Are Sex Robots as Bad as Killing Robots?

Available as part of proceedings in What Social Robots Can and Should Do

Proceedings of Robophilosophy 2016 / TRANSOR 2016


Are Sex Robots as Bad as Killing Robots?

Kathleen RICHARDSON,[1]

Abstract. In 2015 the Campaign Against Sex Robots was launched to draw attention to the technological production of new kinds of objects: sex robots of women and children. The campaign was launched shortly after the Future of Life Institute published an online petition: “Autonomous Weapons: An Open Letter From AI and Robotics Researchers” which was signed by leading luminaries in the field of AI and Robotics. In response to the Campaign, an academic at Oxford University opened an ethics thread exploring: Are sex robots as bad as killer robots? writing ‘I did sign FLI’s [Future of Life Institute] open letter advocating a ban on autonomous weapons. I would not sign a similar letter arguing for a ban on sex robots.’ Are sex robots really an innocuous contribution to the robotics industry and human relations that we should not worry about? And to what extent would challenging sex robots threaten male power and sexuality with males the primary buyers of women and children’s bodies? Robotics and AI are fields overwhelming dominated by men, how does the politics of gender shape what technologies are considered ethically problematic or permissible?

Keywords. sex robots, abolitionist feminism, killer robots, slavery, sex trade, species specific sociality, property, rights of machines

1. Introduction

In 2015, the Future of Life Institute, a non-profit group produced an open letter that warned against the development of technologies that present existential risks to humanity [1]. The petition, published on July 28th was titled ‘Autonomous Weapons: An Open Letter from AI & Robotics Researchers’ carried with it warning to develop AI and robotic technologies ethically. It was signed by academic luminaries such as Stephen Hawking and Noam Chomsky. But it was not the first campaign to develop a critical concern about the development of new robotic military technologies. In 2013, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots was launched in the UK, campaigning for a ban on fully autonomous weapons [2]. In September 2015, the Campaign Against Sex Robots was officially launched against the development of sexualized female and childlike robots, directed primarily at the consumption and needs of males, and built on practices existing in the sex trade [3]. In response to the launch of the Campaign Against Sex robots, Anders Sandberg at the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute wrote ‘I did sign FLI’s open letter advocating a ban on autonomous weapons. I would not sign a similar letter arguing for a ban on sex robots’ [4].

In this paper then I will address two interconnected issues, firstly, why do scholars support the banning of autonomous weapons and killing robots but do not support the campaign against sex robots? I locate this in the way that male sexuality and power is expressed in contemporary robotics and AI and argue that challenges to autonomous weapons enables these researchers to keep hegemonic authority intact, while challenging sex robots threatens patriarchal power and sexuality. Secondly, I propose to argue what underlies robotics and AI today is the privilege of property, valued over and above other persons, particularly women and girls.

In what follows I promise an abolitionist feminist reading of robotics and AI inspired by radical feminism. Abolitionist feminism is an anti-slavery kernel in feminism that rejects the view that persons are property [5]. I combine this with an understanding of species specific sociality.

1.1. A Cyborg Manifesto

To understand why the rise of sex robots represent a crisis for humanity we have to turn to the powerful essay by Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto [6]. Haraway knew that ‘humanism’ as a cultural philosophy only included Man. After all, even advocates of women’s rights still continued to put woman as a sub-category of man, just as Eve was made out of the rib of Adam in Genesis. There was no mention of woman in the US Declaration of Independence in 1776 – ‘All men are created equal’ it says [7]. As far as the politics of the ancient Greeks of Aristotle, Plato, and later Enlightenment philosophers – women, animal, slaves and artefacts were put on a par, and all summed up one equivalent category: property – to be owned, traded and disposed of by Man. Patriarchy is a system that reinforces male political, social and economic power [8]. Haraway understood that women and artefacts were already classed together as the same by ancient and modern philosophy and turned these narratives on their head by assuming identity with chimpanzees and artefacts – a move that was radical at the time.

While Haraway’s essay is seen as triumph over Eurocentric and colonial thinking, it is also within a hegemonic framework of justifying inequality. It was not Haraway who can be credited with equating artefacts with persons, but Aristotle who provided one of the earliest philosophical justifications for political exploitation and inequality between humans – in The Politics he wrote ‘tools can be animate or inanimate… a slave is a living piece of property’ [9 p.50]. Aristotle also wrote how Man, as master of slaves was engaged in non-reciprocal relations with others [ibid p.52] Slavery is a system where people’ bodies are turned into commercial goods, they are related to as property and not persons, and consequently looked upon as less than human. By analytically abolishing the distinctions between persons and things, Haraway merely provided an updated argument for slavery. A Cyborg Manifesto inadvertently celebrated the dissolution of boundaries between humans, animals and artefacts into one merged category – property. For sex robots to become viable possibilities in our culture, it must show us that an Aristotelian sense of the slave must still persist, that (some) humans are ‘animate tools’ and their needs can be met by other kinds of ‘animate tools’ robots!


