Kathleen Richardson, professor of ethics at De Montfort University, speaks in depth about the ethical problems with sex robots.
Kathleen Richardson is Professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI at the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility (CCSR) at De Montfort University. She was awarded her Ph.D. from the department of social anthropology, University of Cambridge, where she studied the making of robots in labs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Kathleen is author of An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines (Routledge 2015) and is preparing two further books for publication, one exploring the development of robots for children with autism (contracted with Palgrave-McMillan), and the other a critical study of Sex Robots (contracted with Polity).
Kathleen’s research is focused on formally developing an ethics of humanity that is informed by the politics of anti-slavery. She is an activist who is inspired by the political movement of abolitionism, and the rejection of human beings as forms of property.
In 2015, she and a colleague formed The Campaign Against Sex Robots, a non-profit group against the development of robotic technologies shaped by inequalities & objectification of women & children. Here Terri Murray interviews her on the rise of the sex robots. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Terri Murray: New technologies seem to be merging porn with ‘virtual experience’ by means of sex robots. How prevalent are sex robots and at what stage of production are they? Are they still in the development stages or are they already being sold?
Kathleen Richardson: Robots have always fascinated us. On the one hand, people carry an idea of robots from what they see from fiction. Most people experience robots first as fictional ideas in cartoons, or through play in the form of toys. The technological robot is something quite specific and is actually radically different from the kind you see in fiction. A good way to understand robots informed by technology is the ‘sense, plan, and action model’. That is a robot distinguished from other kinds of machines by its ability to sense its environment, plan a course of action, and act on the environment.
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. It has led to robotic scientists arguing that machines could be ‘social’ or ‘alive’. How did they come to this decision? They said a machine can behave like a human (it can have a face or a body with expressive and physical behaviours like humans). But they also looked at it from a human perspective.
These researchers decided what was happening in the minds of individuals and their experience. 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.
In my book, An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines (2015), I challenge both these models. Human beings are distinctive from machines (machines are human-made artefacts/forms of property), and I also develop the egocentric model that revolves around the ‘I’ – persons, animals, and things are looked upon instrumentally to this egocentric ‘I’. All boundaries are lost with the cyborg model.
Taking into account this backdrop, sex robot makers and academics in robotics began to argue that men could have ‘relationships’ with dolls (egocentric model), and that these dolls could be substitutes for significant human relationships (cyborg model).
These underlying ideas have now been associated with sex robots. Sex dolls have been around for a long time, but their impact on the world has been limited because, I think, most people would agree they’re a bit creepy. When sex doll makers began to say this is a ‘sex robot’, however, the world became interested. But what we are really talking about are sex dolls. They aren’t sex robots, in the true sense of the term. They do not sense, plan, or act in the world as would be necessary to fit the basic definition of a technological robot. They are more like mechanical dolls, with voice recognition scripts and programmes.
TM: In your view, what is the social impact of this idea that a robot could serve to provide individuals with ‘replacement relationships’? It could be argued that we already use mechanical devices like vibrators for sexual stimulation and that sex robots are just an extension of this seemingly harmless practice.
KR: One object is an instrument, a tool that is used in the service of a particular goal. Those women who own vibrators use them for clitoral stimulation.
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.
TM: Isn’t what people do with robots more or less analogous to simulating a ‘relationship’ with a vibrator?
KR: No one simulates a relationship with a vibrator. There are no professors at universities arguing that by the year 2050 people will marry their vibrators. They do argue this for sex dolls/robots of women and girls because they are already building on a system of mail-order brides. Men already get to feel powerful over women and buy real humans. Sex dolls of robots and girls won’t replace this mass dehumanisation that occurs with women and girls – it is just another iteration of it. The underlying misogyny behind support for these dolls is very serious. Imagine, for instance, if we watched films about food. No actual eating, just watching. It would not satisfy your hunger. In fact, you’d still be hungry. The images on a film can’t replicate a sexual interaction. A person is just rubbing their genitals to the images they see, but they are not actually having any sex.
TM: I’ve heard you speak on the topic of sex robots and I was very struck by some of the phrases you used to describe sex robots and the kind of ideology driving their production. Phrases like ‘programmed subservience’ and ‘mechanised porn’ stick in my mind. Isn’t it better to have robots serving this function rather than real human women?
KR: Is it better to have black robots to be racist against? Is it better to have robotic Jews on which to take out your anti-semitism? Is it better to give men Stepford wives rather than have them support women’s liberation?
TM: I suppose the release of the motion picture Bladerunner 2049 has brought a lot of these possibilities into the forefront of public consciousness. In the film, a hologram sex robot merges with a biological woman. How do you view the messages in this movie? What is the danger if we (or men) should begin to merge human and non-human entities? How does this relate to pornography?
KR: I went to see Bladerunner 2049 last night and thought it was yet another story about ‘Man’ looking for himself and his purpose in life. Who was the main character? A man. What were the interactions with females in the film? They were as avatars, holograms, prostitutes, replicants, one woman was bound in a prison – there was only one female character who was not in a prison or playing some sexual role to the men in the film. Men who don’t feel quite human still get to be more human than females. Nearly every film I see has this same story over and over again.
TM: Can you tell us a bit about ‘GateBox’? I’m new to all of this. I see that the marketing for this device says that this virtual home robot “wants you to be her master”….?
TM: You’ve said that the philosopher Ayn Rand somehow captures the ethos of the porn industry or at least of sex buyers. How so?
KR: Ayn Rand’s philosophies epitomised the egocentric individual – man as an end in and of himself. He wants no altruism (nor sentiment). She draws on the theories of Aristotle – but Aristotle writes about relationships whilst only including Athenian citizens. How can a model of relationship for the rest of us be taken from a slaver?
TM: You’ve mentioned the influence that Katherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography and Civil Rights had on your thinking. What key ideas can this book add to the discussion on porn and sex robots?
KR: There are really too many themes but the main one is about dehumanisation. I’m interested in the way in which racist, classist, and sexist thinking occurs and how property rights are protected by wealthy elites. A theme in the book is about empathy and a lack of empathy for women – this lack of empathy for women comes from their status as sub-humans. As long as there are women in prostitution or porn, we are sub-humans. Our freedom as women comes from abolishing the commercial sex trade. As long as sex is something men want to buy and women supply this demand, there will be systems of inequality that thrive on this. The book is amazing.
In my own work I’ve developed a theory I call ‘property relations’ – that is, a way in which Western human beings continually reflect on themselves as forms of property. If you’re property, you can be modified. Here is an article I wrote on the topic – more coming next year when I will flesh out this theme in my four books.
TM: I’ve heard about a Japanese video game called ‘RapeLay’ that involves the gamer simulating the rape of a family of women. Could the argument be made that this (just like violent misogynistic films) provides a safe catharsis for expression of these latent male fantasies, and so provides a ‘healthy’ outlet for them?
KR: Again, your question is framed in such a way that you don’t see what happens in rape as politics, but as sex. This is an illusion. When a man rapes a woman, he engages in a political act of power. He is using his power against someone he sees as less human.
TM: If there were a game that simulated lynching black people or gassing Jews, I am sure there would be a huge public outcry. Why does there seem to be no similar objection to simulations of misogynist fantasies?
KR: Women are simply not seen as fully human!