Why attempts to make sex robots “family friendly” deserve to fail

Samantha the Sex Robot has a “family mode”. 

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Samantha the Sex Robot first showed up in the public eye last September, when a version of her was left in need of repairs after being displayed at a tech fair: “The people mounted Samantha’s breasts, her legs and arms. Two fingers were broken. She was heavily soiled,” said her creator, Sergi Santos, at the time.

“People can be bad,” he added. “Because they did not understand the technology and did not have to pay for it, they treated the doll like barbarians.”

Leaving aside the suggestion that the way to convince Samantha’s prospective suitors go a bit easier on her was to pay for her, Santos’s surprise at her treatment here makes him seem naive. Isn’t this exactly what he built Samantha for, after all? Allowing behaviour that actual women wouldn’t tolerate?

In the same month, an undamaged version of Samantha made her debut on breakfast TV, with her owner-lover, father-of-two Arran Lee Wright.

Wright is a co-founder of Synthea Amatus, a website that sells lifelike sex robots, with prices starting at £2,000. On his site, Samantha is described as “much more than a sex doll”. During the interview, Wright elaborated on this argument, declaring: “She can talk about animals, she can talk about philosophy, she can talk about science. She has programmed a thousand jokes, I don’t even know all of them. There’s a lot to Samantha, she’s advanced.” 

In particular, he stressed the benefit of Samantha’s so-called family mode. The switch stops her blurting out overtly sexual things, such as “I can take many times, much more love, just because you can give it, and I take it all.”

Wright claimed that his children, aged three and five, play with Samantha, and watch TV alongside her. Wright’s wife even said: “I am not worried she will replace me. She is just someone there like a family member.”

As well as giving Wright an opportunity to plug his site, the interview provokes a curious question. Feminists have already raised fears about the implications of sex robots for the way men view and value women. But if in-house sex robots are becoming a feature of 21st century life, how do children make sense of them? 

Just as today’s teenagers take broadband for granted, the next generation growing up will be accustomed to non-sexual robots in their day-to-day lives. Dr Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at Berkeley University, says that children will most likely learn to get along with such robots in the home better than their parents ever could:

“Technologies that seem weird, disruptive and challenging when they are introduced, from the printing press, to the train and telegraph, to TV, become banal and taken for granted by the next generation,” she says. “My bet is that children will quickly understand that robots are a category that shares both similarities and differences with people and with other machines.”

However, even a non-sexual robot in the house could damage children, says Dr Susan Newman, social psychologist and author of Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day. She says: “Children thrive developmentally and socially on human contact and interaction.

“It would seem that robots in a house with babies and young children would significantly reduce, and thereby curtail, the essential ingredient and influence of human touch and verbal interaction.”  Robots have programming, scripts and limited facial expressions, if any - they just can’t match human beings for communication and imagination, and that’s what children need most.

So what does that mean for Samantha hanging out with the kids while she is in family mode? Dr Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia questions the idea that Samantha can adjust so easily, given her overtly sexualised features. 

“It’s like the Barbie doll image, telling girls how they should look. If the culture gives you this image, what are you going do?” Hirsh-Pasek says. “What a shame that, as they grow up, this is what they learn about their dad.”

Nevertheless, she thinks the state would struggle to intervene: “There are privacy issues there. I think our job is to educate the public about why it’s problematic.”

Children start to form idea about gender and relationships from an early age, and from watching their parents, according to Dr Kathleen Richardson, professor of ethics and culture of robots and AI at De Montfort University, and founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots.

“Children will imitate machines if brought up by them,” she said at the For the Sake of the Future conference in London. “A son is going to learn that it’s okay for daddy to have both a wife and a doll, and the doll doesn’t say anything; it’s his way to have power and control over the family.

“A daughter is going to grow up and think maybe this happened because Mummy wasn’t beautiful enough – am I?

“They’ll learn that women only have certain uses. Then they start to use that as a template for how they interact intimately with others – this is profoundly damaging.”

Yet it is hard to imagine many parents, however unusual their private life is, letting their child anywhere near a robot clearly made for sex, especially one that might randomly start saying explicit things.

More convincing, perhaps, is the idea that sex robot manufacturers want to break out of the original market of lonely or disabled men – men who “can’t get a woman” – and the stigma attached to that. Instead, they are using their wives and marriages to normalise the sex robots they have a financial interest in selling. 

We don’t actually see Wright’s children on his This Morning interview. Perhaps they don’t find Samantha scintillating company after all. In the meantime, those hearing about the family-friendly sex robot should get wise to spotting a man when he’s in marketing mode.