Professor Noel Sharkey: Yes, sex robots can play a part in wider society

By Oliver Smith 12 July 2017

Get ready for a new breed of bot.

Would you have sex with a robot? It’s not as taboo an idea as you might think, and could soon could even become commonplace.

But the world of sex robots remains a moral and ethical minefield.

Last week Professor Noel Sharkey made headlines after calling for a legal ban on the import of child sex robots.

The professor of AI and robotics at Sheffield University, chair of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, and judge on the BBC’s Robot Wars made his comments following a widespread review into sex robots and modern life by the Foundation for Responsible Robotics, of which he is also a co-director.

The report, Our Sexual Future With Robots, explores the kinds of sex robots already being created by companies like Android Love Doll, Sex Bot and True Companion and, for better or worse, what part they might play in future society.

We sat down with Professor Sharkey to find out more:

Oliver Smith: How should ordinary people feel about the topic of sex robots?

Noel Sharkey: Informed discussion is important before the technology, in all of its manifestations, sneaks up on us.

It is not for me to tell society what to think.

It is an issue that should have broad societal discussion that also informs.

OS: You’ve called to outlaw child sex robots, why is this even needed?

NS: Researching the report led me to think that it would be good to ban the general distribution of child sex dolls, because of potential deleterious impacts on our societal norms.

However, the jury is still out on whether these could be viable for clinical work with paedophiles. It would be a dangerous experiment.

We have been contacted by self-confessed non-offending paedophiles, as part of the consultation, who say that their attraction to children is not their fault and they believe that child sex robots could help them stay as non-offenders.

This creates very difficult questions that need to be addressed by clinicians, policy makers and society.

What are the risks if such a ban isn’t implemented?

There is already some legal protection in place in the UK where last month a man was jailed for possession of a child sex doll (and some other nasty materials).

In Canada there has been a case ongoing for two years, but in the USA they are still legal, so we really require international regulation.

The are a number of risks, but perhaps the most important is that by making these generally available they create more acceptability of paedophilia.

It has been suggested that some people, particularly the young, may try these and move on to real children. This is outside of my expertise.

Another worry, which I believe most of us would find abhorrent, is that the technology [could be used] to create an exact likeness of any particular child from a photograph.

Someone recently made a Scarlett Johansson robot in that way. Would anyone want a sex doll replica of their child?

Image: Getty/Artystarty.

Do you believe (adult) sex robots can play a part in wider society?

Sex robots may become widespread and norms could shift to accommodate them, if that is what people want.

On the other hand, they may only have a small niche fetish market.

The other possibility is that they are set up in sex robot [brothels] for a bit of adult fun. It is difficult to tell until people have seen them up close or tried them.

Do you think sex robots will ever become life partners for humans?

This is much too speculative for me.

I like to stay with the current problems that are likely to occur in the foreseeable future.

Otherwise it can be like looking too far ahead when you are driving, and running into the car in front of you.