Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Five Reasons Robot Sex Partners Won't End Human Trafficking

Power, economics and the Uncanny Valley.

  • May 2, 2012

“Robots, Men and Sex Tourism,” a paper in the journal Futures highlighted by Big Think and io9, makes the case that in the not too distant future, robots will replace humans as sex workers.

And will they rise up to extinguish their creators?

 The paper imagines a 2050 in which a robot sex club in Amsterdam ends human trafficking.

The only social issues surrounding the club is the resistance from human sex workers who say they can’t compete on price and quality, therefore forcing many of them to close their shop windows.

This seems like a narrow view of what prostitution is actually about, so I asked a few peers to weigh in about why this future seems so unlikely.

1. Sex trafficking isn’t about sex

@doingitwrong Sadism needs a partner to suffer.

@jon_jeckell I suspect a lot of this trafficking has less to do with gratification and more to do with power relationship[s]

@blueberrio Because prostitution has more to do with power and degradation than mechanics.

Spend about five minutes reading the stories of women, children and men who have been trafficked and it becomes apparent that for most of their clients, the interaction is about degradation, not sex. It’s easy to say that some day we’ll have perfect simulacra of human beings – at which point their consequences for the sex trade will be the least of the issues worth discussing. But what kind of power dynamics, if any, can there be between a person and an incompletely realized, not-quite-human robot?

2. Robots don’t get pregnant

@doingitwrong “The hope of a new life still a lure.”

3. Economics

@doingitwrong “Human lives cheaper than good gear.”

@doingitwrong “Robot factories didn’t end migrant workers.”

Remember when you thought Apple’s shiny iDevices were turned out in spotless factories by gleaming machines, and it turned out that human beings in Foxconn factories in China were cheaper, so actually, the iPhone is the most exquisitely machined hand-made object in history?

4. The Uncanny Valley

@atavistian How do you program a lip-twitch to not look like a software bug?

@atavistian Easier to program a human.

@murtaugh robots are creepy and too busy building cars

Our best animatronics are still pretty unsettling, because the closer they get to reality, the creepier they become, an effect known as the Uncanny Valley. There is a subset of humanity that isn’t phased by the Uncanny Valley, but they’re rare.

5. There are limits to what we’ll allow people to build

Child pornography and depictions of sex with children are illegal. One million children are sold into sex slavery every year. Even if you could create perfectly life-like artificial sex partners, who would condone creating versions of them that looked like children? So, the demand will remain.

@mims or email

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