Sex robots are coming: why we should all play an active role in the creation of sexbots

Technology has been used for human pleasure for centuries (figure 1). At the end of the 19th century, English physician Joseph Mortimer Granville invented the first vibrator as a medical instrument for pain relief [1]. In the 1960s vibrators became a tool for women to masturbate. Ten years later, the oldest internet-connected sex toys, called teledildonics, were first mentioned by pioneer Ted Nelson.


Figure 1. Timeline of technological developments used for human pleasure.

The arrival of improved internet connection was an undeniable breakthrough for sex and technology. People could now watch pornography and take part in roleplaying in online chatrooms [2]. Next was virtual reality (VR): technology that allows the consumer to watch pornography as if they were in the same room or even as a participator. Given the huge development in artificial intelligence, designers now focus on a new project: sex robots, sexbots for short.

Current developments

Sexbots are robots designed to have sex and form a connection with humans [3]. This connection can be made because of their human-like behaviour: sex robots are designed to talk with humans, respond to touch, and move their head, eyelids and lips in a natural way [4]. This may sound futuristic, but in reality the American company TrueCompanion already put sex robot Roxxxy on the market. Roxxxy has five different personalities, customized hair and eye colour, and the ability to converse in English with humans. The first Dutch speaking sex robot was introduced in 2018 by manufacturer Mytenga. She is called Robin, has brown hair, brown eyes and speaks with a Flemish accent (figure 2). Mytenga and TrueCompanion are not the only companies to create sexbots. Multiple entrepreneurs all over the world are joining them in the race to design the best sex robot, similar to the race of designing the first fully autonomous driving vehicle.


Figure 2: Robin, the first Dutch sex robot [5].

Positive impact

The introduction of sexbots into society has various advantages. For example, people with social anxiety or sexual inexperience could first practice on a sexbot before being intimate with a real person. Furthermore, lonely people, due to living in a rural area or being socially isolated, could use a sex robot to fulfil their social and sexual needs. An example in pop culture is the film Lars and the Real Girl (2007), where main character Lars has a sex doll as his girlfriend (figure 3). Sex dolls are sex robots that cannot move, speak a language or react to touch. However, lonely people finding comfort in having a sex doll as their partner suggests that sex robots could increase quality of life for those people as well. Sex robots also show promise for people with a certain mental or physical disability that have difficulty finding a partner.


Figure 3: Shot from the film Lars and the Real Girl (2007).

In addition, sex robots could be used in education and healthcare. To illustrate, sex therapists could use sexbots to treat men with erectile disorders or premature ejaculation problems. Sexbots could also be used to teach young adults consent. Imagine a female robot that will tell you to stop if you touch her when she does not want it and that only climaxes when you stimulate her appropriately.
Naturally, sex robots do not only have to be used by one person. People that share an intimate relationship might also find a sex robot useful and even fun. For example, couples that share the same fantasy to have a threesome might first practice with a sex robot. In long-distance relationships, people could have sex with a robot if they cannot see their partner(s), but still want to have sex. Sex robots could also open up new forms of sexual experience. Together, partners could discover new ways of experiencing intimacy with others and in general, introduce sexbots to their bedroom to spice up their sex life.

Concerns

Of course, new technologies do not come without serious concerns that urge to think about ethical questions. One of the main concerns is that people will use robots to act out their darkest fantasies, such as rape and paedophilia. Consequently, these people might act out these urges in the real world more quickly, increasing the number of (children) victims of sexual abuse. However, there is no answer to the question whether sex with a child sex robot will fuel exploitation of real children, and it is not possible to determine its answer either, since that would result in a highly unethical study [6].
Another great concern is that sex robots will make men objectify and mistreat women. Given that sex robots can be customized to the buyer’s preferences, these robots could be programmed to be extremely submissive and have disbalanced body proportions.
These two concerns ask for regulations that do not yet exist. The absence of such rules complicates law suits regarding sex robots and allows for child sex robots to be distributed. For example, over the course of two years, 42 child sex dolls were seized by Canadian border agents [7].
These and other concerns about sex robots horrify some so much that Kathleen Richardson, a British robot ethicist, started The Campaign Against Sex Robots [8].

