Robots posing as people online are "a menace," Tim Wu wrote recently in The New York Times.
Bots swarm the Internet pretending to be human, slinging election propaganda and controlling hot Broadway tickets.
Robots, some in embodied human form, may take over a startling percentage of U.S. jobs in the next couple of decades. In his book out last month, Will Robots Take Your Job? Nigel M. de S. Cameron notes that the U.S.'s 3.5 million workers in the trucking industry are at risk because of the coming rise of autonomous vehicles, but robots are moving also to "occupy the space of emotional intelligence." Robot health-care companions and virtual psychiatrists may be in the offing.
There's a lot of anxiety out there about the expanding role of robots in our society.
Robots do, of course, offer huge benefits to us. To take just a few examples, robots defuse bombs, explore Mars, and already aid in health care in multiple ways. Four years ago when I needed surgery for aggressive uterine cancer, it was an oncologist-robot team that skillfully performed the procedure.
But the worries remain. And last week, news broke of a robot called "Frigid Farrah" that's meant as a sex companion for a person, but with a twist. According to The Independent, the robot was originally advertised in this way: If you touch Frigid Farrah "in a private area, more than likely, she will not be to [sic] appreciative of your advance."
Some commentators, including Laura Bates writing in The New York Times, suggests this kind of interaction amounts to rape. The manufacturer, Roxxxy True Companion, issued a statement that, unsurprisingly, takes a different view.
Should the specter of human-robot sexual encounters only increase our robot anxiety, then? On Monday, I chatted by email about robot sex with Girl on the Net, a writer in the UK who has thought extensively about issues like this. She told me that she finds the discussion around Frigid Farrah fascinating:
"not necessarily because of the robots themselves, but because of the way it exposed some gaps in how people understand consent. In the UK at least there were quite a few commentators talking about sex robots as if they were already conscious, autonomous beings. We had a few headlines that said people could be 'raping' sex robots, implying that consent is inherently tied to behavior, rather than tied to understanding and desire.
In my opinion, laying aside the implications of someone who wants a sex robot to be reluctant, one could no more rape a sex robot than they could rape a Fleshlight [sex toy] or a toaster, because robots don't yet have consciousness. Consent is not just about saying 'yes' or 'no' — it's about making conscious and active choices, in conjunction with another conscious person."
I agree with Girl on the Net: Today's robots are not conscious and thus "rape" is not the correct descriptor.
I want to be very clear about what I am saying here: The robots' lack of consciousness is fundamentally different from the state of a person who has lost consciousness or for some reason suffers from diminished mental acuity. For a person who has passed out, who is in a coma, or who is mentally compromised for any reason and is violently sexually assaulted, "rape" is absolutely the correct term.
That is what I find disturbing about Frigid Farrah: Rape is an act of violence. The notion of a passive or reluctant partner used as a perfectly normalized selling point in the sex industry hits me as wrong. All wrong.
At the same time, I knew from my tech reading that there's much more to robot sex than this one story. I asked Girl on the Net to describe some of the positive aspects. (Our conversation is edited for length.)
"Firstly, there are people who may struggle to have relationships with humans, but who would benefit from the comfort and companionship that could be provided by robotics. There is a growing body of research into the ways in which robotics can improve health outcomes for elderly, disabled or vulnerable people — but at the moment most of the research shies away from looking into robotics to help with sexual needs as well as emotional and non-sexual physical needs.
If we are going to spend lots of money creating robotic assistants and companions for people who need them, we shouldn't just ignore this one important need because we're too nervous to talk about sexual things!
And I think I'd kick myself if I didn't also mention that I think sex robots could make quite a few people happy. Sexual pleasure is a really important source of happiness for many people."
Girl on the Net also made another insightful point to me: Right now, most sex robots are created with straight men in mind. That's obviously a narrow approach and we can, she said, think more expansively than that.
And do these robots even need to be humanoid in form? Girl on the Net continued:
"I went to the International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots last year and one of the key themes was how robots could be designed for pleasure but without necessarily looking like a human. For example, haptic fabrics and strap-on items could be used to wrap around the human body and provide pleasure, or smaller robots could be built that have learning capabilities but without humanoid looks.
Think [of] a robot that one might 'wear' like underwear, or one that could be worn over the hand as a kind of sexy exoskeleton. Robots definitely don't have to look human in order to be sexual!"
In his robot book, Cameron cautions that because change in technology occurs at an exponential rate now, it is "extraordinarily difficult to predict what comes next." That's a worrisome thing in some robot-related ways, as for trying to predict and plan for job losses.
But that lack of predictability is not all bad, I think. The next generations of robots may be quite different in appearance from what we envision now — and they may contribute quite creatively and ethically to our pleasure.
Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals, and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's new book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape