Sex with robots: the case against the case against Part two

Taking apart the interview, and the logic behind the argument, we get to these statements.

“Sex dolls and sex robots in the form of women and girls do something else. In the mind of someone buying and using them – they ARE women and girls. They are designed deliberately to resemble women and girls because they want the man buying and using the dolls to believe it is a woman or girl. These are markedly different things. Sex dolls and mechanical dolls in the form of women and girls play on the idea that women are orifices to be penetrated.

Imagery that dehumanises others in order to justify rule over them serves a political purpose. These sex dolls of women and girls are serving a political purpose to reinforce the idea that women and girls are sub-humans/orifices.”

“In the mind of someone buying and using them – they ARE women and girls.”

This doesn’t follow at all; it needs some evidence to back it up. The only thing we can say for sure is that someone having sex with a robot wants sex with a robot. Maybe it plays on the idea that they stand in for real women, but also it’s likely that that’s just play. There are a huge number of presumptions here, none of which are supported by research.

“Imagery that dehumanises others in order to justify rule over them serves a political purpose. ” True. This is what makes the argument such a problematic one. Dropping in valid political statements, that everyone can agree with, but then indicating a consequence that is no consequence is a standard bait-and-switch ploy. You agree with statement A and (you claim) A causes B, therefore you have to agree with B. Everyone can agree there is a systemic oppression of women in the patriarchal society. And that is formed by men with power in society. That sex dolls are contributing to this is not at all evident though. The power of this as a series of statements is that if you oppose B (because “therefore” is not proven) then somehow you are against A. It’s a specious and underhand way of carrying your argument.

What makes this “therefore” unlikely is that although men with power rule, men with sex dolls are rarely men with power. One of the areas I looked at with avatars is the role of the zeta males in many of the activities in virtual worlds. It is the men who have little or not power that compensate for this lack of power in their own lives by playing at being powerful in their fantasies. Their actions have no impact on wider society because nothing they do has impact.

OK generalisation there, which I admit. See how that works as a way to obfuscate relationships between concepts though? Zeta males have no power, only zeta males have sex with dolls, having sex with dolls therefore has no impact on society.

There may be a link. There may not. Acting on suspicions though is not really very ethical.

I suppose the bottom line for any ethical debate is do you deny a group of (some would call creepy) males’ expression of their sexuality out of caution that their actions may exacerbate the oppression all females, or not? It’s a classical deentological vs consequentialist dilemma. Do you take that chance of conducting a possibly (or even probably) unnecessary act of oppression on a minority group just to be on the safe side?  Or do you take the route of preserving all people’s rights, unless they are demonstrated to be dangerous?

While you’re considering that, I’ll remind you of another analogy. When the pigs finally get to run things in Animal Farm, they end up being just as bad as the people they replaced. Power is intoxicating, you get to control things so that you can make them the way you want them to be. When you’re in power you don’t have to worry about the consequences for disenfranchised people if you’re never likely to be one of them. Prof Richardson has a platform, the agalmatophiles do not; it is evident where the power lies in this debate.

“Four legs good. Two legs better.” should haunt anyone acquiring power; before you act check you’re not simply replicating the iniquities of those who’ve had the power before you.

A professor of ethics should know that.


Sex with robots; the case against the case against part one.

One of the sites I often read to get a good line on an ethical issue is Conatus News. It’s sort of generally progressively liberal, and usually well-argued. It offers a range of opinions, and doesn’t contest them, which is open-minded of them. Some of them, though, make my skin crawl. This article was one of them.

It’s an interview with Kathleen Richardson, Professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI at the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility (CCSR) at De Montfort University and spearhead of The Campaign Against Sex Robots. The rationale is that they exacerbate the objectification of women. I get the impression from the argument made that that’s not what’s going on.

The first alarm bells in the argument are some unsupported (and from what I know, plain wrong) statements. Here’s one:

“In the last twenty years, with the age of the ‘cyborg’ informed by anti-humanism and non-human distinctiveness, there has been this prevailing sense that humans and machines are equivalent. This implies that the only difference between a machine and a human is the ‘man who is creating it’ rather than some empirical and radical difference between a human and an artefact.”

