Should we ban sex robots? Some scientists say yes, I say no

Commentary: Sexbots are no longer just sci-fi fantasies. While some scientists worry they're leading us down a dangerous path, CNET's Bonnie Burton is more concerned for the robots themselves.

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Bonnie Burton
Journalist Bonnie Burton writes about movies, TV shows, comics, science and robots. She is the author of the books Live or Die: Survival Hacks, Wizarding World: Movie Magic Amazing Artifacts, The Star Wars Craft Book, Girls Against Girls, Draw Star Wars, Planets in Peril and more! E-mail Bonnie.
Bonnie Burton
4 min read

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Pamela Gidley plays a defective but beloved sexbot in the 1987 sci-fi film "Cherry 2000." Orion Pictures

We often joke about robots equipped with artificial intelligence suddenly moving en masse to attack their vulnerable human overlords (that would be us). But it may be even scarier to contemplate what would happen if robots became our lovers instead of our enemies.

Robot companions are nothing new, of course -- we hear about mechanical pets and robotic elderly caregivers all the time. Less frequently discussed are hunks of metal and silicone that do more (wink, wink) than just play fetch or prevent us from falling down the stairs.

Sex doll company True Companion already sells a female bot named Roxxxy (nice touch with the three X's) and a male bot named Rocky. Customers choose physical characteristics like skin tone, hair color (above and below) and eye color, and Roxxxy's personality can even be programmed to match your tastes, "so she likes what you like, dislikes what you dislike, etc. She also has moods during the day just like real people! She can be sleepy, conversational or she can 'be in the mood.'"

For those looking to abate their loneliness or simply feed their desires, robot sex buddies seem like a logical and safe alternative. But what do they mean for our psyches -- and our behavior?

Robot anthropologist and ethicist Kathleen Richardson, from De Montfort University in the UK, warns that these robots will encourage the sexual objectification of women and children.

"When I first started looking into the subject I thought, 'Oh sex robots, that's harmless and perhaps these robots would reduce demand for real women and children,'" Richardson told CNBC last week. "But then as I researched the subject more I found that the opposite was true -- that rather than reduce the objectification of women, children and also men and transgender people, these robots would contribute and reinforce their position in society [as objects]."

Richardson -- author of the paper "The Asymmetrical 'Relationship': Parallels Between Prostitution and the Development of Sex Robots" -- feels so strongly about the subject she created the "Campaign Against Sex Robots" which has futurists, scientists, psychologists and journalists in a frenzy.

"We are not proposing to extend rights to robots," the campaign website states. "We do not see robots as conscious entities. We propose instead that robots are a product of human consciousness and creativity and human power relationships are reflected in the production, design and proposed uses of these robots. As a result, we oppose any efforts to develop robots that will contribute to gender inequalities in society."

Richardson isn't alone in her concerns. Swedish cognitive scientist Erik Billing has also joined the campaign. "Introducing sex robots that could replace partners is the extreme of this trend, where we start to objectify our human relationships," Billing told CNBC.

But are sex robots really as dangerous to us as these scientists warn?

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I found the droid I was looking for and married him. Bonnie Burton

Millions of men and women use electronic sex toys -- which arguably serve the same purpose as a sexbot would -- without sustaining damage to their personalities. While vibrators can sometimes provide satisfaction where a human partner cannot, that doesn't mean women everywhere have fallen in love with battery-operated products.

All my friends know that when I was editor of StarWars.com, I married R2-D2 at a "Star Wars" convention. Sure it was more of a media stunt than a full-fledged love affair with a famous droid, though I can see why someone would fall in love with a more humanlike AI droid. A satisfying fake relationship could meet a person's needs better than an unhappy real one, so I don't really see anything wrong with that either. (Nor, apparently, do many of the commenters in this Reddit thread from last week titled Sexbots: Why Women Should Panic.)

I'm more worried about robot mistreatment. After all, just this year vandals mutilated a robot hitchhiking around the US East Coast. Where we often refrain from hurting humans, there's apparently something in us that still thinks it's OK to harm machines when they don't do what we want. How many times have you been tempted to take a problematic printer out back and beat it with a bat like they did in the movie " Office Space?"

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While abusing machines does not automatically mean you'll beat up a human, it's still rather creepy to think people could throttle their sexbot when it says or does the wrong thing. Sure, a robot is a machine, but once it has increasingly sophisticated AI, doesn't it make it more like a human? Anyway, while today's sexbots appear to be safe company, the sexy fembots in "Austin Powers" were set to kill. So before you think of mistreating your own sexbot, keep that in mind.

I also don't think we should worry so much about how having sex with a machine will change us into demanding humans with unrealistic views of love. I'm much more worried that we'll be moving toward a future where servitude is once again an accepted practice. What happens when robots look, act and feel just like us? Will they be allowed the right to vote or earn a salary? Will weddings between robots be legal in the eyes of the law?

This might all sound like the "="" movie"="" shortcode="link" asset-type="article" uuid="94eda774-ee92-409d-95bc-1ecfd9bc658f" slug="harrison-ford-confirmed-for-blade-runner-sequel-with-director-denis-villeneuve-in-talks" link-text="next " section="news" title="Harrison Ford to reprise role as Deckard in 'Blade Runner' sequel" edition="us" data-key="link_bulk_key" api="{"id":"c9dd7fd9-92b7-4e8e-b003-ba6932ce393a","slug":"giant-robotic-teddy-bear-japans-nurse-of-the-future","contentType":null,"edition":"us","topic":{"slug":"culture"},"metaData":{"typeTitle":null,"hubTopicPathString":"Culture","reviewType":null},"section":"news"}"> or perhaps an old episode of "Futurama," but robot rights could be a debate we'll be having sooner than later.

Ironically, the 1987 sci-fi movie "Cherry 2000" depicts the United States in 2017 where female androids are standard as wife substitutes. The "Cherry 2000" android, played by Pamela Gidley, short-circuits during sex and must be repaired. While the movie's moral is that human relationships are more gratifying, the idea of a sex robot as a companion in the year 2017 is exactly what's being contemplated and debated right now.

Laugh if you want, but I'm already picking out what I plan on wearing to the inevitable Robot Pride Day Parade. While the rest of you are fretting about the downward spiral of human sexuality thanks to robots, I'll be the one campaigning for their rights.