By Bagogames (Ex Machina Movie Review) [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

SPECIAL GUEST: John Danaher. We're joined by again by our guest from Episode 150, John Danaher, to talk about the impact, philosophy, and legality of #sexrobots. Is society ready to deal with these technologies? What impacts will these robots have on our relationships, on our lives? What responsibilities do we owe to the consciousnesses we may create? Will these help or hinder our quest to better treat each other? Join us as we dive into these questions. Recorded 4/19/2015.


You can download the episode here, or an even higher quality copy here...


Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:

John Danaher's personal website

John's Philosophical Disquisitions blog

Institute For Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) site

John's profile on IEET

Episode 150 - Enhanced! - our first episode with John

More coming soon...



Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #163. On the show we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in about thirty minutes or less, every Tuesday and Thursday.

Mike Johnston: Greetings cyborgs, robots, and natural humans. I’m Mike Johnston.

Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.

MJ: And joining us again is our guest from episode #150 from the National University of Ireland, Galway, John Danaher. John, thanks for joining us.

John Danaher: My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me on again.

MJ: We thought this time we would talk about one of our favorite topics, we seem to dip from this well fairly frequently: sex robots. I know you’ve done a little bit of work in the topic area. Can you tell us about what you’ve got out there?

JD: I’m interested mainly from an ethical and social perspective. I’m not too interested in the actual technology itself or how it works, except to the extent of its impacts upon society and the ethical side of it. So, I’ve written two papers so far on the topic. One looks at it from an economic perspective and the impact of sex robots on the traditional sex worker industry. I’ve written another looking at it from a legal perspective, particularly on how we should approach robots that are shaped like children and used for sexual purposes, whether that should be banned or made illegal, and also robots that are designed to cater rape fantasies. Those are hot-button topics.

MJ: The topic, in general, seems to “arouse” emotion in people.

JD: [Laughs] Yeah, an appropriate word.

MJ: I saw something that the Future of Sex website had shared recently about a researcher whose comment was about how the whole concept of sex robots is deviant and that people are avoiding human relationships. Is that an area that you’ve gotten into with your work at all, or have you considered that question answered?

JD: In terms of why people are fascinated by it or why it’s such a tricky topic to deal with?

MJ: Both really, because it seems like, on the one hand, that technology is going faster and faster and it seems like these are potentially right around the corner, and yet a lot of society, particularly in the US, I don’t know if it’s this way in Ireland, but there’s these very conservative elements that get worked up over anything that’s nonconventional--the traditional man and wife couple, they’re married, and that’s that.

JD: I think Ireland, within the European context, would be perhaps unusually conservative given the Catholic history here, and there would be a prevalence of natural law philosophy certainly in the historical and legal background to the country, and natural law would be deeply opposed to the notion of having sex with robots because it’s contrary to natural function, or at least that’s what they would argue. I think maybe on the continent of Europe, the attitude is a bit more relaxed. I’m speculating here about the sociology from a position of ignorance really, but I get the impression that there’s a more open attitude towards these things on the continent. Certainly if you look at the legal framework in countries like Germany or the Netherlands, they are much more open to the legalization of prostitution, for example. There’s less of a debate here about same-sex marriage and alternative types of sexual relationships. But there’s elements within all of those societies that are deeply opposed to them as well. The reason why this inspires so much interest and perhaps antipathy is because it involves sex for a start, which is always an attractive topic to many people. I think the old marketing adage that “sex sells” is true, and because it’s slightly unusual, maybe it appeals to some kind of prurient interest amongst people. I think also perhaps the notion of a sex robot has been a popular trope in science fiction for quite some time, so there’s that kind of pop cultural background to it as well, and the idea that this could become a reality is intriguing to some people.

MB: Do you think because there is this weird taboo about it, that it will just be there but it will be underground the way porn has become at this point? Porn used to be something where you’d have to go to a seedy bookstore and get it that way. Now it just obviously comes to your house. Do you think it’s going to be that way where people think it’s weird but where everybody has a sex robot in their house?

