The year is 2067. You’re walking on the pavement of a busy road. On one side of you automated cars are whizzing past, while on the other you pass robot chop shops and stores with androids serving customers. You’re struck by the sameness of it all, like whoever designed it was heavily influenced by Scooby-doo backdrops. But one store stands out. It’s hard to miss the neon-pink sign flashing the word sex at you that stands above its entrance. Intrigued you go inside. What you find are scantily clad robots, some of them are perfect replicas of human women, while others appear half-finished, part-robot and part-human. The robot brothel is open for business.
Like every industry, sex work is susceptible to the threat of robots taking over, but unlike other industries the automation of sex work could move it from a being a morally ambiguous profession to something that is conducted openly.
At the minute our sex robots are really just motorised dolls, but once they’re equipped with artificial intelligence they, and the service they provide, could become indiscernible from the real thing. That raises a whole new set of moral questions. For example, would it be morally right to treat something that is effectively conscious as a sex slave; how far will we let customers go with the robots and will the open objectification of predominantly female sex robots have a negative impact on the treatment of human women?
All of these questions will need an answer because sex robots are coming. Most of you will have heard the story of one pimp/entrepreneur who wanted to open a string of fellatio cafes. When he ran into trouble opening his first cafe in Geneva (not due to demand, but because of hygiene concerns) he changed his business model to include the installation of “high-end sex robots”, according to The Local. The robot sex brothel may be open for business sooner than you thought.
Will sex work be a robot only profession?
If robots are set to enter the professions then there is no reason why sex work would be excluded from that. But how would we go from what we have now, which in the UK is a situation where sex work is legal, but a number of related activities, including soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, owning or managing a brothel, pimping and pandering are illegal, to a situation where robot brothels are openly available?
Eleanor Hancock, who authored the paper ‘Ethics and Robotics: The ethical and social implications of personal and sexual relationships with robots and AI’, believes that the process of robots taking over the sex industry will see robot and human sex workers working together, at least initially.
“In all settings where robots take over human beings it’s a long process and a lot of that process is humans and robots working together at their tasks. I can’t see the sex industry being any different,” says Hancock. “I think that they’re definitely going to have to take heed from sex workers in creating the dolls as well, especially the AI because you’ve got to prepare your AI to go to a brothel.”
The future of sex work could see robots and humans working together, but how long will this situation last? In other industries, when technology becomes cheaper and more efficient that’s when we see robots taking over, but could automation in the sex industry be uniquely able to withstand pressure from automation because people will still have preference for human sex? And if people prefer to go to human sex workers, could we see two industries running simultaneously?
John Danaher, lecturer in the School of Law at NUI Galway and author of the paper ‘Sex Work, Technological Unemployment and the Basic Income Guarantee’ believes this could be the case. “In other industries where automation is the norm, majority human-operated businesses often compete concurrently with majority automated businesses, until some point in time is reached when the automated labour is considerably cheaper and more efficient than the human labour,” he explains.
“Will that happen with sex work? Possibly not because there may always be a preference for a human service provider, which (if true) means you can expect a longer period of concurrent operation.”
Can humans compete with robots?
The development of sex robots might lead to two separate sex industries, one populated by humans and one with robots or we could have a situation where robots and humans work to together. In that scenario, how likely is it that humans will be able to compete with their robot equivalents? As Hancock points out in her paper: “Imagine competing with a sex robot in the bedroom, a robot that does not feel degradation, tiredness, fear or sadness. It could certainly outstrip the performance of a human prostitute in terms of stamina and emotional endurance.”
Imagine competing with a sex robot in the bedroom, a robot that does not feel degradation, tiredness, fear or sadness
If given the choice between a robot and a human sex worker perhaps people will still opt for the human if they are only equally capable, but once robots start to outperform humans that’s when we may start to see human sex workers being replaced because, as Hancock has noticed in her current work with sex workers, the current industry is vulnerable to the same pressures that every other industry is. There’s no reason to think that sex workers aren’t worried about the prospect of automation.
“I’m doing a bit more research on sex work now and even now in this country [the UK] sex workers face the same problems that everyone else does,” says Hancock. “You know like basic economic hardships [affect them] the same way as they affect us. For example, they have to lower prices to compete with Eastern European workers who will work for a lower price.”
Faking it or simulating it
Before sex robots are upon us en masse, it’s important that we reach some kind of consensus about what we actually expect them to do. As Danaher points out, our attitudes toward human sex workers already vary quite a bit. Some customers are possessive, and have preferred service providers who they treat as a quasi-intimate partners, while others are more casual about their commitment and enjoy the idea of ‘no strings attached’ sexual encounters. We might see similar attitudes when it comes to sex robots.
Perhaps for customers who treat sex workers like stand-in partners humans will be the better option because who knows if sex robots will be able to fake intimacy. “From what I’ve gathered from interviewing a lot of sex workers of course they have to fake emotions,” says Hancock. “But I think there’s a difference. A robot wouldn’t be faking it; it would be simulating it. A robot wouldn’t know how to fake it. It’s all simulation.”
Simulating real emotions is probably the final frontier when it comes to sex robots, but will the ready availability of predominantly female sex slaves that can fuck anyone, without feeling exhaustion, but while stimulating intimacy ever be a good thing for women? In her paper, Hancock points out “Practicing extreme, violent or aggressive behaviours on an objectification of the female form could suggest wider implications for society a whole. It could normalise the behaviour, making it more prevalently used on real women in society.”
There is a general consensus that eventually we will have sex robots, but their level of sophistication is debatable, as is the way we will access them. Robot brothels are just one way; another could be through rentals or even ownership.
On one hand their presence could bring an industry that is surrounded by criminality out into the open, but on the other they could leave us in more of a moral quagmire. There are already people who have confusing relationships with sex dolls (Davecat, who is an advocate of synthetic love, is probably the most famous example of this) imagine what will happen when we add AI to the mix. One thing is for sure though: we won’t be able to stop robot brothels from opening for business.
“I think the thing about humans is when we really want to do something normally, we do even if it ends in disaster,” says Hancock.