Sexbot or not? Ethicist stimulates debate on the senior set’s need for companionship

Alan Boyle
·4-min read
Illustration: Robot and human hands
A University of Washington ethicist says there shouldn’t be any stigma about creating sex robots for older people in need of companionship. (Bigstock Photo / Digitalista)

Are sex robots just what the doctor ordered for the over-65 set?

In a newly published research paper, a bioethicist at the University of Washington argues that older people, particularly those who are disabled or socially isolated, are an overlooked market for intimate robotic companionship — and that there shouldn’t be any shame over seeking it out.

To argue otherwise would be a form of ageism, says Nancy Jecker, a professor of bioethics and humanities at the UW School of Medicine.

“Designing and marketing sex robots for older, disabled people would represent a sea change from current practice,” she said today in a news release. “The reason to do it is to support human dignity and to take seriously the claims of those whose sexuality is diminished by disability or isolation. Society needs to make reasonable efforts to help them.”

Jecker’s argument, laid out in the Journal of Medical Ethics, reawakens a debate that has raged at least since a bosomy robot made her debut in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, “Metropolis.” In a 2007 book titled “Love and Sex With Robots,” computer chess pioneer David Levy argued that robot sex would become routine by 2050.

Over the past decade or so, the sex robot trade has advanced somewhat, with computerized dolls that would typically appeal to randy guys. At the same time, researchers have acknowledged that the world’s growing over-65 population may well need to turn to robotic caregivers and companions, due to demographic trends.

Jecker says sex should be part of the equation for those robots — especially when human-to-human sex is more difficult due to disabilities, or the mere fact that an older person’s parts don’t work as well as they once did. Manufacturers should think about tailoring robot partners for an older person’s tastes, she says.

“Our sexual desires are not mere desires; for many, they are fundamental to a sense of who they are as human beings,” she writes. “To shun people’s sexual longing or behavior, or to leave people who struggle with disabilities that impair sexual functioning to fend for themselves, conveys a lack of respect for persons.”

Other researchers are more wary about the whole idea of sex robots. In a paper published by the journal AI Matters, the University of Southern California’s Christian Wagner says such products could open the way for marketers to exploit the emotional connections that develop between the robots and their clients.

“By designing robots with the distinct functionality to manipulate our emotions, engineers are creating a mechanism by which entities can perform emotional extortion,” Wagner writes. “For instance, a company can use an individual’s emotional bond to subtly influence buying patterns. Less subtly, engineers can program the robot to threaten to end the relationship unless its owner buys them a new accessory.”

That could be of special concern for senior citizens, who are widely considered more vulnerable to financial scams.

Previously: COVID-19 accelerates tech solutions for lonely seniors

Wagner also worries that sex robots could end up “amplifying sexual practices of violence and pedophilia by enabling repeatable emotion-influencing exposure, which erodes empathy over time.”

It’s worth noting that the sex robot industry is still in its infancy, so to speak. The most advanced devices are basically sex dolls with a wider repertoire of responses. But with the dramatic advance of artificial intelligence, sex with robots — and the complications that come with that — may not seem so much like science fiction in five years’ time.

And speaking of science fiction, it may not be all that much longer before we have to consider how the robot feels about all this. Seattle-area science-fiction author Ted Chiang addressed the sex-robot question in a novella titled “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” and talked about the topic of robotic rights more generally in the latest episode of my Fiction Science podcast.

“What science fiction usually wants from AI, from these conscious machines, is actually not exactly a butler, but a slave,” he said. “We want someone who is competent and obedient, and to whom we owe nothing.”

Will we think of sex robots as loving companions in our old age, or as sex slaves? That sounds like a subject that ethicists could be debating until at least 2050.

Check out the Fiction Science podcast for more from Ted Chiang.

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