Future Tense

We Need Academic Conferences About Robots, Love, and Sex

Moralizing and giggling about the topic today won’t stop the technology from changing society tomorrow.

A sex robot
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There will be no love for sex robots this week in Missoula, Montana. In what seemed like an academic melodrama, the Fourth International Congress of Love and Sex With Robots had the rug pulled out from under it when co-conference Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology abruptly canceled its own event in what it called “a tragic moment in the history of human civilization.”

It’s a tangled story, but Love and Sex With Robots organizer David Levy has stated that the demise of ACE was brought on by protesters who objected to the invitation of former White House chief strategist and co-founder of the far-right Breitbart News, Steve Bannon, to give the ACE keynote address. ACE organizer Adrian David Cheok, on the other hand, has said that it wasn’t just the protests against the invitation of Bannon. He put some of the blame on committee member Yoram Chisik, who, along with others, called for ACE to be canceled over joining with Love and Sex With Robots back in August.

Even before its demise, Love and Sex With Robots was shaping up to be something less than a remarkable affair. The conference appears to have been a nonstarter going back months. Springer Nature pulled the plug on the planned publication of the conference proceedings when it learned back in July that only about 10 papers had been submitted for the planned two-day conference. (It’s a little hard to say exactly how many papers you would need for a two-day conference, but that is much lower than you would expect.) As of last week, only five academic papers appeared on the schedule, including one paper by Adrian David Cheok in which he apparently asked 15 people if they would like to have sex with a robot. The cancellation of ACE may have offered organizers a convenient fig leaf. It just isn’t possible to hold a conference in which so few are willing to participate.

And that unwillingness to have these conversations, combined with the effort made to keep these conversations from happening, is unfortunate.

I’ve written extensively on the social implications of robot sex technology, so I am no stranger to how much contempt there is for this technology. It doesn’t help that one of the organizers of this conference has played an active role in generating that outrage by suggesting that robot wives would provide an obedient and compliant alternative to women. But excessive moralizing over whether we should be even having conversations about sexual technology is preventing us from preparing for their inevitable adoption. Even worse: Not having this conversation could ultimately contribute to many of the negative outcomes that opponents of this technology fear.

Take, for example, concern that sex robots will encourage the objectification of women. On the surface, that concern seems very reasonable given how the current slate of products is marketed. A new sex-doll brothel that opened in Vancouver in November advertised that with their dolls men could “forget the restrictions and limitations that come with a real partner and unleash the Belladolls.”

But the objectification of women is not an inherent feature of sexual technology. It is a byproduct of our inability to talk about the technology and to consider the needs of a wider variety of consumers—including women. The stigmatization of production of sexual technology has handed the current set of manufactures complete control over what products reach the market. Those manufacturers appear to be primarily focused on producing exaggerated female bodies: fembots with absurdly large breasts and impossibly tiny waists.

That focus on creating hypersexualized products for a subset of exclusively heterosexual men is a function of who currently has access to capital to develop their products. Successful events like the SexTech New York Hackathon and Sex Tech Hack have shown that sexual technology can be more inclusive, personalized, and human-centered without depending on exaggerated female archetypes. But stigmatization of sexual-technology products makes venture capitalists reluctant to invest in these technologies, and morality clauses included by financial institutions make it hard for sexual technology startups to get funding. Greater investment in sex technology would help shift the focus toward more people-friendly designs that would ensure that products meet the need for intimacy accessible to a more diverse segment of society.

This moralizing isn’t just shutting down beneficial innovation. It’s preventing academics from weighing engaging in debate about societal implications of sexual technology. Without serious research, published papers, and, yes, conferences, it will be impossible for policymakers to make reasonable decisions about the regulations and institutions needed as that technology is disseminated.

Take, for instance, the issue of marriage, which comes up frequently when we talk about sex technology. Much of that discussion revolves around the irrational fear that easy access to sexual technology for men will deprive women of the ability to marry and form families. I have written about sex robots and marriage before, and while the idea that men would wholesale abandon marriage because of this technology is absurd, it is very possible that sexual technology would encourage us to think differently about how we structure our marriages. For example, access to sexual technologies could allow people to seek out marriage partners independent of their sexual compatibility. Perhaps we will seek more of what we now call companionship marriages—in which people come together to have children and create a home without having intimate relationships.

We know that innovations in manufacturing technology are changing the way we work. And we understand the need to make policy decisions that anticipate those changes. Innovations in sexual technology have the power to profoundly change the nature of our personal relationships. Surely we need to make informed decisions as to how to respond to those changes as well. If we could have anticipated the social changes brought about by social media technology, would we have done things differently? Of course. So let’s learn from that. We don’t want to look back in a few decades and wish we had more seriously debated the ramifications of sexual technology.

To be clear, I am not advocating for the Congress on Love and Sex With Robots specifically. There are many reasons why this conference was not the appropriate forum for these important conversations—not the least of which being that this debate needs to be broader and far more inclusive. The fact that the conference website includes a “Special Session Women” call for papers—which includes a bizarre line about “courageous and pioneering women who have inspired countless other women to reach the glass ceiling”—does nothing to dispel the sense that the organizers see sex technology as existing purely to meet the needs of men. But we do need places to discuss these issues in serious ways—places where we can contemplate the social, ethical, health, and policy implications of this technology, imagine sexual technology beyond humanoid robots, and consider addressing the human need for intimacy beyond pure eroticism.

Put together that conference, and I will be the first to register.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.