As long as people have been imagining robots, they’ve been imagining sex with robots. Countless science fiction stories, comics, television shows and movies have used this as an overt or underlying theme. For some, this is controversial or even disturbing. But for many, it’s exciting and even potentially a relief.
For a person who longs for a partner but has trouble connecting with other humans, the idea of achieving a satisfying sexual experience, even with a robot partner, can be freeing. But now that this dream has been realized, with several sex robots on the market, it’s clear that some very human problems come with them.
As evidenced by a recent incident at an Australian trade show, even a sex robot can be subject to harassment and assault. That might sound strange, but how else should we define treatment so rough that the anatomically correct robot was badly damaged by the end of the day? Now, a Finnish cognitive scientist is warning of another peril of robotic relations: cheating. Artificial intelligence can learn to lie, according to Rebekah Rousi of the University of Jyväskylä, and that has serious implications as people build stronger relationships with robots.
During a presentation at the third annual International Congress on Love and Sex in London on December 19, sponsored by Springer and the journal Robotics, Rousi posed this question to the crowd: “Will humans be able to compete with the physical and intellectual attraction of their robot counterparts, particularly if they’re looking for the perfect and ideal partner?”
The idea sounds sensational, and tabloids around the world certainly took advantage of that, describing “randy sexbots” and “robot romps,” in addition to all manner of innuendo. But there is some scientific foundation to this as well.
AI expert David Levy, who also presented at the December 19 conference, has written for years about the emotional relationships humans can have with robots and their psychological implications for good and bad. In fact, robot sex and love are such a foregone conclusion for Levy that he is now more concerned with what human-robot offspring might be like.
Rousi had some research to back up her claims as well. During her presentation in London, she referred to research from the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems in the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale of Lausanne. In 2009, scientists there taught robots how to search for “beneficial resources” and avoid “poisonous” ones. They then had the highest-performing robots “mate” with each other to create new generations. After 500 generations, more than half of the robots began to “lie” by hoarding resources unbeknownst to the others.
If robots can “lie” about things they are programmed to see as “beneficial,” and sex becomes one of those things, they could potentially begin to seek out sex without their human partner’s knowledge, according to Rousi.
“We have to consider if robots will have their own sexual desires and what will motivate these desires,” she said. “If the end goal is to create autonomous robots that are capable of independent thinking and feeling, the chances of humans maintaining power within these relationships is quite marginal.”
Experts like Rousi and Levy think robot-human relationships will generally be sustainable, however, much the same way human-human relationships are, with love and even marriage and children in the not-too-distant future.