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 https://conatusnews.com/kathleen-richardson-sex-robots/ 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.