JD: Yeah, it could well be. One reason why porn has become so widespread just because you can get it to your laptop or your computer without having to confront your social peers. How would sex robots be distributed? That might be a different question, and it depends on the form that sex robots take, which we haven’t really talked about yet--whether they take an actual physical form or whether they’re a virtual form. If it’s a virtual form, then it may end up being a little bit like porn, where everybody is engaged in it but nobody talks about it--well, that’s not entirely true of porn anymore, people are more willing to talk about it, but yeah, it’s somewhat underground. If it has to be a physical object that you have to go out and buy, then it might not take off in the same way that porn has. There are other reasons that it might not take off in the same way that porn has as well, which we could get into. But there are other options as well for the distribution of sex robots. Maybe they could be printed using 3D printers or something in the future, so again, people could get them direct into their home without confronting their social peers and also there would maybe be different delivery options that would reduce the social anxiety attached to it.

MB: Do you think, going forward into the future, that sex robots will actually be human form or are we looking at more of the Fleshlight-type? I don’t know if you know what a Fleshlight is.

JD: I hate to say that I do. No firsthand experience, but I do know what it is.

MB: [Laughs] Where it’s more basically more of, for lack of a better term, the “good parts” as opposed to the entire… You know.

JD: Yeah. I suspect in the short term, devices of that sort would be more common. Creating a full sex robot, at least as I under that, where it’s a humanoid form capable of moving and interacting with its environment with some degree of artificial intelligence--that’s a fairly significant piece of technology and I think we’re a bit away from that becoming a mainstream and widespread product. It might be more along the lines of the Fleshlight-type object for the immediate future. But I think the more interesting type of object is the full-blown sex robot. It’s the ethical and social implications associated with that that I’m more interested in.

MJ: In your work, do you see talking about sex robots as a continuation of the ongoing discussion that’s always been there about porn, and obscenity, and what is or is not socially acceptable?

JD: Yeah, I think it all fits within the general ethics of sex and what types of sexually interaction are deemed socially and morally acceptable.

MJ: For the countries that do have legalized prostitution and things like that, do you think that there’s going to be somewhat a backlash from the sex worker industry in places where it’s legal--or even in places where it’s illegal--against the potential for automation?

JD: I think this is a really interesting question and this is what first got me interested in the topic, because I was focusing more generally on the phenomenon of technological unemployment and it occurred to me that most discussions of technological unemployment focus on mainstream “acceptable” forms of labor--the auto worker or the factory worker and how they’re displaced by technology. But there’s a whole underground black market economy, and there are workers in that economy and they include sex workers. It’s interesting to consider what happens if they’re automated. As to whether there will be a backlash against it, that depends on whether you think sex robots pose a credible threat to the traditional sex worker industry, whether sex workers will be displaced by robots in the same way that a worker in a car factory is displaced by a robot. There’s lots of things you could get into there about whether that’s a credible claim.

MJ: I would think, first off, if something like a Fleshlight or a sex toy or something like that is legal, it certainly seems safer from a buyer’s standpoint. 

JD: Yeah. In the article I wrote, I said there were a number of reasons why people might opt for sex robots over sex workers; there are a number of advantages that robots might have over human beings. One would be legal advantages, that there are countries in the world where sex work is illegal, and you pose less of a risk to yourself by obtaining the services of a sex robot than you do if you go for a sex worker. The fact that there are risks of legal sanction if you work as a sex worker dissuades people from entering into the industry, and it so it might make them less readily available than a sex robot. There’s a guy named David Levy who is maybe the person who has kick-started the modern discussion of sex robots. He wrote a book back in 2007 called Love and Sex with Robots, and he comments on that and gives examples of Korean and Japanese hotels that rent out sex dolls to people in the rooms because, again, there’s a legal ban on human sex workers but there’s no legal ban on sex dolls.

MB: Wow. [Laughs] I had never heard that before.

JD: Yeah, I think it’s in that book or in a paper that he wrote. I can’t remember exactly. I think it’s cited in the paper that I wrote on technological unemployment and sex work.

MJ: One of the big wins I’ve seen particularly in regard to the possible impact of sex robots on the black market for prostitution is its impact on human trafficking. Does it seem like that would have, in general, a positive impact?

JD: In terms of if it would reduce trafficking?

MJ: Well, that seems to be the contention. Both Matt and I have a female friend that we were talking about the issue of sex robots with after our first episode that we recorded on the topic with Kate Aquino. This friend of our’s comment at the type was that she’s for the concept entirely because of its impact on human trafficking.

