Samantha's suffering: why sex machines should have rights too
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Late in 2017 at a tech fair in Austria, a sex robot was “molested” repeatedly and left in a “filthy” state. The robot, named Samantha, received a barrage of male attention, which resulted in her sustaining two broken fingers. This incident confirms worries that the possibility of fully functioning sex robots raises both tantalising possibilities for human desire (by mirroring human/sex-worker relationships), as well as serious ethical questions.So what should be done? The campaign to “ban” sex robots, as the computer scientist Kate Devlin has argued, is only likely to lead to a lack of discussion. Instead, she hypothesises that many ways of sexual and social inclusivity could be explored as a result of human-robot relationships. To be sure, there are certain elements of relationships between humans and sex workers that we may not wish to repeat. But to me, it is the ethical aspects of the way we think about human-robot desire that are particularly key. Why? Because we do not even agree yet on what sex is. Sex can mean lots of different things for different bodies – and the types of joys and sufferings associated with it are radically different for each individual body. We are only just beginning to understand and know these stories. But with Europe’s first sex robot brothel open in Barcelona and the building of “Harmony”, a talking sex robot in California, it is clear that humans are already contemplating imposing our barely understood sexual ethic upon machines. It is argued by some in the field that there are positive implications in the development of sex robots, such as “therapeutic” uses. Such arguments are mainly focused on male use in relation to problems such as premature ejaculation and erectile dysfunction, although there are also mentions of “healing potential” for sexual trauma. But there are also warnings that the rise of sex robots is a symptom of the “pornification” of sexual culture and the increasing “dehumanisation of women”. Meanwhile, Samantha has recovered and we are assured by the doll’s developer, Sergi Santos, that “she can endure a lot and will pull through”, and that her career looks “promising”.
Samantha’s desiresWe are asked by Santos (with a dose of inhuman “humour”) to applaud Samantha’s overcoming of her ordeal – without fully recognising the violence she suffered. But I think that most of us will experience some discomfort on hearing Samantha’s story. And it’s important that, just because she’s a machine, we do not let ourselves “off the hook” by making her yet another victim and heroine who survived an encounter, only for it to be repeated. Yes, she is a machine, but does this mean it is justifiable to act destructively towards her? Surely the fact that she is in a human form makes her a surface on which human sexuality is projected, and symbolic of a futuristic human sexuality. If this is the case, then Samatha’s case is especially sad. It is Devlin who has asked the crucial question: whether sex robots will have rights. “Should we build in the idea of consent,” she asks? In legal terms, this would mean having to recognise the robot as human – such is the limitation of a law made by and for humans.
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