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A speculative article about sex robots in VICE (of course) has got me thinking about sexbots as a force for human obsolescence, and as an existential threat to humans:
It seems like scientists have been working tirelessly this year to reduce human interaction in almost everything we do, from pizza delivery to Uber rides, and now even realistic sex machines aren't far from becoming a reality. But unfortunately experts in the robosex industry have some fears that banging bots will be so good that it'll ruin people's lives, the Daily Star reports.
I'd thought about the future of sexbots vaguely, but always just as an extension of porn and masturbation. Now I realize I was making a "horseless carriage" error, like thinking television would be an effective way of broadcasting theatre.
This short article was the first time I'd been prompted to think about sexbots as a replacement for human relationships, either in full or in part. Their promise of superiority to many human relationships strikes me as having the potential to render huge parts of human contact and labor obsolete, in a way that mirrors the replacement of human labor by machines.
My mom has worked as a sex therapist and I've come to believe that lots of people who are in stable partnerships have no relational equipment to inspect and explore their sexual relationships and help them become good. How many matings today could be upgraded meaningfully if one partner was replaced by a machine brought in from a century from now? Or stated differently, how many children won't be born a century from now, because there was a meaningfully superior sexual option for one of their parents, or one of their grandparents, that didn't involve two humans in person?
Then there's this point:
"Sexbots would always be available and could never say no, so addictions would be easy to feed," Joel Snell, a research fellow at Kirkwood College, told the Daily Star. "People may become obsessed by their ever faithful, ever pleasing sex robot lovers. People will rearrange their lives to accommodate their addictions."
Humans are a reality check on sexual bizarreness, because to practically explore the depths of your sexual imagination, you need another human who's willing to go along with it; or in the most depraved cases, because you will be arrested for it. BDSM, for example, is known for its extensive focus on what you can't do, not just its making available more territory of what you can do. Even porn has real limits, because it requires either real humans or can only be animated. Moreover, it generally needs to be distributed, and thus can run afoul of censors, who are able to pretty effectively restrict some forms of porn from being distributed through anything but the darknet.
But sexbots will be in person, so there is no fundamental ability for their programming to be inspected, unless there is some comprehensive trusted computing police state as in Cory Doctorow's Anda's Game. Even if most users will require remote creators to provide programming, code is very hard to systematically inspect for the qualities of its resulting experience, and it won't be easy, anyway, to draw lines about what sexbot behavior is too socially destructive to be allowed.
So, then, what people who set their sexbot to simulate being raped? To appear and act like a child? To appear and act nonhuman? Some of this exploration will be fascinating and daring and creative, some will be routine, and some will be horrifically depraved.
And still, the greatest problem may not be the unleashing of abusive perversity, but the indulging of luxurious expertise. The AI in Spike Jonze's Her is able to present not just irresistible personality and charm to Joaquin Phoenix's awkward protagonist, but a seeming need for him. So will sexbots be able not just to manipulate human bodies in expert ways, but to affect desire. Sex with a sexbot will feel life-affirming and sensually fulfilling in a way that masturbation and porn generally are not, because it will actually be sex.
So prostitutes will be out of a job, though as with other such technological shifts, the act they perform--simulated consensual mating--will experience unprecedented growth.
But that's only what it's easy for us to see from where we stand; there will be deeper and dynamic effects that we are failing to imagine. What will it be like to go back to dating a human, after dating your own perfect ScarJo AI, with its data science-backed giggle, its paced moments of baring its soul, its sincere and deep love for you? What will it be like to go back to having sex with a human, after having sex with a lover more talented at exploring your mutual desire than any human in history?
And what will the ability to indulge extreme forms of human contact, without any form of the checks provided now by the requirement that other actual humans be contacted in the process, mean for humanity?