Sex robot harmony sat at a desk

Sex robots may not be an everyday talking point, yet, but interest in sex with robots is steadily increasing with the technology.

The industry is estimated to be worth $30 billion, and a recent survey of 2000 people found that 49% of men and 20% of women would be open to having sex with a sex robot if a free trial was offered.

The market is increasing so much that people are opening sex-robot brothels such as Eve’s Robot Dreams brothel in California. What makes this brothel different, however, is that it is the first consent-focused robot brothel.

The idea of a consent-focused robot brothel raises many ethical questions, especially when you consider that the owner, Unicole Unicron, has offered up a robot’s first time for $10,000 on the brothel’s Indiegogo campaign page. The campaign had a fixed goal of $155,000 but unsuccessfully only raised $2,659.

The robot in question is RealDoll’s Harmony, which can be purchased from $7,999, significantly cheaper than the offered price to simply be the first to use one.

Artificial Intelligence

The Harmony robot is claimed to be AI-driven, however, that doesn’t really mean a lot when it comes to consent. AI (Artificial Intelligence) in simple terms typically consists of 2 steps. Step 1 is learning from ‘correct’ example data, and step 2 is implementing what it has learned. The steps usually aren’t mixed very much, so it is unlikely that the robot can learn or adapt except maybe through positive reinforcement of what people like.

A more advanced AI might contain facial recognition, saving the faces of its clients, presenting potential risks if the identifiable information was leaked to the public. It is unlikely that these robots can even recognise specific people, but it is extremely likely that these features will exist in future robot models.

Sex robots with their circuitry exposed

Can a robot give consent?

The robot cannot give consent. The robot can use words to say that it does or doesn’t consent based on what examples it has been given but it cannot understand the words that it says. The Harmony robot gives its consent after the customer earns “conversational points” or spends 30 minutes connecting with its avatar.

“A customer can come in with their app and show us that they have leveled up in their relationship based on conversation points,” Unicron tells Rolling Stone. This increases the chances of data breaches and the fact that an app is required can remove the customer’s privacy if anyone sees that they have the app. The app isn’t required, however, anyone without an app will have to spend 30 minutes getting to know the robot in public before they can interact in private.

Once the consent is given the robot has no ability to withdraw its consent.

Interestingly, Unicron says it’s more like a role-playing game. This would mirror the actions of some consensual human relationships which role-play a kind of non-consent game. This time the user role-plays to gain consent even when the consent is unable to truly be given.

“Violent or belligerent customers will be asked to leave, so there is some level of protection,” Unicron says. “Eve’s is consent-focused, so we use it as a space to practice consent. It’s more like a role-play game for people to practice getting consent from partners.”

“As the technology develops and the robots are able to understand nuance and complex scenarios better, there will be situations that they can withdraw their consent from,” Unicron continues. “Currently, the technology is not yet developed enough to support this feature. Eve’s Robot Dreams will have educational materials about consent available for visitors to explain consent culture and behavioral expectations.”

Human consent is very different. Consent is given when that person wants to give it, for whatever reason, whether that be their own pleasure, the desire for another person’s pleasure or something more material such as money. These robots cannot yet benefit in any of these ways.

These robots are designed to consent. Robots in the future will, of course, be more advanced and more debates will start about whether a robot can possibly consent or if it should consent.

Reinforcing the idea that it is more a role-playing game is the fact that the robots are designed to give consent, but no consent is required to allow work without pay or to be sold.

This photo taken on February 1, 2018 shows a worker painting the face of a silicone doll at a factory of EXDOLL, a firm based in the northeastern Chinese port city of Dalian. With China facing a massive gender gap and a greying population, a company wants to hook up lonely men and retirees with a new kind of companion: "Smart" sex dolls that can talk, play music and turn on dishwashers.

This photo taken on February 1, 2018 shows a worker painting the face of a silicone doll at a factory of EXDOLL, a firm based in the northeastern Chinese port city of Dalian. With China facing a massive gender gap and a greying population, a company wants to hook up lonely men and retirees with a new kind of companion: “Smart” sex dolls that can talk, play music and turn on dishwashers. / AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR / TO GO WITH China-sex-lifestyle, FOCUS by Joanna CHIUFRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

Robot rights

The Campaign Against Sex Robots argues that consumers are encouraged to consider these robots (and dolls) as substitutes for women, especially when they are marketed as companions, girlfriends and even wives. They say that female sex robots “add to the ubiquitous culture where sexual violence against women and girls is reiterated in a new form”.

On the other hand, many transhumanists believe that ‘sentient entities’ should not be mistreated and should be given equal rights to humans in order for AI to work in tandem with humanity. However, the question still remains: When is a robot a sentient entity?

Controversial designs

Consent probably isn’t the most controversial topic when it comes to having sex with robots. The most controversial is likely to be the variety of designs available.

For example, manufacturer TrueCompanion’s Roxxxy dolls come with 4 different personalities, including ‘Frigid Farah’, who “does not always like to engage in intimate activities”.

Smaller-sized robots and dolls that appear childlike have also been extremely controversial. Some claim these dolls can be used to reduce the likelihood of these people engaging with children, while others argue that it can increase the desire and can bring them one step closer to engaging with children. We don’t seem to have any definitive answers to these questions, but it’s safe to say that most people are against the use of child-like dolls.

Child-like sex dolls are illegal in many places and child-like sex robots haven’t been created yet, that we know of. However if the laws allow it and if there is a demand, people will probably develop them.

child-like sex dolls

What’s next?

Regardless of what opinions have on the various models of sex robots and dolls, when it comes to consent it seems obvious that robots and their AI, designed to consent, have sex and work in brothels are unlikely to ever really deny or withdraw consent. Any robot that is given the ability to reason that chooses not to give consent ultimately wouldn’t be optimal for working as a sex robot, whether in a brothel or elsewhere.

Should we treat these robots like the dolls that cannot move, speak or consent in any way, or should we treat them more like human beings?

Even if we think we can answer these questions today, they’ll become much more complicated questions in the near future.