Academic journal article The Journal of Mind and Behavior

Confronting Emerging New Technology: The Case of the Sexbots

Academic journal article The Journal of Mind and Behavior

Confronting Emerging New Technology: The Case of the Sexbots

Article excerpt

Confronting Emerging New Technology: The Case of the Sexbots Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications. John Danaher and Neil McArthur (Editors). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2017, 328 pages, $40.00 hardcover.

Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications is a collection of fifteen essays, most of them on ethical and social issues raised by the alleged advent of a technology that makes possible genuinely intimate sexual relationships between adult humans and robots. This review will concentrate on some large-scale systemic problems with this project, as these are instantiated in this set of essays. The failures of this collection are instructive for a better way, perhaps, to confront emerging new technologies.

Intimacy, the Ontic Status of Sexbots, and Evidence: Identifying the Target

John Danaher defines sexbots twice in his introductory essay, noting that they are essentially humanoid, human-like in their movements and behavior, and possessed of "some degree of artificial intelligence, i.e., it [the sexbot] is capable of interpreting and responding to information in its environment" (pp. 4-5). Later he gives a more succinct and slightly different definition: "They are robots with humanlike touch, movement, and intelligence that are designed and/or used for sexual purposes" (p. 12). The move from "some degree of artificial intelligence" to "humanlike ... intelligence," is noteworthy, as the latter signals the presence of what current artificial intelligence research calls "general human level artificial intelligence." As we will see, this is very problematic for the project that is central to this book. A later chapter in the book declares:

.there is good reason to think that future sexbots will be artificially sentient and artificially intelligent. Such robots would not just seem to experience pain or pleasure, they would experience it; they would not just act like they have deeply held goals and values, but they would actually have them. (Steve Petersen, chapter 9, p. 155)1

We should also allow that such sexbots will be mobile and agile enough to mimic and engage in human-like sexual behavior, and have a power system adequate to doing so for appropriate time periods. This view of sexbots as artificial persons is gaining traction elsewhere in discussions of the alleged social impacts of such technology (see Cheok, Levy, Karunanayaka, and Morisawa, 2017; Mackenzie, 2018).

The present volume holds that such robots are imminent, either already extant or soon to be so, though occasionally there is some confusion about their ontological status. Thus chapter 10 (by Joshua Goldstein) holds that they will be capable of being our friends, and even of sustaining marriages. Chapter 11 (Michael Hauskeller) holds that they will be persons (p. 203), though a little later says maybe not. Chapter 14, by Julie Carpenter who is a computer scientist, holds that sexbots are "actors and sentient" (p. 262), that they have a point of view (p. 271), and genuine subjectivity, "a way of knowing the world" (p. 272). They are described as "a human-like thing" (p. 263), and even when said to be only "the illusion of a human partner" the emphasis is nonetheless on their similarity to humans. Carpenter goes on to say that sexbots will be as "indistinguishable from a human as a healthy person" (p. 280). John Danaher, in chapter 7, however, denies that sexbots are or ever will be persons (p. 106; cf. Danaher, Brian Earp, and Anders Sandberg in chapter 4, p. 55 similarly). So the view is not absolutely uniform, but tends to be towards what we might call the high end of robotic personhood. Only such a view makes sense out of the concern in chapter 9 (Steve Petersen) for ethical treatment of the bots themselves, and chapter 10's (Goldstein) view that sexbots are full moral agents. Chapter 12 (Sven Nyholm and Lily Frank) also holds that there can arise genuine love between a sexbot and its human partner. And, virtually everywhere in this collection we are assured again and again that they are imminent, if indeed not already extant. …

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