It had to be a spoof, didn’t it? Billed as an article lifted from the sober Washington Post, the piece I was reading online about some nutty professor campaigning to ban humans from having sex with robots must surely have been lifted from The Onion. Even the clinical psychologist David Ley, who posted the piece on the research-oriented Sexnet forum, said he hoped it was a parody.

But the reference to checkable names of academics and their universities suggested otherwise. First and foremost there was Kathleen Richardson, a senior research fellow in the ethics of robotics at De Montfort University in Leicester, England. She was said to have presented a paper titled “The Asymmetrical ‘Relationship’: Parallels Between Prostitution and the Development of Sex Robots,” at Ethicomp, “a forum to discuss ethical issues around computers” held in Leicester last month.

I looked it up. And there it was, the full text, including this remarkable direct quote:

“I propose that extending relations of prostitution into machines is neither ethical, nor is it safe. If anything the development of sex robots will further reinforce relations of power that do not recognise both parties as human subjects.”

Er, excuse me, but if one of the parties is a robot, doesn’t that sort of suggest they are not, you know, human? So would a robot really be all that bothered about “relations of power”? Reading a bit further, though, I came to the startling revelation that Richardson was also worried about robot children. Somehow, I must have missed the news that not only can robots have sex, they can also “give birth” to baby robots.

But why would this be such a surprise after the news in June that a robot couple had married in Japan? It was a white wedding, so it would be polite to assume the bride was a virgin. Thus it could be at least a few months yet before the first “happy event” is announced, if robot gestation is anything like ours.

The Tokyo wedding, between groom “Frois” and bride “Yukirin” had every appearance of a grand occasion, celebrating an uncontroversial match between two entirely respectable and well-loved robots.

But Richardson, it is clear, wants to take us into a “darker” scenario. Prostitution! Her worry is that men paying for sex with robots – perhaps through buying the robot outright as a sex slave – will treat them as mere things, regardless of the robot’s feelings, needs and rights. She is not alone, either. An academic conference in Malaysia on “Love and Sex with Robots”, due to take place next month, was abruptly cancelled just over a week ago after the authorities declared it illegal to have sex with robots.

Muslim Malaysia, it may be supposed, would react with knee-jerk antagonism to any sexual unorthodoxy. Dr Richardson, by contrast, must at least be credited with giving long and hard thought to her specialist branch of ethics. Her real anxiety is that giving humans permission to do whatever they want to robots that look and sound like humans, with nothing ruled out, no matter how degrading or violent, will encourage bad attitudes towards real humans, including children.

This is a valid issue. In dealing with it, I think it will be helpful to clarify our thinking about robots, especially as regards artificial intelligence and sentience. The most obvious and important point is that we are suckers for believing in both. The popularity of sci-fi books and movies featuring sophisticated humanoids with super-human brains and even quasi-human emotions, shows how we love to anthropomorphize. The most significant example here, perhaps, is that of the film A.I., in which a robot child is programmed to love its owner, a mother whose own son is desperately ill and (in effect) in a coma. The boy robot, given the name David (Haley Joel Osment), is seen as a substitute to comfort her until her own child recovers. When he does, David becomes dispensable; rejected and cast out, he suffers ceaseless agonies of bewilderment and longing. For anyone with a heart it’s a heart-breaking film, not least on account of a compelling performance by the immensely lovable young Osment.

If we ever manage to create robots who really do feel emotions as deeply as David, or physical pain, then of course how we treat them (assuming we remain in charge) will become a moral question. But it is important not to get too far ahead of ourselves. Stories and drama are great vehicles for the imagination, enabling us to contemplate ethical issues in a far more vivid and engaging way than is to be found in philosophy books, with their brain-torturingly complex chains of argument. But whereas the philosophers often use their own imaginative tools, called thought experiments, to sharpen their judgments and reasoning, what we often take from science fiction is simply amazement and entertainment. Rather than using it to make tough ethical choices in our own world, we prefer the escapism of exotic scenarios and often distant futures.

Oddly enough, I find myself agreeing with  Erik Billing, of the University of Skövde in Sweden, who, with Kathleen Richardson, has jointly floated the idea of a campaign against sex robots. Billing, a senior lecturer in informatics (the study of information) is quoted in the Washington Post story as having said that films such as this year’s Ex Machina, with very advanced robots, ask big questions about what it will mean when machines becomes sentient. But these big questions can distract from the robots we already have, and how we interact with them.

However, I come to very different conclusions from Billing or Richardson, and Heretic TOC will now time travel back to the future to show why. The year is 1987 and a futurist film is made called Cherry 2000, which is set thirty years in the future – in other words, almost now. With astonishing accuracy, the film predicts that society has become increasingly rule-bound, requiring contracts drawn up by lawyers prior to sexual activity, with the result that actual sex is on the decline. But there have also been immense technical developments, fostering hypersexual expression in novel ways.

Remind you of anything? The rise of internet porn, perhaps, alongside the ever-tighter rules that feminist moral entrepreneurs insist are necessary to ensure sexual consent is valid?

Most precisely prescient by far, though, is Cherry 2000’s prediction that the hot new craze of 2017 would be sex androids that routinely malfunction during intercourse. A news report last month, meanwhile, saw Californian company RealDoll announcing plans to sell an “artificially intelligent”, talking, animatronic rubber sex doll by – wait for it – 2017.

