July 17, 2018 6:09 pm

Will having a sex robot in the home pose a risk to children?

Scientist Sergi Santos hugs one of his sex robots in development. Samantha is an artificial intelligence-driven love doll that he says is capable of enjoying sex.

Jordi Perez Donat / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images
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Technology has come a long way in learning to understand and even predict what humans want. Between our cellphones and our digital home devices, there are few needs that cannot be met by posing a simple question.

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And the more advanced this technology gets, the fewer needs it won’t be able meet — including libidinal ones.

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“We’ll see [sex robot] technology move pretty quickly; it won’t be long,” said Neil McArthur, director of the Centre for Professional Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba and co-editor of Robot Sex. “Within the next 10 to 15 years, we will start seeing various kinds of sexual technologies that are advanced and in high demand.”

While it comes as little surprise that there’s a market for sex robots, they haven’t been manufactured on any mass scale yet. McArthur calls the ones that have been made “gimmicky sex dolls” and says they’re nowhere near as advanced as they need to be. Regardless, their imminent appearance has some concerned about what kind of households they could find themselves in, and what could happen if children stumble upon them.

Last year, Arran Lee Wright, co-founder of Synthea Amatus, a Spain-based company that is working on creating sex robots, appeared on British TV show This Morning to introduce “Samantha,” a sex robot prototype. He said that he uses her to enhance his relations with his wife, but he also allows his children to interact with the robot.

“Samantha” has a “family mode,” which allows her to tone down the suggestiveness of her comments. In addition to having romantic and sexual settings, she is also programmed to talk about philosophy, animals, offer motivational advice and tell jokes.

“She can talk about animals, she can talk about philosophy… there’s a lot to Samantha,” Wright said. “My children say, ‘where’s Samantha?’ When I bring her in the car, they really enjoy that.”

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The problem with that, McArthur says, is that kids are more savvy about technology than their parents — even if they parents had a hand in creating that technology.

“Sure, you can set it so it won’t malfunction, but that gets harder considering your kids know more about technology than you do,” he said. “You can’t prevent them from tampering with it for fun.”

No doubt, children will be quick to accept and adapt to the presence of a robot of any kind in the home, but how will that form their understanding of human interaction?

“Children thrive developmentally and socially on human contact and interaction,” Dr. Susan Newman, social psychologist and author of Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day, said to the New Statesman.

“It would seem that robots in a house with babies and young children would significantly reduce, and thereby curtail, the essential ingredient and influence of human touch and verbal interaction.”

There are also concerns surrounding what a sex robot in particular could subtly tell children about gender roles, power and expectations.

Kathleen Richardson launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots in the U.K. in 2015. A professor of ethics and culture of robots and artificial intelligence at De Montfort University, she believes they encourage people to objectify women — and it’s a message that will inevitably trickle down to children.

“I want people to stop thinking about the word ‘robot’ and think about the word ‘property,’ and what we’re being encouraged to do is have relationships with property,” she said on ABC Australia’s Lateline.

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“Let me put this way: If we were to create a robot that looked like an 18th century slave, there would be horror.”

But not all ethicists think this way. There is a school of thought that sees robots — sex or otherwise — as having a place in a modern world in which some may feel socially isolated and lonely. Whether they’re elderly people who feel shut off from society, or the physically or socially disabled, they could benefit from a robotic companion.

“People are immediately focused on the creepy aspects of robots, but on the balance, we need to chill out on that a bit,” McArthur says. “The net positive is that these kinds of advances in sexual technologies are going to be fun to use, and as an ethicist I recognize that fun is important.”

“There are people who have trouble finding partners. We should think about whether this could be one thing that gives people companionship. It may not be like a human, but it’s better than nothing.”

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