Popular culture and cinema have both long told stories of humans having sex with robots – most recently in HBO's sci-fi drama Westworld. But these intimate relationships may soon leave the realm of fiction and become reality as the industry continues to make huge leaps forward and put sex robots on the market.
Already, the first 'sex robots' are available to purchase – but unlike robots portrayed in popular culture they are essentially high-tech mechanised dolls with limited conversational abilities. There is still a long way to go before they look like a flesh-and-blood lover.
Even though it's still early days, experts are worried by the potential sex robots have to revolutionise human emotional and sexual relationships. How these technologies may impact the way we interact with each other, and the kind of ethical issues they raise, is something we must begin to think about now, as a recent report by the Foundation for Responsible Robotics has pointed out.
In the future, it's likely that the use of sex robots is going to become more widespread. Sex robots could even leave the private sphere to be used for therapeutic purposes, helping individuals and couples in sex therapy.
Treating sexual dysfunction
Some sex therapists think the technology may help men who suffer from erectile dysfunction or premature ejaculation. People with social anxiety, who are nervous about having sex for the first time, could also benefit – as could people who have gone through a traumatic experience, letting them regain confidence.
"We could imagine robots being used for men who suffer from erectile dysfunction or early ejaculation, as they could learn with robots and try to understand what is happening with their bodies. The same goes for women. These robots could be a tool for them to understand how their body works, helping them to reach orgasm. It could also help people get over traumatic experiences of abuse," Aimee van Wynsberghe, co-director of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics, told IBTimes UK.
"So there is a potential for robots to be an empowering tool, but there is also a very fine line between empowering people and promoting unhealthy relationships and attitudes to sex."
Some people have also argued that sex robots could also be used in specific groups of the population that may otherwise be deprived of sexual contact – such as disabled or elderly individuals – but there are important ethical considerations to consider here as well. This includes making sure that the use of robots will not distract from the importance of human contact.
Before sex robots can even be considered as a therapeutic tool, a lot more research needs to happen. At present, there is very limited evidence that sex robots can be useful in therapy – but it is unlikely that a lot of research centres would be keen to take on such projects because of ethical concerns about exposing study participants to the robots.
"We would like sex therapists and academics to look into this and to gather more evidence, but this is tricky to do because they would need to get their ethics review board to approve the research they plan to conduct and there are huge obstacles to overcome before this can happen. However, if we are to understand the implications of robots for society, at a clinical and ethical level, we need this research," van Wynsberghe said.
Unhealthy attitudes to sex
At the moment, most of the sex robots that are being designed are gendered as female – and many argue that their 'feminine' features greatly reinforce a pornographic and objectified vision of women.
As such, there is a risk of using these robots in a therapeutic context because it might lead people to start getting unrealistic expectations and to have sexual relations that are not representative of what would happen with a human.
Additionally, using these robots could potentially decrease people's understanding of consent, as there is no need to ask for the robots permission to engage in a sexual act. The impact on people's relationships could potentially be huge.
For sex therapists working with couples, trying to bring them closer, it could also have the opposite effect if they introduced sex robots.
"There might one day be a place for sex robots in therapy but we are in the very early days. There are great many considerations we'll have to think about as therapists. For example, even if we discuss the introduction of a sex robot with a couple carefully, and even if they are happy to go along with it, they might not realise at the beginning the enormity of this decision," Head of Clinical Practice at the charity Relate and trained Sex Therapist Ammanda Major told IBTimes UK.
"When we are working with a couple, there might also be a potential for one partner to become particularly attached to the robot, emotionally or intellectually, causing jealousy and attachment issues within the couple."
Another concern is that rather than helping people come out of their shells and beating their anxiety, the use of sex robots could actually increase their isolation, desensitising them to human intimacy and empathy.
A role for the public
That being said, rejecting the technology without first investigating in greater depth its potential is not helpful. But to avoid going down an problematic path with sex robots, robust research and public engagement will be key.
"Just as we need universities to start collecting data, we also need to engage with the public because people can have a say in how companies design robots and how the technology is used. They can refuse to buy robots that reinforce a pornographic image of individuals," Van Wynsberghe argued.
"Policy makers also have an important role to play in saying that we need more empirical evidence before robots can be implemented in medical settings. They need to set standards about how robots are used. Collectively we need to make a decision about where this technology is going to go."
Doctors and sex therapists need to be part of this conversation, as they will have to be particularly aware of the potential risks and benefits of using sex robots. They will have to have frank discussions with patients before deciding whether using sex robots is a good idea.
"Sex robots are departure from many of the interventions we currently use in therapy. We do not only need research to investigate clinical use of robots, but also research regarding the potential impact on relationships. It's not just about whether they could be clinically useful in helping sexual dysfunction, but it's also about what effects they can have on the common individual," Major said.
If sex robots end up being used for therapy in the future, therapists and scholars alike are clear about one thing – robots will not be a replacement for what humans can do but a complement to other therapeutic tools may well safeguard us against catastrophic scenarios worthy of the most entertaining sci-fi movies.