exploited or harmed because they are not sentient; they can’t pass along disease; their increasing realism allows for a user’s maximum pleasure; and they can continue to be used as a way to catch real predators.

But sexbots aren’t quite the solve-all answer one might first think. The oxytocin and chemicals released during orgasm—whether it’s with a human, a robot, or an AI program on a screen—really can make you feel. This is where the ethics get tricky.

The fact that AI will catch up to human intelligence in the coming years will raise questions of robotic sentience and free will. For now, the ethical issue is in our emotional relationship with sexbots. As we begin to treat increasingly realistic sexbots as partners, we ascribe them the value of a person. The chemicals and smells that we release, and that the most advanced sexbots likewise emit, mean the difference between humans and AI programs has diminished.

I would never use an AI sexbot or, for that matter, any sort of machine or program made for sex, you might be thinking. So why should I care? This isn’t a valid argument to dismiss AI ethical implications. We care that thousands of prostitutes are reportedly assaulted each day. We care that children are exploited, forced into sex slavery and into doing webcam shows like the ones Sweetie infiltrated. If AI programs become sentient—or rather, when AI programs become as advanced as the human mind—will we still be able to rest on the idea that AI sexbots are unfeeling, not prone to the Kantian idea of rationality? No: Their well-being should then be just as important as that of any other sentient being.

“Transhumanism,” or bettering humans through technology, is quickly becoming our new reality. Zoltan Istvan, author of The Transhumanist Wager, predicted that the Transhumanist Age would bring on massive socio-cultural changes, such as a sharp decrease in new marriages. “In only a matter of decades,” he wrote, “transhumanist technology will lead us to become very different beings with very different rituals, regardless of past heritage or cultural influence.” Not only will sexbots lead us to become “different beings,” they will lead the technology we have created to become different as well. AI programs are becoming, and in some instance already have become, the “means,” not just the “ends” to be used exclusively for our pleasure. Whether we choose to imbue them with value no longer matters—the intelligence of upcoming AI programs makes them valuable; makes them rational; makes them sentient; and makes them, quite nearly, human.

Cody Delistraty
Cody Delistraty is a writer, researcher, and historian. Most recently he has worked at the Council on Foreign Relations, UNESCO, and NBC News. Follow him on Twitter @delistraty.

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