In actual fact, if anything, the more people have looked at recreating consciousness, the more they’ve realised how essentially different the two are. While soft AI is being achieved, hard AI looks like an ever more distant, if impossible, goal. In The Emperor’s New Mind (26 years old now), Roger Penrose made some telling arguments about the differences; that no systematic machine-like process can replicate the organic creation of thought. The Turing test is being failed more often than it used to, because even though bots are being programmed better, the people judging are getting better at telling the difference. If anything, from the bits of research I’ve done, the increase is in more false positives, rather than false negatives. That is, rather than people mistaking bots for humans, people are mistaking humans for bots. Our standards for what makes something human-like are getting higher. Robots are falling behind.

Next one: “It has led to robotic scientists arguing that machines could be ‘social’ ”

This is not what social robotics is. Social robotics is looking at the elements that enable robots to fit into society, not at considering them to actually “have” society. This is a deliberate misrepresentation.

Now we come to the quite disturbing part of the argument.

“If a person felt like they were in a relationship with a machine, then they were. In this way, two seemingly different ways of understanding the world came together to support arguments for human relationships with machines. The first was the breakdown in distinction between humans and machines. The second was the egocentric, individualistic, patriarchal model (‘I think therefore I am’) – what I am thinking, feeling, and experience is the only thing that counts. I am an egocentric individual.”

One of the fascinating things about having worked in virtual worlds is that you come across a whole range of people. A lot of them are finding self-expression in ways that they couldn’t do in the physical world. A lot of them are finding ways to connect with parts of their identity that weren’t possible in the physical world. Sometimes it’s society, or it can be identity tourism. Quite a few were exploring their paraphilias.

Agalmatophilia is sexual attraction towards inanimate objects, dolls, mannequins … robots. It’s a thing. And real for the people who experience it. One of the major social movements of the last fifty years is the development of a more permissive outlook on sexuality. It’s complemented feminism, gay rights, more recently transgender rights. Even before gay rights legislation made discrimination on grounds of sexuality illegal, you’d hear homophobes say things like “well I don’t like it, but if they do it behind closed doors, then I don’t have a problem with it”. Not the best attitude, but underlies that an essential element of permissiveness is that if it’s between consenting adults, free and able to give their consent, then it’s not for us to get involved. Or to judge. If even some homophobes get that, we should be able to do even better.

“If a person feels like they are in a relationship with a machine, then they are.” “what I am thinking, feeling, and experience is the only thing that counts.” Those are positions Prof Richardson is critical of. If we are to respect all sexual expression (between consenting adults, free and able to give their consent), and we are, then we have to accept their own definition of identity, sexuality, gender, etc. That’s not patriarchal (in fact, the attitude has stood against the patriarchy in the past), it’s not egocentric (any more than respecting someone’s identity in terms of sexuality, gender, religion etc is). It’s respect.

It’s respect for people who think and feel and experience pleasure and sex differently, to think and feel differently. In ways we might feel uncomfortable in recognising. Which, I guess, is what makes it hard for the neopuritans, of whom Prof Richardson appears to be one. I assume she is otherwise why dismiss something that doesn’t meet with her recognition of legitimate human experience?

It must be tricky times for the neopuritans. Wanting to monitor and dictate what happens in private, between consenting adults (free and able to give their consent), but finding that homosexuality and transsexuality are now no longer legitimate targets. Who else is next? Let’s identify a remaining marginalised form of experience. Let’s go for the agalmatophiles. As Prof R. says later in her interview “I think, most people would agree they’re a bit creepy”. Yep like most people agreed gay people were a bit creepy a few decades ago? But if we target those that enjoy that sort of thing and dress up our distaste for what we’ve deemed are corrupt and perverse with words like patriarchy, that’ll make it look more liberal.

And if you’re thinking that wanting a relationship with a doll is a bit weird, so why stand up for agalmatophiles, there’s a poem by Martin Niemöller you need to re-read.

So yes, “two seemingly different ways of understanding the world” have come together in Prof Richardson’s argument, but those two things are luddism and neopuritanism, basically fear of technology and fear of other forms of sexuality.

There’s some more unethical opinions stated during the second part of the interview. I’ll leave them for the next post.