When it comes to the ethics of robotics, it is hard to think of any conundrum which Isaac Asimov has not already considered. On the question of whether robots would eventually become so convincingly humaniform that people would happily take them as lovers, Asimov answers in the affirmative. In his vision, this would happen in the rather distant future, after humanity has colonized scores of other worlds. In the following passage from The Robots of Dawn, detective Elijah Baley confronts Gladia Solaria about her relationship with a robot who appeared human in every detail:
In a follow-up novel, the development and deployment of humaniform robots is halted entirely because of the sexual threat posed by superhuman machines.
Asimov gets full marks for predicting that humans will try to have sex with machines which look and act like humans, given the opportunity, but his timeline has proven a bit overextended. The time for robot sex is nigh, as companies like True Companion are vying to infuse lifelike sex dolls with increasingly realistic and variable personalities.
Where there is commodification of sex for the sake of male pleasure, there will invariably arise (second wave) feminist activists to argue against it. Earlier this week, Kathleen Richardson launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots, in an effort to prevent these technologies from becoming available and widespread.
Richardson’s argument has been laid out in a paper entitled The Asymmetrical ‘Relationship’: Parallels Between Prostitution and the Development of Sex Robots and it is essentially this: “…the development of sex robots will further reinforce relations of power that do not recognise both parties as human subjects” and thus “these robots will contribute to gendered inequalities found in the sex industry.”
If it is not obvious to you how having sex with machines will change the way men interact with women in real life, you are not alone. Having read Richardson’s paper thrice, the causal mechanism remains elusive to me as well. Presumably it has something to do with her claim that fantasy is not “just a neutral domain that is a sphere separated off from the ‘real’ and therefore unproblematic” but rather a reflection of how “humans extend their lifeworlds into robots” and then back again into the realm of human-human interaction.
Just as the Grand Theft Auto franchise lead to a well-documented rise in car theft, and just as the pervasive popularity of first person shooters has led to the current surge in gun crime, so also the spread of objects which look more and more like women will inexorably lead to the treatment of real women more and more like mere objects, because men cannot effectively separate fantasy from reality.
At least, I think that is what Richardson is trying to say. To be honest, I doubt whether a cogent argument can be rescued from that particular mish-mash of postmodernist warblegarble.
But you are all welcome to have a go.