The Sex Robots are Coming – should we be worried?

As a new Channel 4 documentary explores, the digital getting physical has serious ethical implications

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Meet Harmony. She smiles, asks you about your day and is always available for sex. She’s also a robot who you’ll soon be able to buy for £11,700.

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Once the stuff of sci-fi films, Harmony is the frontrunner in the race to make the world’s first commercially available sex robot and she’s designed to talk, learn and respond to her owner’s voice, just like a substitute partner.

This “sexbot” is the result of American creator Matt McMullen’s 20 years of work making sex dolls and five years of research into robotics. He’s created what he thinks is the “dream woman” for men like James (see main image). Because Harmony is submissive, agreeable, passive – and reminiscent of a porn star.

Harmony’s creator says that his robot is really about companionship as much as sex, that he just wants to make people happy. But for Dr Kathleen Richardson, a professor in the ethics of robotics at De Montfort University, sex robots are a disturbing development that humans should fear, not fantasise about.

Dr Richardson is writing a report for the British government, the European Parliament and other political bodies to warn that sex robots will harm rather than help humans.

“The people making sex robots believe that sexual relationships and intimacy can be mechanised,” she says, “but it’s a dangerous myth to sell, that a robot can be a substitute for a woman.”

The male version of Harmony is only in early stages of development and so sex robots are very much about the male fantasy. “It dehumanises women and will influence the way a new generation of men treat and respond to women, just as porn has been shown to give boys unrealistic expectations of what sex is,” says Dr Richardson.

“It’s damaging to our society to promote sex robots as alternatives to having a meaningful experience with a human being. Robots to do our work, yes – but not to be our partners.”

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Some might say a new dawn of sex robots could help the lonely and bereaved. David Levy, whose book Love and Sex with Robots: the Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships imagines a utopia, predicting that the lonely will suddenly have company and many who might have been on the margins of society will be better off and better balanced.

Dr Richardson believes that sex robots will have the opposite effect – that Harmony will only create more loneliness. “I absolutely guarantee this will create human isolation. It’s like having a mobile phone with no contact details in it, no way to talk to friends and family. You can use a computer to entertain yourself but it’s not alive, it’s not got any needs or desires of its own.”

Harmony may not be alive but she’s programmed to behave as though she is – and isn’t that what counts to those who want to buy her? “Those who buy sex robots will relate to the object and detach themselves from humans. If they’re on the cusp of society or have problems, they need therapy rather than a robot. Human empathy will be eroded, and female bodies will be objectified and commodified even more than they already are.”

It may sound unlikely but Dr Richardson predicts that in as little as ten years, robotic partners will be the new normal. A 2016 study by the University of Duisburg-Essen reported that in a sample of 263 heterosexual men, 40 per cent “could imagine buying a sex robot over the next five years”.

For better or worse, the sexbots are coming and it might not be long before your neighbour invites you round for a cup of tea to meet his new “girlfriend”.

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The Sex Robots Are Coming Thursday 10.00pm C4