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Is it time to have sex with robots?

If she were calling the shots, British researcher Kate Devlin would say it is time to embrace robots, to develop our intimacy with them and even use them to study new forms of sex. If Professor Kathleen Richardson - another resident of the United Kingdom - were calling the shots this line of inquiry would be shut down at once. During Dutch Technology Week, TU/e’s Center for Humans & Technology (CH&T) is presenting a promising discussing between these two experts in the field of sex, robots and artificial intelligence.

photo Kzenon / Shutterstock

Hardware and software designed to serve human sexual enjoyment - it is an interesting subject and one that invariably induces giggling - even among adults - when first raised. Get past that stage and fascinating ideas are sparked. Toys and technologies that people use to jazz up their sex lives have long been a fixture. During the corona pandemic and with social distancing the popularity of these technologies has soared. Is this what we want? A sex doll that after a night in bed makes breakfast for your children? A smart vibrator that poses a risk to your privacy because it holds data on you?

Let’s talk about it

In the discussion initiated by CH&T, streamed on YouTube on May 31st starting at 8 PM, the main focus will be the ethical aspects of sex with robots. The audience can join in the discussion via a chat channel. Moderator Lily Frank is well versed in this subject. In her capacity as Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at Industrial Engineering and Innovation Sciences she has even delivered lectures on sex and love robots and dating apps.

Frank is keen to raise the following subjects: the therapeutic value of sex robots; the influence of feminism; and the consequences for the human psyche. When she speaks, Kathleen Richardson, Professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots at Montfort University and founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots, will argue a different case than Kate Devlin, author of the book ‘Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots’ and a lecturer in Social and Cultural Artificial Intelligence at London's King’s College.

“We must prevent sex robots becoming a substitute for relationships with women,” Richardson writes on her website. “We must embrace robots. And there's nothing to stop you having sex with an object that is not humanoid, has a different texture and moves differently,” Devlin says in her speech at TEDxWarwick.


“I'll be asking the speakers for their thoughts on the use of sex robots in a medical or therapeutic context,” Frank says. “There are people whose physical or mental disabilities or traumatic (youth) experiences make sex problematic. Can they be helped with the latest technologies?”

Like Frank herself, both speakers identify as feminists. Yet Devlin and Richardson have utterly opposing views of the relationship between intimacy and technology. Frank is keen to hear from them how they are influenced by different strains of feminist thought in relation to this technology.

She will also draw attention to the fact that as well as the life-sized Barbie-like sex dolls with oversized busts there is also a huge range of technologies that help facilitate sex between two people. “Just think of cyber sex using virtual reality, say. Do these technologies create new kinds of intimacies or are they merely facilitating the same kinds of interactions that we can have in person? Do they raise unique ethical issues or change our psychology in particular ways?”

Academic curriculum

Frank thinks that the subject fits well into the academic curriculum of a technical university. “I genuinely believe that TU/e aims to produce not only excellent engineers but also alumni who are thoughtful and ethical citizens, who are driven by values as well as their scientific or technical curiosity. I also think our students enjoy being encouraged to look towards the horizon. The era of sex and love through and with technology certainly fits with that orientation. Yes, it is a provocative topic, but it is one I have discussed in courses here and once the initial giggling has subsided, students engage with some of these questions very seriously, for example, 'How does technology change the way we fall in love and maintain relationships?' and 'When do we need to take considerations of robot rights seriously?"

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