JD: I think we need to be careful, when we’re speculating about a technology, about what effect it will have. There’s certainly a credible argument that you can make that having the availability of sex robots creates a credible, attractive alternative to people who would normally demand human sex workers. So, it might reduce the demand for human sex workers. And since the trafficking is largely driven by the demand for human sex workers, you could get a reduction in trafficking. Again, that might be an advantage that sex robots have over human sex workers. That’s certainly maybe a reason to favor it. In terms of what impact it will actually have, I’m a little bit more skeptical because I’m not entirely convinced that sex robots will displace or replace human sex workers.

MB: I would also think that it would cut down on STDs and things too, if there were some cleaning or disinfectant mechanism built in.

MJ: Or swappable parts. [Laughs]

JD: That’s something that other people have cited as well. There are a couple of researchers, I think they’re Australian, Ian Yeoman and Michelle Mars, they wrote a paper a few years ago in a journal called Futures. In it, they imagined a future Amsterdam which is populated by sex androids, and they cite a number of reasons why we would prefer that future, and one of them is the STD issue as well. So, it sounds plausible. Obviously you’d need appropriate hygiene and you’d want to be convinced that appropriate hygiene standards are maintained in sex robot brothels, if there ever are such things. If you’re using it yourself, you also need to maintain the high standards of hygiene with it.

MB: I would also think--and this is only speculating--that it might have an effect on rape too, just because if people who would normally go out and rape someone, depending on how realistic these things are… I don’t know, I’m not a rapist, so I don’t know what the thrill is there. But to me, it would seem if sex is readily available, then it might cut down on it. But I don’t know if it’s the thrill of the act or not.

JD: I think the factors that cause people to engage in rape are complicated and contested. The other paper I wrote, which is about robotic rape and robotic child sexual abuse gets into this a little bit. I’d say one thing you could look at is an analogy between the debate about misogynist forms of pornography and real world sexual abuse and sexual assault, and analogize between that and the debate about the use of sex robots and the impact on the real world instances of rape and sexual abuse. One thing that seems pretty clear to me in a way from the debate about pornography is that the empirical evidence is incredibly mixed and complicated. It’s hard to actually draw a definitive conclusion to say that the widespread availability of pornography has increased the amount of rape or sexual assault in the world. There are people who argue both sides and there’s evidence favoring both sides, so it seems like there’s an ambiguous effect at the moment, and that could end up being true of the widespread availability of sex robots as well. We might not really be able to tell, one way or the other, whether they actually reduce the instance of real world rape. But it seems to be true that a lot of men in particularly have rape fantasies, where some studies suggest up to 40% of men have fantasized about that. So, if you’re worrying about catering to that fantasy, maybe the use of robots is a way to do that without having the real world impacts or effects of it. But then again, I should add that it’s not clear that making sex robots available is the best way of dealing with that problem.

MJ: One of the common pop cultural images that first got me interested in this topic, and I’ve cited this every time we talk about sex robots--I don’t know if you’ve seen it--when Futurama did this skit in an episode where they were actually spoofing Napster somewhat with celebrity images and things like that.

JD: With Lucy Liu?

MJ: Yes, with Lucy Liu. The little PSA that they showed Fry about how it led to human extinction basically. Do you think that’s an argument against the use of sex robots?

JD: I think I remember it, “Don’t date robots” or something like that. I actually discuss that example on my blog, I have a post called The Ethics of Robot Sex where I talk about that argument in particular. It’s obviously hyperbolic and exaggerated in terms of the impact the things will have on society, but I do think it might say something of interest. As far as I recall, the idea is that the entirety of civilization has been premised on the desire for sex and if you have robot partners readily available, you remove the motivation for people to create works of art, or to engage in scientific discovery, or to succeed in business, etc. So if you remove the need for doing that, which is to attract sexual partners, civilization will collapse. That’s obviously exaggerated, but it might have some impact on the yearning or desire to create things in the world for some people. I think it’s a little bit silly, but it’s an interesting bit of satire because it probably says something that is true to some extent of human civilization.

