Article Aug 13, 2018

The danger of sex robots

Given the seemingly endless possibilities of technological change, we children of late modernity must consider the question: does technology enhance or diminish our humanity?

This question and the possibilities of technology hit me with a new relevance when May 27th’s New York magazine arrived with the cover story, “My Date with a Sex Robot.” Allison P. Davis tells a gripping yet horrifying account of touring Realbotix in San Diego. Matt McMullen, founder of Abyss Creations, a current global leader in the manufacture of sex dolls, and Realbotix, their AI spinoff, is creating AI-enhanced humanoid robots that humans can engage in sexual activity with.

Lest this sound like a bad sci-fi movie gone wrong, Davis reports that manufacture of the female robot sex dolls are ready for shipping as of summer 2018. “So far, there have been 50 orders at $12,000 apiece.” The male robot is still in development, but Davis describes customization as the heart of the company’s business model. “Realbotix is betting that much of what users want comes down to customization. The fantasy it’s selling is the ability to select a sex partner to meet your precise specifications—to get exactly what you want. . . Selecting physical attributes for a sex robot is Tinder taken to to a logical extreme.”

The loneliness problem

As Davis toured Realbotix, she describes trying to imagine if she would be seduced by a robot.

At first I doubted the plausibility of a robot interloper in my love life. Then I thought about the way I wake up most mornings with either my phone or my laptop in bed beside me. Like many, I’ve developed an insecure attachment to my phone—without it, I feel anxious, bereft, and bored. Even beyond dating apps, modern romance is a world of refreshing Gmail, manipulating read receipts, and feeling bummed out when a potential mate is a “bad texter.” Our iPhones and computers are our portals to intimacy—of course we’re attached to them. And these attachments aren’t just fulfilling preexisting holes; they’re creating new needs and desires.

The loneliness of modernity is the problem the sex robots solve. McMullen theorizes, “If people are connecting with other people through technology, and if those virtual connections create loneliness and isolation, why not use technology to create an alternative sort of relationship—a relationship with technology?” Davis concludes her article leaving open the question of her participation in this new technological possibility: “No, I did not have sex with Henry [the male sex robot] today. But to answer the question on everyone’s mind, I’m not not going to have sex with Henry in the ever-nearing future.” The technology exists to pair artificial intelligence with a silicon human form; the question remains, does this technology enhance our humanity, or diminish us?

On the one hand, these sex robots seem to offer quick and easy sexual satisfaction at a price point lower than a decent car and with less risk than sex tourism or a brothel visit involves; as some have already suggested, this could be a solution to the nascent “incel” movement. At the same time, “Henry” and his fellow bots represent a dehumanizing progression: sex divorced from purpose, pursued only for pleasure, results in the removal of another human from the process. When human beings no longer provide the most pleasure, why go through the heartache, struggle, and effort to commune with another human being?

A biblical understanding of sexuality

The biblical understanding of sexuality, in contrast, places limitations around human sexual encounters, and links sex to two different purposes: communion with another person, and the offspring which may result. God’s design for human beings is inherently sexual; Adam and Eve were both gendered beings united in marriage within the garden. One of God’s first commands was to “be fruitful and multiply” so that his image-bearers would fill creation. Genesis 4 opens with, “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain.” The use of “knew” to connote sexual intercourse is fascinating; this is no accidental euphemism. Instead, it conveys the idea that the man and his wife unite in physical union, and in doing so, gain a deep knowledge of each other.

This sexuality is not about mere pleasure. Instead, it is about coming together, about seeking and finding oneness. In Recapturing the Wonder, Mike Cosper writes, “Sex is a feast of attention. It is most intimate and most meaningful when a husband and wife approach one another in a spirit of generosity, joy, and wonder” (Cosper, 125). This attention is part of what Paul describes when he writes that the husband ought to “love his wife as Christ loves the church” and the wife ought to “respect her husband.” Paul further explains that within marriage each spouse’s body belongs to the other. Therefore, they should each serve each other within their sexuality. The biblical vision of sexuality understands pleasure as a by-product of a other-oriented relationship.

Perhaps ironically, an unlimited sexuality which seeks self-satisfaction fails to meet the real longings of the human heart; it is when two partners each seek the others’ ultimate good and serve each other that intercourse transcends a mere physical encounter. Within such a framework, sexuality heightens the human dignity of each partner.

Such a relationship requires limitation, time, self-sacrifice, and service. None of these things speak to our base natures. Instead, we would rather have immediate, quick gratification. The Realbotix dolls promise the satisfaction of quick sexual pleasure at the cost of removing another human being from the relationship. In doing so, they remove sexual intercourse from the realm of human interaction. Cosper writes,

Only in a world where sex is meaningless does it make sense to use the principles of a video game to enable hook-ups (like Tinder). Only in a world where sex is meaningless does sexting make sense. Only in a world where sex is meaningless does it make sense to use images of a nearly-naked woman to sell cheeseburgers. Sex is disposable in this world because we are disposable (Cosper, 127).

Cosper does not speak directly about the Realbotix dolls, but his argument extends to them. While the logical implications of the widespread use of these dolls is a clear danger to birth rates, the more subtle danger is the enshrinement of selfishness as a good while creating the illusion that one is intimate  with a human partner.

Late modernity is on the cusp of rolling out a new technology which offers the satisfaction of pleasure at the cost of removing the potential for happiness. The creation of such devices and the popularity of them contemporary journalism and the blogosphere points to a moral vacuum; we have lost the confidence necessary to say “X is not good; people should not do X.”

The moral confusion present in Alison Davis’ piece, representative of a secular perspective which lacks the moral capacity to question a technology’s existence, presents Christians with a rare opportunity: we can now highlight the positive view of human sexuality articulated by God’s Word. We can contrast the folly of thinking that a sex doll, no matter how artificially intelligent, could ever satisfy the real longings of the heart for community with the Christian understanding of a rational creature living within the moral fabric woven by the Creator into reality itself, concluding that when we live in accordance with moral reality, we find happiness and lasting human flourishing.

Davis’ “My Date with a Sex Robot” highlights the way our historical moment differs from previous such moments. In a post-industrial age, the question is no longer can we do it, but rather should we do it. And for that, we need more than science. We need a philosophically rigorous and theologically true vision of human nature.

A form of this article originally appeared here.

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