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you could probably love a robot – but should you?

RESEARCH QUESTION

Collectively, we all place quite a lot of responsibilities onto machines who have now become integral parts of our daily lives. Phones, Appliances, Siri, Cars, Computers – but what if we could introduce a new technology that could also potentially improve our relationships?

Modern robotics has brought forward the idea of a robot providing companionship and sexual opportunities for users. Currently, you can purchase lifelike adult women dolls for sexual relationships. Some of these dolls can speak and move, with the AI technology only moving forward. Outside of the sexual nature, the companionship of a doll is not very strong with the current real world advancements, which is where virtual girlfriends can come into play. These can be online applications or downloaded software where you can talk to an AI virtual companion.

Harmony 3.0 Sex Doll (left) & Japanese AI Girlfriend App (right)

A combination of these two concepts, so an advanced AI brain with a physical robot body, is often what is portrayed in science fiction movies and makes up quite a lot of our knowledge of these inter-human relationships. Films like Blade Runner, WestWorld and Ex Machina all depict hyper realistic AI machines that have a ‘real woman’ appeal. 

Ex Machina Robot Women (both of them)

Another piece of media representation we see are articles about real world examples.  These articles are often shown in a negative and antisocial light, with a considerable amount of ridicule or even pity. 

So, I would like to pose the research question of:

What are the ethical and social issues around human and robot relationships, and how does the media influence the conversation?

WHY THIS TOPIC?

The lenses to view this question are endless as it ties in ideas of western feminism and the portrayal of women, the rise of antisocial behaviour, the possible real life harm it could influence, the impact on the human psyche, the ethical concern of AI and the grey area of robot rights. With so much to unpack, it is evident that the ever growing research in this field is necessary. 

The research question has two sections that are both of equal importance to two different audiences. First, I want to explore what the ethical and social issues are of these relationships. The findings here can help those in the technology industry, anyone interested in these concepts and those grappling with the idea of these relationships in the first place. How far should AI be taken? How will this influence society? Impact on empathy? All valid subsections. 

The second area is the media coverage and portrayal of the topic, and how this can influence our understanding. Film and social media both highlight different angles of these relationships, but there are common denominators that focus on subservient women and placing emphasis on AI being able to generate ‘feelings’. This topic heavily feeds into media studies which always has a relevant audience, but also the consequences of reductive feminine representation. Are sex robots damaging the feminist movement? Do we focus too much on science fiction? How much of our opinions on this area are influenced by the media? 

These technologies are fast approaching, it is important to know your stance. 

CURRENT RESEARCH

While we are not producing movie quality robots, the prices of robot manufacture are dropping, which facilitates the increase of service robots into our lives (Graaf, 2016). These service robots are handling things like factory work, dangerous jobs, and repetitive or dirty work. We are already using the baseline technology we need to get a machine to do something for us, but the real developments are in the realm of ‘social robots’. A socially interactive robot is a robot that elicits social responses from their human users because they follow the rules of behaviour expected by these human users (Graaf, 2016). 

The rise of these social robots can be seen in many areas like elderly care and companionship, but I want to focus on the advancements in the sexual and romantic environments. Worldwide, the sex-technology market is worth a reported US$30 billion, with four main companies in the United States producing sex doll robots (Nature, 2017). It is a booming industry that in itself raises numerous ethical and social issues, but understanding how the public perceive these technologies is fundamental. In 2020 a Norwegian study looked at the difference in men and women’s perceptions of sex and platonic love robots. The results showed that “women have less positive views of robots, and especially of sex robots, compared to men” (Nordmo, et al. 2020). The results then go on to discuss that people tend to project their own feelings about robots on those around them, especially their partners. 

Robotics is technologically carried particularly by Eastern asian countries, which is often emphasised in the techno-orientalism portrayed in science fiction films. The robotic culture in these areas of the globe, particularly Japan, has become “an experimental site for the redefinition of self, identity, and humanity” (Katsuno, 2010 p. 5). It is important to recognise where these advancements are being made, particularly because the Western world has a warped perception of true robotics. The media interest in this area has peaked on our side of the world, with movies and science fiction literature being the key representation shaping the notion of future human-robot relationships (Weiss, et al. 2011 p. 111). 

Rachel (robot) from Blade Runner, a very prominent Western movie with huge emphasis on robotic emotions

There is still so much more to investigate when working on this research project, which is genuinely very exciting. There is a huge importance in grasping what the papers already out there discuss to help piece together my own thoughts. I do expect my research topic to evolve as I go, but I believe that my current question is strong enough to follow on with for the semester. 

REFERENCES

Graaf, MMA 2016, ‘An Ethical Evaluation of Human–Robot Relationships’, International journal of social robotics, vol. 8, no. 4, pp. 589–598.

Katsuno, H 2010, ‘Materializing dreams: Humanity, masculinity, and the nation in contemporary Japanese robot culture’,.

‘Let’s talk about sex robots’ 2017, Nature (London), vol. 547, no. 7662, pp. 138–138.

Nordmo, M, Naess, JO, Husoy, MF & Arnestad, MN 2020, ‘Friends, Lovers or Nothing: Men and Women Differ in Their Perceptions of Sex Robots and Platonic Love Robots’, Frontiers in psychology, vol. 11, pp. 355–355.

Weiss, A, Weiss, A, Igelsböck, J, Igelsböck, J, Wurhofer, D, Wurhofer, D, Tscheligi, M & Tscheligi, M 2011, ‘Looking Forward to a “Robotic Society”?: Notions of Future Human-Robot Relationships’, International journal of social robotics, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 111–123.

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