MJ: This may be a little bit speculative, but in your work, once you get to the idea of conscious AIs in some of the scenarios that you mentioned, either in rape fantasies or pedophilia, or even just in general being somewhat programmed to give pleasure, do you think it opens up that Pandora’s box of the rights of a consciousness to be free? The reason I’m thinking about this is I just saw Ex Machina. I have to say, that movie put me off the very concept of sex robots a little bit, with how creepy and manipulative they could potentially be. One of the arguments I had always heard for sex robots is that you don’t have to deal with manipulative or bad relationships, that it’s just a thing that you turn on and turn off. That movie got me thinking “Oh man, this could be even worse.”

JD: Yeah, I think it’s a really interesting movie. I don’t know if you thought it was good, but.

MJ: I liked it a lot.

JD: Some people have criticized it for being slow-paced. But what I find interesting about Ex Machina is not so much the sexual angle to it. As far as I can make out, Ex Machina is an extended thought experiment on the AI boxing problem, which is to do with the risks posed by super intelligence. So if you have an extremely intelligent robot, there’s this claim by many people, popularized now by Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates, that it could pose an existential threat to humanity. There are people working on “How can we safely create an artificial intelligence?” One suggestion that you can put them in a box, so that when you’re creating and developing them, they’re in a locked down environment where they can’t escape into the outside world. I think the point of that movie is that if you created a human-like robot who was able to use social engineering to manipulate their way out of the box, it could cause all sorts of problems. What’s interesting about the movie is that it shows a way in which that could happen by the researcher falling in love with the robot. Just a slight digression, but that’s what I think is interesting about that movie.

MJ: I would definitely agree, and I thought it was a phenomenal movie. I saw it on Friday, and we’re now recording on Sunday, and I cannot stop thinking about it.

JD: Yeah, it’s been out for a couple of months here, I think it came out in February, so I saw it a while ago. But I think it’s a very well-done movie because it shows you on screen how that problem could arise. But to get back to your other point which is about personhood and the creation of robot slaves--my feeling on this is pretty straightforward. I think that if a robot meets all the criteria for personhood, if they are indistinguishable from a human person, then they should be afforded all the rights that a human person should be afforded. So, it would be wrong to use them as sex slaves. I think it’s a straightforward enough case. That’s my opinion. There are others who disagree. There’s a guy called Steve Peterson who’s written an article called Designing People to Serve, in which he argues that it’s morally acceptable to create robot slaves. He doesn’t talk about sex slaves in particular, he just talks about robot slaves in general. He thinks if you’ve created an artificial person whose deepest desire was to serve you and please you, then there’s nothing wrong with it--you’re not manipulating them, you’re not denying them something that they want, so it’s acceptable to create such a being. I’m a little bit iffy about that argument myself.

MJ: Yeah, I would think that’s a very slippery slope to get onto.

JD: That’s actually one of the objections that was discussed, that it may have a broader effect on our attitudes toward people as well. It might change our attitudes toward our fellow human beings, and it might be too easy to presume that someone is doing what they really want to do, because those kinds of arguments were made historically about slavery as well. I don’t want to articulate them necessarily, but the notion that slaves were doing what was their rightful function in the world, they were fulfilling their potential, they weren’t able to act in other spheres. It’s a little bit of a dangerous argument.

MJ: Do you think in general robots are something that we project ourselves onto? It seems like a lot of the things we’ve talked about so far are all things that, even without sex robots--even without robots period, really--that society has dealt with, and now that we’re able to somewhat externalize them, it doesn’t make it any simpler it seems like.

JD: In terms of our problematic relationship with sex in general?

MJ: Well, with sex and power and just the relationship between someone that needs something done and someone that does it. It just seems like a lot of the historical fault lines in society, whether it be labor, whether it be sex, whether it be relationships, any of that--all of these are almost made even more intense by the fact that now we can split those things off into something that is not considered human.

JD: That’s an interesting point or idea. Obviously technology tends to reflect humanity in some ways since we were the creators of it and it can reflect our flaws and our weaknesses. There’s obviously a danger if we think we can create artificial beings and we can use them as a playground to act out the worst parts of our instincts, of our human nature. We should be cautious the type of society that we’d end up creating if we allowed for that. That’s one of the points, to go back earlier, about the use of robots to cater to rape fantasies. I’ve written a piece that’s skeptical about the desirability of that because I think maybe we don’t want to give an outlet or a release for those kinds of desires, maybe we want to control them and change them in different ways so that we improve people’s moral character rather than giving them a venue in which they can act out the worst parts of their character, if that makes any sense.

