Killer Machines and Sex Robots: Unraveling the Ethics of AI

Experts and activists convened in New York to ask the big questions about artificial intelligence.

Artificial intelligence is changing the world. At least, the White House thinks so.

Last week, the Obama administration released a 60-page report titled Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence. It paints with a broad stroke the current state of AI in several different fields - health, education, the environment - and proposes ways in which industry and government can work together to advance the public good.

It's a remarkable document, if only for the fact that it's being issued by an outgoing administration in its final months in office. Clearly, the White House considers AI an immediate governance issue for the incoming administration.

Three days after the White House report was issued, AI researcher Kate Devlin was in New York City, digging into some weird specifics. On stage inside a New York University lecture hall, she stood in front of a decidedly NSFW image: a scantily clad, human-sized sex doll from RealDoll. "They sell these to a wide range of people," she told the audience. "And the most frequent request they get is to embed AI into these dolls."

Devlin was one of four presenters at a flat-out fascinating discussion of the many complexities headed our way in this nascent age of artificial intelligence. Currently teaching at the University of London, Devlin's research focuses on cognition, gender and sexuality as they relate to modern machines like companion robots.

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In her short presentation at NYU's Ethics of Artificial Intelligence conference, Devlin raised a dozen different compelling issues concerning sex, ethics and robots. For instance, there's the matter of Pepper,, the humanoid robot from Japan that can ostensibly read human emotions through facial cues and vocal tones. Pepper is designed to be a companion robot, a kind of mechanized domestic pal for anyone who needs a companion, for any reason. Well, maybe not any reason.

"In Pepper's contract, it says that using Pepper for the purpose of acts of sexual behavior ... is prohibited and breaks the contract," Devlin said. "It will void the warranty." The nervous laughter in the auditorium had a strange timbre: This is new territory for our species.

To hear Devlin tell it, the current issues around robotic companions are the first tricklings of a giant ethical storm. Fast-forward to a future of sentient machines. Doesn't the issue of consent, at some point, have to factor in? Even in our present situation of primitive specimens like RealDoll, doesn't the very idea of a female sex robot exacerbate the objectification of women?

Kathleen Richardson thinks so. A senior research fellow in the Ethics of Robotics at De Montford University, Richardson founded the Campaign Against Sex Robots in 2015. The group is dedicated to supporting the development of ethical technologies and to highlight the dangers of producing sex robots - and the ideas behind them.

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In an email she sent while attending yet another A.I. ethics forum - the Robo-Philosophy Conference in Denmark – Richardson wrote that she thinks the very concept of a sex robot echoes cultural patterns of ownership and slavery. "We have to understand what is at work in the development of sex robots - and the way in which prostitution is invoked as the background - is that persons are treated like things, and things are treated like persons," she said.

Richardson contends that the development of sex robots will ultimately reinforce behaviors in which women are treated as sexual objects. "What we are creating is a version of instrumentalist sex that is so destructive to humanity, and building reciprocal social relations, that it needs to be taken seriously." Richardson's concerns are reflected in the topic of the paper she's presenting at the conference: "Are Sex Robots as Bad as Killing Robots?"

The ethical implications of human-robot relations are deep, complex and many. And this is just one isolated area where A.I. is going to have a radical impact on society. Devlin's presentation at the A.I. ethics conference was just one of dozens. Other experts offered initial approach vectors to equally complex dilemmas.

Science philosopher Peter Asaro presented the now de rigueur assessment of lethal autonomous weapons (LAWS), and the ethical and moral nightmares therein. The stakes don't get much higher than this, as sci-fi keeps warning us. Asaro's tone was chilling as he contemplated autonomous weapon systems and armed artificial intelligences:

"It's important to realize that targeting a weapon is an act - a moral act," Asaro said. "Choosing to pull the trigger, to engage that weapon, is another moral act. I think these are the two crucial acts that we should not have become fully autonomous."

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Elsewhere at the conference there was talk about autonomous cars and the privacy issues involved when a vehicle is intelligent, networked and constantly surveilling. Adam Kolber, of Brooklyn Law School, gave an intriguing presentation about virtual currency systems like Bitcoin, which aren't A.I. in any meaningful sense, but are designed on the binary level to be unshackled and self-sufficient.

"Bitcoin isn't run by the people," Kolber said. "Bitcoin is run by itself." Does an intelligent virtual currency market require ethics? Can you code a moral code?

At the end of the day, Devlin's discussion of the ethics of robot sex and companionship held the most resonance, if only because it's the issue we're likely to be dealing with soonest. Sex drives innovation like nothing else; the internet porn industry, rather famously, was the prime mover in creating online credit card payments.

"Whether people think it's a good thing or a bad thing, it's already out there because there's demand for it," Devlin said.

"What's for sure is this is definitely going to happen."