The course of human history has brought us into reflecting on the promise and perils of sexbots (sex robots). While sexbots are probably not the next step down the slippery slope (that would be plural marriage), they are somewhere down there in the future. Should we have relationships with sexbots? Should human beings have sex with them?
No decent man living in a decent society would ask these questions, for a decent society would have healthy prejudices against destructive or inhuman practices. A decent man in a decent society does not ask questions like “Why not incest?” or “Why not necrophilia?”
We can still escape those questions today, perhaps, but the modernization of sex has a certain gravity to it. Somewhere near the bottom of the slippery slope lie sexbots, and thinking about them can help us think about what it means to love and to be human.
Sexbots Fulfill Modern Ideas about Sex
According to modern sexuality, orgasm is the goal of sexual activity and any road that gets you there is okay. Masturbation, nocturnal emissions, homosexual sex, prostitution, and even heterosexual sex (if you are a stick in the mud) take the human to the same place. Humming a Freudian tune, sexual modernists equate orgasm with human happiness and worry that so many stigmas, social conventions, and prejudices get in the way of people enjoying themselves.
Victorian morality and its fading vestiges are usually the source of such stigmas, they (and Freud) insist. As the sexual modernists have it, Victorian morality allowed only one acceptable channel for human satisfaction—marital sex—and it frowned upon or proscribed all other varieties of sexual experience. This made people unhappy and repressed, like the couple in “American Gothic.”
Modernists maintain this morality was only a veneer, however, for underneath the starchy appearance people were sodomizing animals in the barn, masturbating, having extramarital affairs, sodomizing children, practicing the love that dare not say its name. As Alfred Kinsey tried to show, a promiscuous practice underlie puritanical public opinion.
So sexual modernity was either always there beneath the surface and just had a coming-out party later, or it was always what people aimed at but the repressive institutions had first to be reformed. Either way, sexual modernity was good and repression was bad.
In this view, humans’ prejudice against having sex with robots is like the prejudice human beings used to have against masturbation, contraception, fornication, divorce, homosexuality, or, in the future, polyamory and polygamy. Sexbotophobia is, no doubt, sewn into at least our cultural DNA, but other prejudices have fallen and this one will too, either in good time or because it is irrational.
The Promise of Sexbots
I read David Levy’s “Love and Sex with Robots” to strange looks from sexbotophobes on a recent airplane trip. It may make sexbots seem attractive to some. Sexbots aren’t your grandfather’s sex toys, it insists. They are not crude machines aimed only at stimulating orgasms (not that there is anything wrong with that!).
Levy’s topic is the future of sexbots. Let us here grant that inventors will successfully realize Levy’s vision of a sexbot—he predicts we will have only to wait until 2050 or so (give or take, of course). Using advances in artificial intelligence, sexbots will converse with their partners, dwell on their emotions, anticipate their needs, deliver forms of companionship and love, and perform whatever sexual act one would want, just like the machines in “Ex Machina.” All of this will equal “love” and “sex” with robots.
Levy’s way of arguing this constitutes love is especially important for understanding the case for sexbots. There are many “causes” of falling in love, and properly designed robots can satisfy all of those causes. We fall in love with those who share our deepest “values” or understanding of the good—and robots can be designed to appear to share them. We fall in love with people we admire—and we can design robots to be compassionate, smart, witty, or whatever we admire. We fall in love with those who fill our needs for closeness, intimacy, sexual gratification, and family—and we have a robot that can do that. You have “a reason to love,” and Levy believes we can program a robot to pretty much meet whichever of the ten possible reasons for love.
Not that sexbots aren’t unpredictable and mysterious. An owner can program them to be unpredictable and mysterious! They could be reprogrammed to have different personalities, thus providing psychological variety. One will be able to reprogram them for different looks, providing physical variety. Finally, one will be able to reprogram their actions, so things never get boring in the bedroom.
Indeed, this takes us nearer and nearer to the rub. “Surprises,” writes Levy, “add spark to a relationship, and it might therefore prove necessary to program robots with a varying level of imperfection in order to maximize their owner’s relationship satisfaction.” Robots are replicable, programmable, dependable, and immortal (because they are replaceable). If a robot were standing there oblivious to a grenade in its midst, we would not at all feel the need to throw ourselves on the grenade. We can get another, after all.
What’s Love Got to Do with It?
The understanding of love that informs Levy’s book and the modernization of sex is this: Love is sex, or love is enjoying time together with a second self who complies with our will (and may anticipate our will). A robot can accomplish both of these things.
The “beloved” programs the sexbot to “love” the “beloved.” Programming may be a struggle, but the relationship with a sexbot is not a struggle. There is no growing together, getting to know you, fear of rejection, vulnerability, danger, overcoming one’s self, sacrifice or learning how to accommodate one another, learning how to please each other, pain for loss, real unpredictability. All this is because, at root, there is no genuine other or separation in this “relationship.” The owner programs everything into the sexbot; the robot is really an expression of the owner’s untutored desire or the owner’s will.
In this, the more the sexbot tries to approximate love, the less and less human the sexbot is. The more human we try to make sexbots, the less human the “relational” “experience” of sexbots will be. Instead of the two becoming one, the one becomes version 1.2.1.
Love begins with recognizing our own lack, our neediness as creatures, but the sexbot love experience never really allows for seeing that making a common life with another is a solution to our neediness. Instead, sexbot love turns us inward again and finds a solution in our own will and dreams. Sexbots represent sophisticated intellectual masturbation, where human beings remain trapped inside their own view of themselves.
Levy mistakes the forms of love for its substance. Couples come to be similar through the hard work of living and learning together. Couples admire the characteristics in each other as they see those characteristics tried in difficult times together; they can sometimes be disappointed in each other, too, and this presents a time for growth and, perhaps, conflict.
Couples fill each other’s needs, but the need is for an unconditional acceptance from another: “for better or worse, in sickness and in health.” Intimacy and sex are some of the stuff from which this grows, but only part of it. Sexbots narrow the range of human experience and rob humans of the pain and trouble of living. Love is an adventure and journey experienced with another, not only a destination.
Human Beings in the Old Sense
There are many arguments to be made against the impulse sexbots represent. “Frankenstein” provides some insights into the genuinely tyrannical passions of those who would found a “new race.” C. S. Lewis calls forth much the same argument in Book Three of “The Abolition of Man.” The fine movie “Ex Machina” also explores problems with the founder of such a race of robots, and other movies such as “Gattica” explore the moral and political problems in a post-human future. Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” provides a wonderful guide too, as he imagines the future world with easy, irresponsible sex, feelies, and solipsistic education.
All of these writers and more defend “human beings in the old sense,” by which I mean human beings who recognize that genuine happiness requires genuine pain, suffering, and risk; accomplishment presumes failure; growth presumes imperfections; and all great benefits to humanity come with significant costs to humanity. Such human beings are capable of love and even welcome the adventure of life: loving another unpredictable, mortal human being.
This critique puts us somewhat at odds with the general therapeutic thrust of modern life. Just how far modern principles oppose genuine love is a question, however, for another day.
So recognize what we are defending when we oppose sexbots. We are defending, as John the Savage (a human being in the old sense, if ever there was one in literature) says to the World Controller in “Brave New World,” “something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here. . . . Isn’t there something in living dangerous?”
Living dangerously? That’s it. Go out and live dangerously and virtuously, my friends. That means living with and loving human beings instead of a sexbot.