MJ: Does that touch a little bit on the debate with video games, as far as things like Grand Theft Auto? I thought I saw you had a blog post or something about that within the last day or so.

JD: I have a number of pieces about the ethics of actions in virtual worlds, and virtual murder and virtual rape, and things like that. One thing that’s interesting is the fact that people socially seem to be much more iffy or they dislike the concept of virtual depictions of sexual assault more than they dislike virtual violence and virtual murder. In fact, people seem to be perfectly happy with virtual violence of often extreme forms. If you look at the latest versions of the Mortal Kombat game and the fatality moves in that… I think somebody said that there are twisted minds developing that or catering to that interest in violence. Society has been generally accepting of that. Whereas games that actually allow you to engage in acts of rape or--I don’t know of any games that allow you to engage in acts of child sexual abuse, at least not any mainstream games. But there have been games that have allowed you to engage in virtual acts of rape, which have often times been banned or prevented from resale. The most famous two cases that I know of are a game called Custer's Revenge back in the ‘80s, where the graphics and the object of the game are awfully crude, and you play General Custer and the object of the game is to rape a Native American woman tied to a stake. Then there’s a Japanese game made in 2006 called RapeLay, where you stalked three people and raped them, which was banned in most Western countries. Historically there’s been more of a backlash against virtual sexual assault and virtual rape, but not so much virtual murder. There are some people who think that those competing attitudes towards those two different types of virtual acts are unsustainable. Either you object to them all or you object to none of them, you can’t have it both ways.

MB: I’ve also noticed that just nudity in general in video games is almost completely frowned upon, whereas you can basically have unlimited violence and it’s fine. I know there was the case a couple of years ago with Grand Theft Auto, it wasn’t the most recent one, but one or two versions ago where you had to go through all these things and there was basically a hidden Easter egg where your character could get a simulated blowjob. They didn’t even show anything but people freaked out about it. But yet nobody freaked out about the rest of the game, where there’s nonstop horrible language and violence and all these other things. They were just so upset about that one small thing. It always struck me as weird that you can have all this violence in a video game, but you show a boob or something and then all of a sudden people flip out.

JD: I think that goes back to Mike’s point as well about the ways in which culture and society are projected onto our technology, or reflected in our technology. The fact that we’re so permissive towards violence and yet not any depiction of sexual activity in video games says something maybe problematic about Western society in particular. One reason why I think that human sex workers are unlikely to be replaced by robots is because of technological unemployment in other industries. My feeling is that if humans are driven out of other types of work, unless there’s some resolution to social welfare, like a basic income, that means people no longer need to work. But assuming that there’s no change to that, people still need employment, they still need income, and they’ll go find work in areas where there’s a preference for human labor over robotic labor. I think sex work might be one of those areas. So, there might actually be an increase in human sex workers as a result of the increase in technological unemployment in other industries, and I think that’s an interesting future possibility that we should be thinking about as well.

MJ: Oh, definitely. I totally agree with you. And I think even if sex robots did displace sex workers for your average middle class people, certainly at the higher tier of income--the 1% of the 1% of the 1%--that those people would still be willing to pay for “the real deal.”

JD: I think that’s a good point too. There are differences across the sex worker industry. It’s not homogenous. There’s different sectors of it that cater to different types of demand and the upper echelons of society will be willing to pay a premium to have a real, live human being.

MJ: Well John, thanks so much for joining us again.

JD: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

MB: Yeah, thanks a lot.

A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. Are you interested in the future and how society is changing? We’d love to have you join our community. Visit our website to learn more and to connect with others that share that interest. You can find us at RobotOverlordz.FM. The site includes all of the show’s old episodes along with complete transcripts, links to more information about the topics and guests in each episode, and our mailing list and forums. We’d also love to hear what you think about the show. You can review us on iTunes or email us.

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A: We hope to see you again in the future…

MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.

MB: Thanks.


Image Credit: By Bagogames (Ex Machina Movie Review) [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr