A Case Study in the Ethics of Technology: Sex Robots


In the field of artificial intelligence (A.I.), engineers are working hard on different kinds of robots. Many jobs, such as chauffeur, teacher, even doctor and judge[1], are bound to become replaced by robots sooner or later[2]. Even though this might seem a rather futuristic picture, the prospect is becoming ghastly realistic. This might sound exciting to some. Others however foresee a future in which robots completely dominate our human way of life. Collective unemployment might, for example, unsettle our identities, or we could get emotionally attached to robots to such an extent that it affects human relationships. The ethics of technology, a relatively new field in philosophy, studies such difficulties. In my view, the attribution of human characteristics, such as a human-like body, emotions or sexual feelings, is the main aspect which makes A.I. a potential threat to our human lives. Consequently, I argue that we should attribute as few human characteristics to robots as possible. This essay will explore this idea on the basis of the particular case study of sex robots. This will be investigated, keeping in mind the following three questions: What are sex robots? What problems should they solve? And what consequences do they entail? After addressing the first question, three main arguments in the academic debate on this subject are discussed and countered. I will conclude that sex robots pose a serious threat to human romantic and sexual relationships and thus should become less human-like.  

What are sex robots?

Leader in the field of the creation of sex robots is Abyss Creations, already known for their production of extremely realistic sex toys, called RealDolls. They have developed the first sellable sex robot, which is set to hit the shelves January 2018.[3] Her name is Harmony and she is primarily designed by Matt McMullen. The company’s current customers are mainly men (also for their 10% of male dolls)[4] and the robots are, inferring from their appearance and functions, designed with heterosexual men in mind.[5] Therefore, we can presuppose that men will become the main user of sex robots as well. Whether the clientele changes in the future does not affect the message of this essay, since the thesis is concerned with the implications of these robots as such.

The key features of interactive robots are sensors and artificial intelligence, which they use to communicate with their owner. The sensors enable them to react when specific body parts are touched; A.I. makes it possible to save and analyse these interactions. Hence, after the robot has collected enough personal data, including sexual preferences, it will be able to alter the content of their responses to match the specific interests of the owner. Furthermore, users are free to alter the robots personality and level of libido at any time through an app.[6] Abyss Creations plans on collecting all data of this app to maximise the variations of responses of the A.I. In this sense, the robots ‘learn’ from interacting with their users and from exchanging information with each other. Next to these ‘mental’ adjustments, it is possible to choose the physical appearance of specific body parts as well[7], making sex robots fully customisable. All these aspects show the large extent to which we anthropomorphise robots.

Sex robots as a solution to social problems

To enter into the debate, advocates of sex robots claim that robots are a solution for people who suffer from different types of psychological or personal problems. Specifically, according to David Levy (author of Love and Sex with Robots), sex robots will help solving the significant problem of loneliness in society. McMullen indeed describes his aim as making people become emotionally attached to their robot ‘companion’.[8] This so-called Tamagotchi effect should be a solution for people, especially men, who find it difficult or are not able to establish successful human relationships.[9] The founder of the Campaign against Sex Robots Kathleen Richardson however, warns us that this companionship is a myth. It is very unlikely that robots will ever be able to show sincere empathy and love. Therefore, interacting with a sex robot is not equal to having a genuine friend, nor does it enhance one’s social skills. On the contrary, people risk developing unrealistic expectations of real humans, as they get used to someone who remembers everything, never has a bad day and is always willing to have sex with you the way you like it. Accordingly, one might avoid engaging with real persons, either out of disability or unwillingness. As a result, the population is likely to suffer from more isolation and psychological problems, such as a lack of empathy. Richardson explains that we primarily need human to human interaction in order to learn the complexity of social relationships.[10] These skills can then be used to develop connections with a machine when necessary. Nevertheless, this will not work the other way around as the social cognition of inanimate objects such as machines is too simple to acquire an entire set of skills from. To give a more nuanced view however, anthropomorphic robots might be used in very specific therapeutic contexts.

This takes us another much-discussed problem in this matter, which are illegal sexual preferences. Some proponents say that sex robots could reduce the occurrence of rape, prostitution and child molesting, since the actors can direct their needs at robots. However, this creates a difficult dilemma: should we tackle the source of these problems or allow them to be executed, were it in a more controlled manner? After all, humans generally disapprove of things such as rape, forced prostitution and paedophilia. Yet, do we not implicitly accept the existence of these phenomena when we tolerate them to happen with robots? Should we not instead try to tackle the sources of these actions? This important yet complex issue is beyond the scope of this essay and should be discussed in more detail in the academic debate. Nevertheless, it is an important issue to mention here, as sex robots might be useful in these specific settings.