Get in formation

The critique of sex robots and concerns about the effect of sex with robots are understandable. If indeed all doom scenarios are true, sex robots will have a deeply negative impact on society. However, it is important to keep in mind that technology is not inherently evil. Ethicists are right to be critical about sex robots stereotyping the female body and the serious complications around child robot sex, just like entrepreneurs are right to see the positive impact sex robots have on lonely people or couples.
A campaign against and ban on sex robots, however, will not solve concerns about sexbots. If anything, sex robots will very likely stay female and child sex robots will continue to be shipped across the border. To effectively confront these issues, we have to face them head-on and answer the questions surrounding sexbots ourselves. It is up to us to discover the possibilities of this new technology and create laws to remove all ambiguity concerning sexbots. To strive for a sex positive future, where women, men, and everything in between and beyond with various sexual preferences equally enjoy sexbots, a group of designers, ethicists, psychologists and entrepreneurs representing this diversity should play an active role in the creation of sex robots.

For Dutch speaking readers:

Mytenga uploaded an interview with sexbot Robin on YouTube https://youtu.be/_2JzbHN5LXQ

References
[1] Maines, R. P. (1999). The technology of orgasm. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
[2] Griffiths, M. D. (2001). Sex on the internet: Observations and implications for sex addiction. Journal of Sex Research, 38: 333–342.
[3] Levy, D. (2009). Love and sex with robots: The evolution of human-robot relationships. New York.
[4] Sex robot manufacturer Realbotix FAQ. Retrieved from https://realbotix.com/FAQ.
[5] Picture of Dutch sex robot Robin. Retrieved from https://www.motsudolls.nl/seksrobot-robin.html.
[6] Sharkey, N., van Wynsberghe, A., Robbins, S., & Hancock, E. (2017) Our sexual future with robots: a foundation for responsible robotics consultation report. Retrieved from https://responsible-robotics-myxf6pn3xr.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/FRR-Consultation-Report-Our-Sexual-Future-with-robots-1-1.pdf.
[7] Celli, R., & Harris, K. (2018, December 12). Dozens of child sex dolls seized by Canadian border agents. CBC News. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/cbsa-border-child-sex-dolls-1.4941213.
[8] Richardson, K. (2015). The asymmetrical ‘relationship’: Parallels between prostitution and the development of sex robots. Special issue of the ACM SIGCAS newsletter, SIGCAS Computers & Society, 45(3): 290–293.

Understanding the Importance of Attachment Theory in Social Robotics

A post-apocalyptic world where humans are nearly extinct and a humanoid robot is tasked with the mission of repopulating humans on the planet Earth. This is not a figment of my imagination but the plot of a Netflix movie, “I am Mother”. Discussing this intense thriller movie would be really engaging but unfortunately, it would be a bit tangential to the topic at hand. Instead, it is quite interesting to focus on this one aspect of the movie, which is the relationship between the humanoid robot and the human child.  

In the movie, the robot portrays the role of a sort of a surrogate mother and a caregiver of the newly born infant. This intriguing bond which is shared between them is the crux which will be explored in this article.

Attachment Theory and HRI

One of the defining characteristics of human beings which separates us from other animals on this planet is the social interaction amongst humans. A major aspect of survival depends on the social interaction one human has with another. Such interactions were pretty simple back in the prehistoric ages but in the modern world, they have evolved and taken up a complex form. And understanding social human interaction has been one of the major fields of neuroscience and psychology. 

Attachment Theory is one such study of social interaction which explores the attachment behaviour portrayed by humans. John Bowlby, the psychiatrist responsible for the conception of this theory, shifted the classical theory of associating human attachment shown in infants from a stimulus (for example, food provided by a human caregiver) to a more emotional connection with a human.  This theory was confirmed to a great extent by Harry Harlow in his work involving newly-born monkeys (McLeod, 2017). 

The need to understand human cognitive behaviour gave rise to the field of Social Robotics and Human-Robot Interaction (HRI). These fields are, in some sense, quite similar to each other as HRI can be considered as a subfield of social robotics with the main motivation of understanding human cognition via interaction of humans with robotics. Emerged around the 1990s, HRI has gained a lot of recognition in contribution of understanding human cognition via understanding and testing robotic systems which dynamically interact with humans.

