A new study from a team at Duke University suggests that as sex robots become more realistic, thanks to improved AI, they could lead to psychological trauma and even risk skewing the moral compass of people that use them.

The team suggests that because realistic robots can be used to act out fantasies that would be immoral or dangerous in ‘real-life’, there comes a risk of normalisation of perverse or illegal acts that could ‘leak’ into the real world. It’s a line we’ve heard before.

While some developers have argued the opposite – that sex robots provide a buffer between unsavoury tastes and humans vulnerable to abuse – this research warns that it could, in fact, act as a ‘stepping stone’ to abuse of real humans, especially in cases where the robot has been designed to act out illegal scenarios.

“Some are designed to look like children. One developer of these in Japan is a self-confessed paedophile, who says that this device is a prophylactic against him ever hurting a real child.“ explains Dr Christine Hendren, who led the research. “But does that normalise and give people a chance to practise these behaviours that should be treated by just stamping them out?” she asked, in a statement to the BBC.

Robots can be programmed for BDSM scenarios, including rape, and can even be trained to cry and scream in protest. If that kind of thing satisfies the appetite, the new study suggests it could turn a latent fetish into a dangerous addiction with real-world consequences.

Kathleen Richardson, a professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI at De Montfort University, Leicester, advises a pressure group, The Campaign Against Sex Robots, which is pushing to have such artificial sex partners banned.

“Are we going to move into a future where we keep normalising the idea of women as sex objects?” she asks. “If someone has a problem with a relationship in their actual lives you deal with that with other people, not by normalising the idea that you can have a robot in your life and it can be as good as a person.”

But Dr Kate Devlin, Senior Lecturer in Social & Cultural AI at Kings College, London, advises against making sweeping statements before the technology has matured.

“I haven’t found evidence to suggest that sex robots could cause psychological harm. That’s un-evidenced, and any parallels are tenuous at best,” Devlin told SEXTECHGUIDE. “For starters, there aren’t any commercially-available sex robots out there: only prototypes of varying degrees of capability.”

Devlin goes on to identify a number of errors with the research, noting that it even refers to the long-debunked theory that dildos were created to treat hysteria in women. Nonetheless, there are a couple of findings she agrees with, specifically:

“Yes, we need to be careful of privacy with smart sex toys (indeed, with smart anything), and yes, we should make sure sex toys are made from safe materials”.

Ultimately, Devlin warns: “this is yet another call for government regulation for a technology that doesn’t quite exist”.

The subject was raised (albeit from the point of view of a robot victim) in the Channel 4/HBO show Humans, which began with one of its lead characters becoming sentient whilst working in a robot brothel, with her resulting psychological issues proving deadly.

Of course, we’re a good few decades away from that particular Uncanny Valley, but there’s still a lot of research to do before we can decide if these sex-surrogates are a good or a bad thing.

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