Now, the important thing here, the really real thing, is the malfunctioning. To understand this we can park the Tardis and meet sex robot Roxxxy (triple x and likes to get her rocks off, geddit?), who exists right now and could be yours for as little as $6,995, or nearer $75,000 for “custom designs” (at that price it really ought to include child versions, boy and girl), from TrueCompanion, a company that has been in the sex doll business for a good many years and now touts its latest lady of the night as the world’s first sex robot.

Roxxxy, we are promised in a promotional video, has a range of “personalities”: you can choose whichever you find sexiest or most companionable. Touch her shoulder and she responds, saying “That is so exciting”. Fingering her knickers in the right place elicits enthusiasm expressed more urgently. She can even, if the video is to be believed, give a pretty mean blow job, with very realistic head movements. It’s hard to be sure how effective this would be, though, as we only see from behind and Roxxxy’s “partner” is left to the imagination.

Selling us Roxxxy’s charms in the video – or pimping her, as a hostile commentator might put it – is company chief executive Douglas Hines, who seems a nice guy as he gently takes us through Roxxxy’s features, focusing quite a bit on her companionate qualities. He seems keen to present her as a person, not a thing. There is nothing in the demo that would encourage Roxxxy’s owner to regard her as a “slut”, or someone to be abused.

For me, though, it’s a bit of a giveaway that Hines wears a white lab coat, just like the guys in those naff 1960s washing powder ads, doing their best to look like research scientists, offering housewives chemical wizardry in the pursuit of “whiter than white” whites. Every new detergent promised to get your whites whiter than the last, regardless of earlier promises by the same company that perfection had already been achieved.

It looks a bit like that with Hines, whose name suggests he might have moved on from flogging baked beans and whose sex “robot” spiel is really just an exercise in parlaying an overgrown talking Barbie doll into an intelligent, sensate being. So when I speak of malfunctioning being at the heart of things, what I really mean is that today’s “robots” do not truly function as robots at all, and nor will we see such a development anytime soon.

This does not mean they are worthless. It just means Richardson’s hyperventilating ejaculations against them are premature. There are more urgent things to worry about than hurting robots’ feelings and treating them unethically.

Having read Richardson’s paper, I can tell you that all it amounts to is a fancy dress version of tired old feminist clichés about men “objectifying” women. While it is right to be concerned that everyone is treated with respect, it is grossly unethical to put the utterly bogus needs of non-existent robots above the needs of real people.

David Levy, author of Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships, spelt out these needs in an interview with the BBC:

“There is an increasing number of people who find it difficult to form relationships and this will fill a void. It is not demeaning to women any more than vibrators are demeaning.”

There is unquestionably a lot of loneliness and frustration in an era when men are under increasing pressure to match up to feminist ideals and more people are living alone. And of course kind people like many of us here have no opportunity to be kind with kids.

Comments made online in response to a CNBC story about sex robots are very telling:

  • It’s about time! Women have wanted less and less to do with men over the years so let’s give them what they want. Who needs em?!
  • Cherry 2000 is the solution to having a feminist nutjob in your home… heck, for the most part they dont want the men, they openly say so, and they openly shame and hate them (that is until they are done screwing around and need someone to pay their bills for them)
  • Feminists should be glad of sex robots: sexual harassment will hit an historical low, approaching zero! 🙂 It will be a magic moment for all poor wimminz! 🙂

Misogynistic? If so, it’s hard to say the feminazis haven’t been well and truly asking for this sort of backlash. They keep loading men up with guilt and self-doubt but don’t give a shit about their problems. Their relentless pushing for women’s ever greater power and dominance is a cruel creed. Let me reiterate, it privileges the dogma of “objectification” over the lives of real people.

Oh, and before anyone objects that prostitutes are real people, yes, they certainly are, and they resent snooty feminists trying to force them out of sex work. Against this bullying, Amnesty International recently backed prostitutes’ rights.

Hines has said he feels robots (well, dolls) like Roxxxy help to reduce sex trafficking, sexual and domestic abuse. And there is academic support for this view, including from Ronald Arkin, professor of mobile robotics at Georgia Institute of Technology, who has proposed that child sex robots could be used in the treatment of paedophilia.

Furthermore, the idea that child robots could have therapeutic value is very much in line with extensive research findings showing that the ready availability of legal child pornography results in sexual assault offences against children falling, not rising.

Milton Diamond, director of the Pacific Center For Sex And Society, at the University of Hawaii, has found that in those countries where child porn has been legal (Japan, Denmark, Czech Republic), child sex offences decreased. He and his colleagues suggested that if computer generated child porn were to be made legally available it could provide a non-abusive, socially acceptable, way of reducing sex offences against children. He also noted findings by Swiss investigators that viewing child pornography does not appear to be a risk factor for future sex offenses (Endrass, et al., 2009).

A similar plan by brain researcher Dick Swaab at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience (NIN) has even found support from the Dutch anti-paedophile group, Stopkinderpornonu (Stop-child-pornography-now). Spokesman Chris Hölsken went so far as to describe it as a really good idea.

“… because we’re fighting to stop child pornography and child abuse. That means that every form and every method should be studied carefully. If fake pornographic images, such as in cartoons, can lead to stopping child abuse, we support that.”

So if computer generated child porn is capable of producing benign effects, why not child sex robots? If Kathleen Richardson really wants to be ethical, she will take these findings into account.