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Sex robots: A disturbing look inside one of the world’s fastest-growing industries

The robotics industry is worth billions of pounds worldwide. Robots have been hugely successful in a plethora of industries. The manufacturing industry for example is rife with robotics – from cars and planes to tins of beans, most modern factories utilise some robotic devices. Robots are widely used in the medical world where they are specifically designed and programmed to perform operations where precision is essential. There are robotic machines which clean, serve, build, and destroy – all at the whim of the human mind.

Robotics have revolutionised the world we live in. The mining industry, for example, was once heavily reliant on a human workforce with an extremely dangerous working environment leading to many deaths. Now, robots are used to drill, and collate information about the mine’s interior, enabling a safer environment for any human miners.

Military robotics is a contentious area which has sparked much public debate. The development of military drones can be viewed in a positive way as it removes any danger to human life when conducting reconnaissance, vital aid supply, surveillance, and assistance in war-torn areas. Drones and remote-activated missiles, however, are often viewed negatively as they can be seen to remove responsibility from a nation at war by distancing the act of destruction and indiscriminately causing death.

So what about the most inherent human desire – sex? Sex is, after all, what humans are pre-programmed to do. Without sexual desire, the human race would soon face extinction. When you consider the average human’s appetite for sex, the invention of sex robots was perhaps inevitable. Well, the sex robots have arrived and they are already looking like a good long-term financial investment. Businessman David Levy suggests that by the middle of this century, sex robots will be widely used and actually be beneficial to our society.

The rise of (sex) robotics

Sex sells. It is the oldest product in the world. For thousands of years, humans have grappled with the ethics of sex as a service – is it ethical, what are the risks etc? But what if you could have 100% safe sex with no negative implications? If this sounds too good to be true, this is how sex robots are being marketed in the 21st century. As the ultimate and safe outlet for our deepest desires.

Machines which are designed for sexual gratification are not a new idea. They have appeared in numerous science fiction stories such as Westworld, but now they are becoming a reality. In 2010, New Jersey-based company TrueCompanion developed Roxxxy, the first sex doll to incorporate Artificial Intelligence. After 4,000 dolls being pre-ordered, however, no customers ever appeared, leading sceptics to suggest that commercial Roxxxy dolls were never produced.

In 2018, the race to create the first real sex robot continues. Sex robot creator and CEO of RealDoll and Realbotix Matt McMullen has created Harmony – a robot capable of learning. Harmony is programmed to react to its users’ preferences with relevant conversation and realistic facial expressions. A purpose-built app is used to set and change Harmony’s settings and control usage. Harmony can remember facts, express a variety of emotions and be adorned in numerous choices of clothing, have different looks, voices, and personalities.

Across the globe, the sex tech market is estimated to be worth around $30.6bn. With the latest sex robots having a price tag of around $15,000, it’s no surprise that investors are seeing sex robots as a good place to invest their money. In the UK alone, more than 40% of men surveyed stated that they could imagine buying a sex robot for themselves in the next five years.

A question of ethics

The sex robot industry is very much in its infancy. There is much debate as to the moral implications for a society where sex robots are an accepted outlet for human sexual desires. Critics, such as Kathleen Richardson of De Montfort University in Leicester suggest that sex robots would be harmful to society, demeaning women, and normalising sexual exploitation.

Richardson suggests that sex robots will desensitise humans, increase social isolation, and have a negative effect on a person’s capacity for empathy and intimacy. These are all very real concerns which need to be discussed and fully understood before technology becomes too advanced and sex robots are a commercial success.

Legitimate outlet or step towards crime

The debate around the dangers and potential use of sex robots is a complex one. Proponents of sex robots suggest that child sex robots could be manufactured to be used by paedophiles as an outlet for their urges. People with the desire to commit rape could use sex robots to fulfil their fantasies without destroying someone’s life and their own.

The opposing view cites that by indulging the criminal perversions of a person, their desires are legitimised, and they are more likely to take the final step and commit the crime. Robotic reinforcement of their illegal and harmful desires will only further their desire to fulfil their fantasies with another person.

The combination of porn and prostitution

For many logically-minded people, sex robots will be viewed as a combination of pornography and prostitution. Purpose-built Barbie-like robots which simulate orgasm could be viewed as purely objectifying women and encouraging sexist and outdated viewpoints. Opponents of sex robots suggest that by likening a robot to a prostitute, the user will eventually view the prostitute as inhuman and purely a commodity for their own enjoyment. Sex doll brothels, however, are already popular in several European countries as a legal route to sexual gratification.

There are, however, other potential markets for the sex robot. Experts have suggested that sex robots could be used as educational devices to teach teenagers about sexual morality. Sex robots could be programmed to respond in certain ways to teach about consent and intimacy. Sex robots may also prove popular as a service for elderly or disabled people, both as a companion and a sexual partner.

Virus concerns

One of the selling points of sex robots is their elimination of the risk of contracting an STI. Where computerised technology is concerned, however, there are other viruses to worry about. If the sex robot sector progresses as predicted, then sex robots of the future will be internet-connected to give users the full experience.

Internet connection always comes with a security risk. An internet virus in a sex robot is an unknown commodity. Your sex robot may become verbally abusive or completely shut down. In the worst-case scenario, a virus could cause a sex robot to cause its user physical harm. Outside these technological concerns, there is the mental health of the user to consider. By normalising sex with robots, will users become disconnected from the real world and less able to empathise with their fellow human beings?

If the sex robot revolution is starting to take place, how long will it be before the normal way for a young man to lose his virginity is with a robot? What are the implications of this for the way we view ourselves and each other? Will our more gender-equal society see a rise in demand for a female-focused sex robot? It has been suggested that a sex robot for a woman would take on a less human form, more like a super dildo than a replica of a man.

With all new industries, we often learn from our mistakes. For example, the need for better internet regulation is only now, after several decades, starting to be taken seriously. With the sex robot industry, it may be prudent to ensure that legislation is in place to protect the vulnerable from exploitation well before sex robots become a part of our society.

Business Leader revisited the sex robot industry four years on to see how much it had changed. Find out what we discovered here.

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