Humans having sex with robots – it is going to happen, and startlingly soon. The very concept of humping an android may strike you as icky and faintly depressing, but at this point it's as inevitable as self-driving cars and hoverboards. The sex-bots are coming for ya – whether you want them to or not.
We're still yet to reach the "tipping point" at which advances in robots' intelligence, movement and appearance come together to create something that's shiver-inducingly indistinguishable from a human. But it's not far off: Google and NASA's ground-breaking new D-Wave 2X quantum computer brings true artificial intelligence a step closer; the University of Zurich's Roboy is accurately emulating human movement; and Japan has been cranking out convincing synthetic people for more than a decade now. Mix those elements together, throw in a Fleshlight or a Rampant Rabbit, and you've got yourself a halfway decent sex machine.
In fact, you can already order the "world's first sex robot" from US company True Companion. $6,995 (£4,909) gets you the most high-end version of Roxxxy, a posable love-doll that has a heartbeat and a circulatory system; is capable of sexy gyrations, dirty talk and orgasms; and comes pre-programmed with several personalities, including “Wild Wendy” and “Frigid Farrah”. It's fair to say, however, that nobody is going to mistake a Roxxxy for a human.
Few people have given as much thought to the legal and ethical conundrums raised by a future filled with robots as Imperial College's Dr Hutan Ashrafian. He's published several papers on the subject, including a much-talked-about piece on robot rights in Nature, arguably the world's most respected scientific journal. We spoke with him about the potential pitfalls of human-robot hanky panky.
Hi, Dr Ashrafian. So, first off: how inevitable is it that humans will end up having sexual relationships with robots?
“Well, if you look at the history of mankind, our technological advances have mostly been driven by three things: healthcare, war, and sexual consumption. Take the internet: it was created as a military application; it's proven very important for healthcare; but one of the biggest drivers of the technology, from its earliest days, has been sexual activity.
“With robots, Pandora's box has already been opened. There's every probability we'll create robots with human-like consciousnesses that can interact with us on several levels, including sexually. As humans, sexual interaction is hugely important to our society – and so sexual contact between humans and robots will happen at some point. It's not going to be tomorrow, but we're getting there.
“And that creates certain ethical dilemmas, in terms of how we interact – sexually and otherwise – with these robots.”
And one of the biggest dilemmas concerns sexual consent?
“Yes. Currently, we use most of our robots are used as slaves. We view them as being there solely to serve mankind. But as we get closer to robots with human-level consciousness, what rights should they have? Should they have the same levels of right as humans, or a slightly modified set of rights? It's a tough question. It's relatively easy to say what a robot's rights should be in terms of, say, owning property, but sex is a whole different kettle of fish. There's a lot of emotional and psychological overlay there.
“Should people be able to sleep with robots? Should robots tolerate this? If you have these beings with human-level consciousness and you're using them for sex without their consent, that's a slippery slope for mankind to step out onto, and, I would suggest, dangerous. It'd be dangerous not only for the robots themselves, but for us as humans, as a reflection on our society.”
On the human side of things, should we view sex with a robot as cheating? Most people wouldn't consider their partner using a sex toy to be adulterous – but if that sex toy could walk, talk and make decisions...
“If the robot has a human-level consciousness, and it's able and willing to give consent to a sexual relationship, then yes, it would be adultery.”
These robots are likely to be perfect physical specimens. Could we humans end up sidelined as they opt to have sex with each other rather than us?
“Robots could indeed bypass us altogether. They may find each other attractive, and feel affectionate towards each other, because they view each other as being of the same "kind". They may even "bio-ist" against us, because we're biological beings, rather than technological. But I doubt they'd bypass us completely. If robots are designed by humans, I'd suggest there'll always be robots that find humans attractive, and other robots that are attracted to both humans and robots. It's not going to be black and white. There'll be a lot of grey areas.
“Of course, if you have all these robots out there with human-level consciousnesses interacting with each other, you need to step in and create a third set of rules ensuring that they cannot abuse each other. You can't have a world in which humans are protected from each other humans and from robots, and robots are protected from humans but not other robots.”
We assume we'll be holding all the cards when it comes to human-robot sexual relationships...
“...But that may not be the case, no.”
So we could find ourselves edged out of our own society by legions of gorgeous, copulating robots?“It's certainly a possibility. Last year, both Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking came out with warnings as to how far society should be taking robotics. Once robots have reached the level of sentience whereby they know who and what they are – and they feel a "self" – then at that point, it's a whole new society. It's a whole new world.”
Interview by Joe Madden
Catch Tyger Drew-Honey exploring the world virtual sex in The Virtual Reality Virgin on BBC iPlayer.
Originally published 2 February 2016.