Lux Alpstraum at Undark argues against “Our Irrational Fear of Sexbots”:
When most people envision a world where human partners are abandoned in favor of robots, the robots they picture tend to be reasonably good approximations of flesh-and-blood humans. The sexbots of “Westworld” are effectively just humans who can be programmed and controlled by the park’s operators.
…What most of us want isn’t an intimate relationship with a sentient Roomba, but a relationship with a being who closely approximates all the good parts of sex and love with a human — minus the messiness that comes with, well, sex and love with a human. Yet a robot capable not just of passing a Turing test but of feeling like a human partner in the most intimate of settings isn’t likely to be built any time soon. True AI is still a long ways off. Even if we assume that sexbot lovers will feel content with Alexa-level conversations, robots that not only look and feel real but also autonomously move with the grace and dexterity of a human aren’t within the realm of current, or near future, tech.
I have to admit I didn’t know that angst about sexbots was a thing, but given the success and acclaim of Westworld, not to mention other AI movies like Ex Machina and Her, it seems kind of inevitable. I do think Alpstraum is right that realistic sex robots are not anything we’re going to have to worry about in the next few years. Anything feasible in the short term, as Alpstaum mentions, remains firmly in the Uncanny Valley, the space where something that resembles humanity is just close enough to be creepy but not convincing.
That said, I do think the long term concern about sexbots is valid. They do have the potential to disrupt normal human relationships. But I’m going to broaden it to a long term concern about artificial companionship overall, not just involving sex, but friendship and social interactions of any kind. It is worth noting the positive aspects of this for people needing caretakers such as the elderly or infirm, or for those who are just lonely. But there is a danger.
Imagine a world where you are surrounded by entities that take care of you, do tasks for you, keep you company, laugh at all your jokes, pay attention to you whenever you want attention and go away when you don’t want it, and just all around make you the center of their world. It seems like it would be extremely easy to fall into a routine where these entities, these artificial humans, become your entire sphere of interaction.
Now imagine how jarring it might be when you encounter an actual other human being, one with their own point of view, their own unfunny jokes, their own ego, their own selfish desires, and basically their own social agenda. Is it that hard to imagine that many humans might prefer being with the first group?
Science fiction has looked at this many times. An early example is Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun about a planet where humans are outnumbered 10,000 to one by their servant androids, where people live alone on vast estates with their androids, and where actual face to face interaction between humans is so rare that it has become dirty and taboo. Another is Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Children, where humanity’s social and reproductive urges are so catered to by robots, that the humans end up going extinct, leaving behind a robot civilization that worships the memory of “the makers”.
Now, I doubt that humanity would ever go completely extinct because of this. For one thing, we’re talking about it, as the Undark article demonstrates, which means that it’s entering our public consciousness as a concern, increasing the chances that we will eventually take steps to avoid that scenario. And I suspect there would always be a portion of humanity that values the old ways enough to reject sexbots and other forms of artificial companionship.
But it’s still easy to see it leading to the overall human population crashing to some small portion of what it is today. A civilization where real humans are vastly outnumbered by artificial engineered entities seems like a plausible scenario. And that’s before considering that the line between evolved humans and engineered ones will likely be blurred as genetic manipulation and other forms of biological engineering eventually merge with machine engineering, leading to humans first being enhanced, then later copied and perpetuated.
So, there is a danger. I don’t think the solution is to react as conservatives currently are, with talk of prohibitions. A world with a much smaller human population isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (Although it’s interesting to think about how this could lead to artificial intelligence being taboo as imagined by Frank Herbert in his Dune universe.) But we should be aware of how artificial humans, when we get to the point that we can create them, might change us.