Sex robots are just another sex toy

A second point frequently made by proponents, such as computer scientist Kate Devlin, is that sex robots do not differ from already existing and generally accepted sex toys.[11] For them, both fall under the same category of inanimate tools which are used for human sexual activities. Proponents reason that if objects such as vibrators, dildo’s and flashlights are permitted, then sex robots should be allowed as well. No doubt however, the feature that makes sex robots wholly different from regular sex toys is the use of artificial intelligence. Whereas sex toys may look like real body parts, they are far from completely embodied and humanized objects. They are solely made to serve the purpose of increasing pleasure during sexual activities. Sex robots on the other hand are created to look lively and to behave in an animated way; they talk, pretend to feel emotions and have life-like bodies. They are made, not only to serve as personal ‘sex slaves’, but also as a friend or substitution of a real person. This will have quite different consequences than sex toys, as users experience an extreme objectification of women. So from a feminist point of view, sex toys literally gave women more tools to explore and enjoy their sexuality, while the widespread presence of primarily female sex robots encourages the subordination of women.

It is just a matter of habituation

A third argument, also raised by Devlin, is that human beings have always been scared and reticent of new technology, such as the printing press, cars and television.[12] Despite our initial fears however, we eventually learned to embrace these inventions, both their negative and beneficial consequences.[13] Since such developments have arguably not destroyed our society or humanity itself, she argues that sex robots will not either. She states that artificial intelligence slips into our lives unnoticeably and there is nothing we can to obstruct this, for technology is steadily developing further and further. In other words, we will just have to get used to these changes. My criticism on this view is twofold. Firstly, I think that sex robots touch upon a very different, more fundamental aspect of being human. Driving a car or watching TV shows are not necessary or essential for human life, whereas expressing sexuality definitely is. It is one of our basic needs, the cause of our existence on earth, and it forms a substantial element in romantic relationships and our society. These facts make embodied, human-like A.I. not just another technological development we will unnoticeably get used to. It will change a fundamental practice in our human life and can therefore cause much damage by decreasing the need for empathy in relationships and increasing gender inequality. Secondly, it seems as if Devlin does not want to consider the deep implications that creating sex robots can have. In her TED talk, she only considers some potential pragmatic difficulties, already quietly accepting the existence of these robots. However, even though technological changes have not destroyed humanity (yet), they most definitely changed our world and society drastically. The fact that daily life has changed and that we are used to it by now, does not mean that it changed for the better. It is rather naïve to claim that we must take the consequences of sex robots for granted, just because engineers are advancing technological possibilities. Without a critical reflection on all aspects of modern technology, humanity is in danger.


This paper has shown that anthropomorphic robots create a lot of tension and ambiguity. On the one hand, we are fascinated to make them just like humans, with the intention to use them for our benefit. On the other hand, this inclination can become a threat to human relationships and gender equality. In the forgoing, three arguments in favour of sex robots have been considered. All of them can be refuted or are further debateable. Zooming out to the bigger picture, the sex robot case proves that a world in which humanlike robots are fully integrated will have drastic implications. We must be aware not to humanise robots to the extent to which they, in theory, can be a substitution of real humans. This does not mean it should be prohibited to create and use artificial intelligence and robots for various purposes; one must simply be very conscious of the implicit presuppositions that lay behind life-like robots. We must move away from the indoctrination that technological development is an inevitable fact, and start believing that we can set particular limits.

[1] Andrew Griffin, Robot judges could soon be helping with court cases, 2016

[2] Erik van den Berg, De 10 belangrijkste vragen over AI, 2017

[3] Tom Parfitt, Rise of the sex robots: Life-like doll goes on sale for £15,000, 2017

[4] Jenny Kleeman, The race to build the world’s first sex robot, 2017

[5] Gabrielle Moss, Why is the sex robot revolution leaving women behind?, 2017

[6] Tom Parfitt, Rise of the sex robots: Life-like doll goes on sale for £15,000, 2017

[7] Jenny Kleeman, Tom Silverstone, Michael Tait, Rise of the sex robots, 2017

[8] Zackary Canepari, Drea Cooper & Emma Cott, Uncanny Lover: Building a Sex Robot | Robotica, 2015

[9] Kate Devlin, Sex Robots | Kate Devlin | TEDxWarwick, 2017

[10] Nell Watson, Jim Hunter & Kathleen Richardson, Robot ethics, 2015

[11] Kate Devlin, Sex Robots | Kate Devlin | TEDxWarwick, 2017

[12] Kate Devlin, Sex Robots | Kate Devlin | TEDxWarwick, 2017

[13] Nell Watson, Jim Hunter & Kathleen Richardson, Robot ethics, 2015


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