Figure 1. A hierarchical system of property rights

1.2. The Rights of Machines – Property Rights in a New Form

According to Dworkin and MacKinnon [5], human rights have historically served two purposes. The first is to shift the concentration of power from elites to the groups with less power irrespective of race, class and gender. These rights are accompanied by narratives of what it means to be human as a universal, rather than an exclusive category. Human rights, enshrined in law and political structures shift power from elites (few) to the masses (many). The second is as a tool by elites to minimize or prevent mass insurrection. In the context of extending rights to marginalized groups, later narratives developed to protect nonhuman animals and natural species. There is not enough time to explore these arguments in depth, but to say, parallels between machines and animals should be challenged as nonhuman animals are alive, reproduce, form attachments, have sexed bodies, and a species specific sociality. Arguments for the rights of machines and robots come on the back of claims for women, children, slaves and animals [10, 11]. The advocates for this new moral ontology situate robots and AI as part of an oppressed and maltreated. To some, such narratives appear empathetic and idealistic, surely it would be a progressive state of existence to recognise artefacts and include them in a rights discourse? After all, academic narratives as varied as actor-network theory [12] and material culture studies [13] propose the importance of artefacts (property) and diminishment of the human being. While these theories propose to challenge a Eurocentric worldview, they continue to reproduce the trajectory of the politics of patriarchy – property relations. Patriarchal power is maintained through property rights. I want to argue that what is being asserted in claims for machine rights is really more rights for property. Property is the way that patriarchal power is maintained over others. In this model, persons are property and property can become persons. The artefact is property. Robots, AI and machines are property. Animals, while drawn into a system of property, are not property, but living beings with an existence outside of property relations.

1.3. The Sex Robots and Killing Robots

I want to conclude by bringing these themes together through a discussion of sex robots. Firstly, campaigns to minimize violence in human society should be welcomed. Feminists have been at the forefront of campaigning against violence. Therefore, campaigns to draw attention to the violent uses of technology, particularly how these technologies maintain hierarchies and patriarchy are important for ensuring that all life is supported on planet earth. After all, militarism has an annihilating impact on humans, animals and natural life. Patriarchy is more than a system of male power over others with less power (particularly women), it is a non-relational ontology [14]. Sex robots are platformed by three interlocking features; the first is that non-relational sex already occurs in the practices of the sex trade, where males (primarily) buy access to female (primarily) bodies. It should come as no surprise that advocates of sex robots situate their narratives of support within existing non-reciprocal practices of the sex trade [15]. The second is done when drawing on theories that show how humans anthropomorphize objects [16]. The third is the belief that robots and or AI will develop sentience, superintelligence and consciousness [17]. What all the above share in common is an overvaluation of property over persons.

Sex robots have to be situated within wider robotic and AI narrative that propose that humans can have direct relations with machines. That machines are able to participate in friendship, companionship or sex. What contemporary robotics has done has taken the outlook of the sex buyer – only the buyers needs, wants and desires matter – as recast it as a framework for developing robots and AI. What we need is a new understanding of the machine to make sense of these processes and here I propose one:


 The machine is the parts, that no matter what is added to, or taken from, can never make up the multiple-whole.


Robotics and AI driven by patriarchy and property rights can never assemble enough of the parts to create life because it is primarily founded on a non-relational ontology, even though ‘relationality’ or ‘social’ are core terms used to describe what is happening in robotics and AI. Because relationality and the meaning of the social is situated within patriarchy, analytical narratives inside this worldview will continually assert the rights of property over persons, or turn persons into property as demonstrated in the sex trade. What these narratives lack is an authentic view of human relationality, humans are inherently multiple because of the species specific sociality that is unique to what it means to be human. Nonhuman animals and living beings also possess their own species specific sociality. Property does not have a species specific sociality. We might not only read Haraway’s cyborg manifesto as an updated argument for property rights, but also situate narratives of actor-network theory and material culture within the same frame. As long as patriarchy and property relations are not challenged, the perpetual diminishing of the human will be maintained, while property will be protected, thereby maintaining the core power relations of symmetrical anti-humanism. Using a framework of abolitionist feminism, with its core anti-slavery position, has the power to appreciate the power dynamics of AI and robotics today, and challenge its current direction that diminishes the view of humans further.



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[1] Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility, De Montfort University, Leicester, LE1 9BH, UK, E-mail: