If the first rule of technology is that someone will come up with a sexual use for every new thing, a close second must be that someone else will find a way to claim that this new thing will leave humanity with even more sexual damage. To wit, here is some fuckbot fearmongering from Kirkwood College’s Joel Snell, by way of Vice:
Robotics experts and sex therapists are worried that a future of Ex Machina–style humanoid fuckbots ready and willing to dote on our every need could turn the masses into sex-addicted maniacs—people may find it difficult to stop taking part in the high-tech carnal pleasure palace and actually detach from the dolls.
“Sexbots would always be available and could never say no, so addictions would be easy to feed,” Joel Snell, a research fellow at Kirkwood College, told the Daily Star. “People may become obsessed by their ever faithful, ever pleasing sex robot lovers. People will rearrange their lives to accommodate their addictions.”
About which…maybe? I have certainly heard less compelling hypotheses, but that doesn’t mean I’m buying this one.
Let’s start here: Technical proficiency—the thing at which sex robots would be expected to excel—is overrated. That is not to say that a sexual partner whose joints have a 360-degree range of motion and incredible stamina (which is to say a better battery than my iPhone) is always undesirable, just that it wouldn’t always be in demand or a substitute for human sexuality. Indeed, all the things that make sex robots theoretically appealing also suggest we should understand them as complements as opposed to substitutes to human sexual partners.
Here, as always, it is instructive to look at reactions to previous waves of technological change. For all the talk of freely accessible Internet pornography ruining human sexuality, the apocalypse has yet to befall us all. Sure, some people now have unrealistic expectations, but others have found healthy outlets for exploring their various kinks. Some researchers, such as Milton Diamond, have even suggested that the availability of pornography is correlated with a decrease in sex crimes. (That, it should be noted, is far from a universally held view.) This article is not a meta-study, so suffice it to note that the effects of technology sexuality are often more complex and less deleterious than initially suggested.
As a counterweight to fuckbot fearmongering, it’s also worth thinking about robots in a more general context as opposed to a purely sexual scenario. Robots, the theory goes, are better than humans at some tasks and will eventually dominate those activities. Robots, for instance, can weld car parts together more efficiently and with less rest than humans, but they aren’t really cut out for writing novels. (Admittedly, on recent evidence neither is Jonathan Safran Foer, but I digress.) This seems like a more plausible theory through which to understand the impact of robots on human sexuality: if all you’re looking for is an inexhaustible collection of holes and surfaces, that need is best satisfied by a robot; if, on the other hand, you are looking for something a bit less mechanical, you’ll want to have consensual sex with a human.
Look, I’m not trying to be all soft here and suggest that humans are only good for cuddling (which is great), talking about feelings, and whatever the hell making love is, but they are not robots. This point is both obvious and tautological and yet it runs contrary to the point Snell is making. To imagine humans will completely restructure their lives for robot sex requires the belief that these robots are capable of satisfying all needs. (Also: Robots may never get sore or tired, but won’t you?) It’s also worth noting that the sex robot Snell envisions is not a direct replacement for humans or something capable of passing the Turing Test; it should be thought of as something that provides a service.
It seems entirely plausible that people will restructure their lives for these robots, but only in the sense that people might restructure their lives for all sorts of robots. At the point where human involvement in all sorts of jobs is no longer needed—or, more accurately, humans are relegated to supervisory roles in many fields—our idea of what constitutes employment and its social function will need to be restructured. The same could conceivably hold true for sex. These changes may or may not be for the better—John Maynard Keynes, for instance, correctly predicted the past generations’ growth in aggregate wealth but wrongly thought that would result in having to work less—but a restructuring would be called for in either event. When thinking about such an occasion, however, sex is not always the most useful prism.