In my day, no one had a color TV. Then the prices came down and down, and color TVs became ubiquitous. Can The Age of Sexbots be far behind?
What with all the recent angst over the “soul of America” and the accompanying struggle to make America great again or to return America to normal, it comforts me to know that for a mere ten grand or so, I can buy a machine to have sex with. It comforts me to know that good old American know-how is still alive and well; it comforts me to know that no matter how many riots occur, how many fences and walls are built, whether the nation’s children ever set foot in a classroom again, I can relieve my anxiety and stress by going home to my sexbot and getting a proper snuggle.
Curmudgeonly ethics professors and traditionalists of all stripes are in an uproar. These people don’t seem all that concerned about rubbing the lamp for other applications of Artificial Intelligence that has already been done and is continuing. It’s not like just freeing a genie, because after your three wishes, the lamp becomes inert and the genie goes off to wait for his or her next assignment. THIS genie produces a never-ending stream of fulfilled wishes: sex with AI-enhanced bots, war with AI-enhanced bots, space travel and colonization with more bots, cars and taxis and trains and semis hauling goods—all robots serving mankind. Why, it’s breathtaking. No the angst is reserved for sex (as Americans seem to be constantly outraged about)—specifically sex with machines, with robots, with non-humans.
On a BBC website from last year, a screaming, ominous headline: “Sex Robots May Cause Psychological Damage.” Unlike sex with living humans, I guess. And if one strips away all the jargon and verbal pearl-clutching, we seem to be talking about a version of a famous philosophical problem, the problem of personal identity: what makes you, YOU? The ship of Theseus.
Suppose you have a boat (let’s call it the Betty) which is dismantled and the boards and planks of which are stored in the garage. One day, you decide to rebuild the Betty, using the very same wood. You do and you are now looking at the Betty, your boat. But is it? It is identical to the original boat, but for the nails and screws and such, but you call it Betty and your friends and neighbors call it Betty and everyone assumes it’s the Betty. What makes it the Betty? And here, I submit that what makes it your original beloved boat is that you decide that it is. Just the way the folks on the Enterprise decide that Picard is Picard, no matter how many beam-ups and beam-downs he makes, the way you decide you are you, as you grow up, no matter how many body cells or brain cells die. So perhaps the idea that an artificial girlfriend is—despite the fact she started life in a factory and was never on the cheerleading squad in high school—in your mind, still a girl you can have sex with. She’s a girl who never says “No” and never smirks at the size of your equipment. She remembers that you like lemon pie, what positions you like, which kinks make you salivate. In advanced models, her lips move as she talks, her head can be put on a different body (hey, with enough dough, you, to can be master of a harem!).
There is, of course, a dark side to this. Already, AI sexbots are being made to imitate children, those who want some BDSM, who will provide any aberration desired. It this a good thing or the last wheezes of a modern-day Rome, going to hell?
One of the arguments for this wrinkle is that people who would normally harm women or children now have an outlet for their predilections, a safety-valve which protects society and individuals. This, so far, applies only to those deviant people with hefty bank accounts.
If a person’s mind accepts his Tupperware Tanya as a real person, then she is. He gets what he may have been missing: love, security, intimacy, companionship. Someone to chat with on those lonely nights, someone to care for and to BE the one caring—even if those emotions are not biological. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is The Porn Argument.
In 1983, the Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance was written (originally) by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine Mackinnon. Actually a number of ordinances, they were aimed at treating porn as a violation of women’s civil rights and proposed to allow women harmed by pornography to seek redress in civil courts. Eventually, court interrupted this march to a shinier morality by noting its infringement on the 1st Amendment. And there can be little doubt that some porn is degrading to women (porn’s evolution since ’83 has proceeded apace, with startling variants and, shall we say, astonishing limit-busting). Sexbots are not mentioned in these ordinances, but the idea lingers, though to what effect is questionable. Linda Boreman, she of Deep Throat infamy (as “Linda Lovelace”) wrote a memoir, Ordeal, in which she chronicled her physical and mental abuse and coercion into making her movie, and the idea of legislation to address her, and others’, trauma came to the sunlight. And her ordeal and these ordinances seemed to spark a heightened awareness of not only the pernicious problems of some porn, but of the effect on women, and on men’s attitudes and behaviors toward them. All worthy things, but are sexbots in this category?
Are women dehumanized and made to be objects by these constructed females? Is this the poisonous effect of the ongoing behavior and ideas about women? If a man wants an AI sexbots to be The Little Woman, to act out his fantasies, no matter how puerile and unenlightened they may be, is this porn as we all have come to know it? Is this the beginning of yet another variant of male-directed, male-dominant, knuckle-dragging behavior and attitude toward women? Of course, some women will, as in “regular” porn, want in on the action, with their own versions of sexbots heaven. And the variations are legion, since, anything which can be programmed to do the unthinkable, WILL be. Who will be the first to sue for damages or alienation of affection? Sexbots will not be engaging the services of a lawyer. Sexbots will do the bidding of their owners and not even care they ARE owned. Some group, some organization, some splinter of #MeToo will no doubt be unable to avoid the temptation of trying to put the genie back in the bottle.
Sexbots, for those who have them, are women, identical to wives, girlfriends, companions. It is pointless to say to the guy with the rebuilt boat, “But this really isn’t YOUR boat anymore”, or to say to the Enterprise crew, “This isn’t REALLY Jean-Luc Picard anymore”, just as it is pointless to tell a man who has shelled out ten grand, that what he paid for isn’t really a woman. And any lawsuit would have to tacitly (at least) acknowledge some level of identity with flesh and blood females.
First, there was the love that dares not speak its name, then, mistresses as part of a household, animals, transwomen and men, BDSM, the internet, phones, every conceivable (so far) variant, and now sexbots—becoming more sophisticated and compliant. The ethical dilemmas and moral conundrums will, no doubt, multiply, but so far, the prices are such that no major societal impact has yet emerged.
But remember when color TVs came out, with their green-skinned people with blue hair? No one I knew had one, no one in my family knew anyone who had one, no one I heard of could afford one. Then the prices came down and down, and color TVs became ubiquitous. Can The Age of Sexbots be far behind?