Right now there’s a whole lot of buzz about sex robots. Some people are really excited about them, and think we’ll be marrying robots by 2050. Other people are really worried about them, and are organizing whole campaigns against sex robots. This week, we travel to a future where sex robots are realized, and talk about everything from warranties to ethics.
[A note: if you listen to our show with or near young kids be aware that today’s episodes discusses the future of sex, and goes into some detail about sex toys, sex work and other sexy time things. If your kiddos are ready for a calm, reasonable discussion of sex and the sex industry, carry on! If you’re not there yet, that’s cool, but maybe skip this one.]
This week we have three experts helping us think through how we get to sex robots, and what we do when we get there. A.V. Flox is journalist who covers the intersection of sex, law and technology. She is very skeptical of all the sexbot hype, and says we have a long way to go before we’ll see anything remotely like an actual sex robot. Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and futurist who’s been a guest on the show before. A few of her books involve sex robots, and she thinks that before we get anything human we’ll start to see cartoony looking forms. And Shelly Ronen is a sociology PhD student at NYU who studies sex and sex object production. Ronen says that it’s possible we won’t demand full-on humanoid robots, but instead be totally satisfied by less human-like machines.
Together the three of them walk us through all the things we might have to sort out before and after the rise of the sex robots. How do you keep them clean? Where do you store them? What happens if they break? What will they look like? How do you handle the uncanny valley? Who should use them, and how does their existence impact sex workers?
You can read an optimistic take on sex robots in the book Love and Sex With Robots by David Levy and you can find more on Levy’s outlook on robots here. Levy is optimistic about sex robots — not only does he think they’re coming quickly, he also thinks they could have some very positive impacts. On the other side of the table is the Campaign Against Sex Robots. You can guess how they feel about these devices, and their argument is generally summed up here. Essentially, they feel that prostitution is bad, and sex robots would be a form of prostitution and encourage it, therefore sex robots are bad. This is an argument that many people disagree with, including sex workers who point out that many of them enjoy and would like to keep their jobs.
To top everything off, here are some fun fact about our long tradition of wanting to create and love female robots:
Robots were originally assumed to be male. The 1920's science fiction play R.U.R. that gave us the word robot also gave us the term for a female robot: a robotess.
The term "gynoid" (which you don't see quite as much anymore) was coined by the writer Gwyneth Jones in her 1985 novel Divine Endurance.
The term "fembot" first shows up in 1976, in a script for the show The Bionic Woman.
Brigitte Helm played "Maschinenmensch," the female robot in the iconic 1927 movie Metropolis. Apparently her costume was extremely uncomfortable, and other actors would apparently slip coins into various openings out of pity for her. She used those coins to buy chocolate.
Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth, and is part of the Boing Boing podcast family. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Broke for Free. The illustration is by Matt Lubchansky. The music for our various sex robot commercials was by Alaclair, Strong Suit and BoxCat.
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