Robots for sex? Ethicist discusses the topic at Cal Poly

nwilson@thetribunenews.comMarch 4, 2011 

Buying a robot to fulfill sexual needs is already a reality, but talk about robots becoming companions and providing a kind of emotional love could change romantic partnerships in the future, according to a talk at Cal Poly on the ethics of robot love.

While the sex robot industry is in its infancy, it may one day become more sophisticated at simulating the role of a lover, but serious ethical questions should be considered as man-made companions advance technologically, according to an ethicist who visited Cal Poly on Friday.

John Sullins, a Sonoma State University professor, started his talk about sex and robots in front of about 150 people — mostly Cal Poly students — with a joke.

“I’ve been reminded that Cal Poly’s motto is ‘learn by doing,’ ” Sullins said. “That’s why I’ve scattered some sex robots throughout the audience.”

While no such robots were displayed, Sullins’ discussion included a screen presentation of actual sex robots that are on the market — including one named Roxxxy, which he described as “creepy.”

Sullins said that sex robots now exist in a relatively primitive form with some communication and response skills.

Those include the robot talking about how nice it is to hold their partner’s hand if the robot’s hand is touched.

But researchers have been exploring the possibility of robots with complex capabilities of serving not only sexual but also emotional needs through carefully programmed speech and touch.

“Where should robot love go?” Sullins asked. “It opens up a minefield of ethical questions.”

Sullins explained that machines can be geared to serve people in a positive manner and even attempt to improve a person’s mood when they’re down.

Capable robots already exist that can cook, help people with work projects by carrying things and attend to patients in hospitals.

Sullins said the limitations of robot love are similar to getting hooked on computers, when people seem to develop emotional attachments to an inanimate object.

Sophisticated robots could manipulate human psychology in limiting ways, he said, and some people may choose them to avoid resistance in a relationship with human lovers.

Disagreement and changing mood are part of what makes the human experience, he said.

Sullins suggested that it may be hard to work through the deception of a robot claiming to love a person in order to cultivate the “beauty and truth” of a human partnership.

Students commented on how the appeal of the robot is like the devotion of an animal and whether eventually robots would become interested in each other as opposed to humans.

Sullins said that rules and regulations about the use of robots could be an option for controlling how they’re used.

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