clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Sex robots are coming. We might even fall in love with them.

A philosophy professor explains why.

A worker trims the skin imperfections off a silicone doll at a factory of EXDOLL, a firm based in the northeastern Chinese port city of Dalian, on February 1, 2018.
A worker trims the skin imperfections off a silicone doll at a factory of EXDOLL, a firm based in the northeastern Chinese port city of Dalian, on February 1, 2018.
Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

Is mutual love with a robot possible? And if it is possible, would it make relationships between human beings less desirable?

Those are the questions examined by Lily Eva Frank, a philosophy professor at the Technical University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands who wrote an essay with Sven Nyholm for the new book Robot Sex.

(My colleague Karen Turner recently discussed some of the broader ethical implications of “sex bots” with Neil McArthur, an editor of that book.)

We already have sex robots, but the technology is still limited. Eventually, the machines will become sufficiently lifelike that the line between person and robot will be blurred.

I reached out to Frank to ask what happens then: Will we start to fall in love with our machines? And will we have to rethink what love actually means in human life?

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

Your essay poses an interesting question: Is mutual love with a robot possible? What’s the answer?

Lily Eva Frank

Our essay tried to explore some of the core elements of romantic love that people find desirable, like the idea of being a perfect match for someone or the idea that we should treasure the little traits that make someone unique, even those annoying flaws or imperfections.

The key thing is that we love someone because there’s something about being with them that matters, something particular to them that no one else has. And we make a commitment to that person that holds even when they change, like aging, for example.

Could a robot do all these things? Our answer is, in theory, yes. But only a very advanced form of artificial intelligence could manage it because it would have to do more than just perform as if it were a person doing the loving. The robot would have to have feelings and internal experiences. You might even say that it would have to be self-aware.

But that would leave open the possibility that the sex bot might not want to have sex with you, which sort of defeats the purpose of developing these technologies in the first place.

Sean Illing

The emphasis on “mutual love” is interesting to me. Is love necessarily a reciprocal relationship? If love is a feeling or an experience, would it really matter if it were only one-sided?

Lily Eva Frank

I think people are weird enough that it is probably possible for them to fall in love with a cat or a dog or a machine that doesn’t reciprocate the feelings. A few outspoken proponents of sex dolls and robots claim they love them. Check out the testimonials page on the websites of sex doll manufactures; they say things like, “Three years later, I love her as much as the first day I met her.” I don’t want to dismiss these people’s reports.

But I guess we’re just more interested in the possibility of mutual love with robots. We take this kind of love to be a complex set of emotions and intentions. Sure, it’s about feelings, but it involves much more than that.

Sean Illing

I could also see robot love as being psychologically satisfying but spiritually empty. Part of the joy of loving a person is the knowledge that you’ve freely chosen each other, that you’ve decided to build this shared history together. But with a robot, no matter how convenient or pleasurable it might be, you know, deep down, that it’s programmed. Real love implies the possibility of loss, and that’s not possible with robots.

Lily Eva Frank

I agree with what you just said completely. I don’t think it counts as mutual love if one of the lovers has no choice but to behave the way they do. But who wants a robot lover that can dump them at any time? They could go on a Tinder date for that. So I think there will be people who still desire this kind of relationship. But it is not the kind of romantic mutual love that we find inherently valuable.

Sean Illing

Will creating custom-made sex robots just encourage people to retreat into their private worlds rather than risking all the pain of pursuing love in real life?

Lily Eva Frank

Customized sex robots do seem to encourage social isolation and avoidance of the risks and messiness of interacting with other human beings. They might even open the door for new forms of addiction and compulsive behavior, as we’ve seen with the internet and video games.

A kind of love that is entirely without risk does not seem like mutual romantic love at all to me. For most people, social interaction is vital to thriving and living a flourishing life. If we’re spending more and more of our time with robots instead of actual people, I think we’ll all be worse off.

Sean Illing

You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about all this. So do you believe we should be developing sex bots?

Lily Eva Frank

I think that for any technology we decide to invest in, we should think about the opportunities for research and innovation that we are missing by investing in this particular project. There may be some uses of sex robots that are valuable — in some forms of therapy, for example. But this has to be weighed against the costs and benefits of other therapeutic forms.

More pleasure and/or mutual romantic love in the world seems, on the face of it, a good thing. But there are still too many unanswered questions about the consequences (for gender norms, human relationships, etc.) to give a positive answer. We just don’t know enough yet.

Sean Illing

You mentioned gender norms, so I’m curious what you think about the feminist critique of sex robots, which is that they encourage the objectification of human sex partners.

Lily Eva Frank

Intuitively this argument makes sense to me, and it’s one of the reasons I became interested in the topic to begin with. Some people worry that because sex bots are “ever consenting,” they will reinforce men’s beliefs about the way women should behave. This is the kind of soft impact that is really important to dig into.

So much of our behavior is habitual, unconscious, and automatic. We don’t have to stop and think through the reasons for and against low-cost acts of kindness; for example, helping someone pick up something they dropped (or not helping them). Many of these automatic responses come from childhood training and repetition.

I do worry that under certain conditions, the kinds of objectifying attitudes and behaviors that men might have toward sex robots could become habitual, especially if these robots are ubiquitous and present in a man’s life from an early age.

For the sex robots to be sexy, they have to look, feel, and behave like a human being. And we have no trouble anthropomorphizing — that is, attributing human-like properties to non-humans like animals and objects — technology that looks nothing like us. I cannot tell you how many times I have asked my computer out loud, “Why are you acting like this?” or heard someone say, “I love my new phone!” as they hold it to their chest gently.

The way the robots will likely look combined with our tendency to anthropomorphize makes me suspect that the habits men and boys might develop by using sex robots could easily translate to the habits they have in their relationships with women.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.