An arousal-based model controlling the behaviour of a Sony AIBO robot during the exploration of a children’s play mat was designed based on the research in developmental robotics and attachment theory in infants. When the robot experienced new perceptions, the increase of arousal triggered calls for attention from its human caregiver. The caregiver could choose to either calm the robot down by providing it with comfort, or to leave the robot coping with the situation on its own. When the arousal of the robot has decreased, the robot moved on to further explore the play mat. Hence, the study presented the results of two experiments using this arousal-driven control architecture. In the first setting, it is shown that such a robotic architecture allows the human caregiver to influence greatly the learning outcomes of the exploration episode, with some similarities to a primary caregiver during early childhood. In a second experiment, it was tested how human adults behaved in a similar setup with two different robots: one needy, often demanding attention, and one more independent, requesting far less care or assistance.

Long Term Dyadic Robot Relations with Humans

In Attachment Theory, the caregiver-infant relationship (Bowlby, 1958) is widely popular due to the paradigm shift of knowing how infant attachment to their mothers or caregivers works and the factors which play a role in it. This relationship was explored with the use of a Sony AIBO robot where an arousal-based model is created for a robot to stimulate responses from human caregivers, (Hoile et al., 2012). The study was successful in showcasing that the robot running on the arousal-based model was able to elicit positive caregiving behaviour from the humans instead of being left to cope with the situation the robot at any particular time. The arousal-based model essentially turned the robot either needy or independent and the human caregiver responses were recorded for either of the behaviours portrayed by the robot. 

While the above study dealt mainly with this dyadic relation of human and robot, effects of long-term HRI and it’s association with the Attachment Theory was studied by exploring various factors such as attachment styles, formation and dynamics (McDorman et al., 2016). This study has thus proposed Attachment Theory as a somewhat generalised framework for understanding long-term HRI.

Influence of Human Attachment Patterns on Social Robotics

As mentioned before, the Sony AIBO robot experiment (Hoile et al., 2012) was successful in stimulating human caregiver responses but this showcased the human to be the response system in the human-robot relation whereas it is also important to understand how a robot might behave as a response system based on a human’s actions. This aspect was explored as well where EMYS type robots were set up to spend 10 days with humans with different attachment patterns and the robots’ operations were assessed based on their response to the various styles of attachment displayed by the humans (Dziergwa et al., 2018). The above two studies in a way represent the two sides of a coin as understanding the behaviours of a social robot playing the “infant” as well as the “caregiver” role might provide a more articulate knowledge of the Attachment Theory and its association with HRI. 

Importance of Attachment Theory in Social Robotics

Another study involving human interactions with the PARO robot (Collins, 2019) explored the Attachment Theory and HRI by drawing parallels with other forms of human interactions and bonds, such as with other humans, animals and objects. Although the results weren’t conclusive, it demonstrated how important Attachment Theory can be in understanding and developing HRI methodologies. 

The Wrap-Up

In conclusion, multiple studies have shown the importance of taking inspiration from Attachment Theory to better understand HRI and developing cognitive models which follow the norms such as increased attachment towards emotional stimuli and not simple, materialistic stimuli (for example, food). Advancements in HRI by considering the Attachment Theory shows great potential in more successful assistive robots which can display a personalised attachment behaviour towards humans. 

Although studies similar to Harlow have not been attempted on humans where they are isolated from other humans and placed in the care of only robots, it poses an interesting question whether prolonged interaction and attachment to a social robot might reduce a human’s ability to create as well as retain other attachments with humans.

References:

Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the childs tie to his mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-371.

Hiolle, A., Cañamero, L., Davila-Ross, M., & Bard, K. A. (2012). Eliciting caregiving behavior in dyadic human-robot attachment-like interactions. ACM Transactions on Interactive Intelligent Systems (TiiS), 2(1), 3.

McLeod, S. A. (2017, Feb 05). Attachment theory. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/attachment.html

McDorman, B., Clabaugh, C., & Mataric, M. J. (2016). Attachment Theory in Long-Term Human-Robot Interaction.

Dziergwa, M., Kaczmarek, M., Kaczmarek, P., Kędzierski, J., & Wadas-Szydłowska, K. (2018). Long-term cohabitation with a social robot: A case study of the influence of human attachment patterns. International Journal of Social Robotics, 10(1), 163-176.

Collins, E. C. (2019). Drawing parallels in human–other interactions: a trans-disciplinary approach to developing human–robot interaction methodologies. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 374(1771), 20180433.