Robot Ethics: Let’s Not Get Silly About It

Today seems to be “Ethics Questions That We Shouldn’t Have To Ask Day,” and Andrew Sullivan, over at the Daily Beast, phrases his entry this way:

“Is Sex With A Robot Adultery?”

Sherry Jackson as a robot on the original "Star Trek." Lovely, convincing, but still basically a toaster.

Gee, I don’t know, Andrew: is sex with a toaster adultery? What has Sullivan asking such nonsense is a new book called Robot Ethics, which has some legitimate issues to explore, and then some other phony controversies included to get publicity and interviews. The field of robot ethics still includes little that hasn’t been thoroughly explored by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” but as a few of these dilemmas are likely to enter reality from science fiction in the foreseeable future, it is reasonable to dust off the issues again as long as we don’t get silly about it. Getting overly excited for the Boston Globe, however, Josh Rothman writes:

“Already, fascinating moral questions are emerging. If a robot malfunctions and harms someone, who is responsible — the robot’s owner, its manufacturer, or the robot itself? Under what circumstances can robots be put in positions of authority, with human beings required to obey them? Is it ethically wrong for robots to prey upon our emotional sensitivities — should they be required to remind us, explicitly or implicitly, that they are only machines? How safe do robots need to be before they’re deployed in society at large? Should cyborgs — human beings with robot parts — have a special legal status if their parts malfunction and hurt someone? If a police robot uses its sensors to perform a surveillance operation, does that constitute a search? (And can the robot decide if there is probable cause?) Some of these questions are speculative; others are uncomfortably concrete.”

Yes, and some are stupid.”The robot itself” is not going to be held “responsible” under any legal system in existence or likely to come into existence. Machines don’t have ethics, and laws don’t punish machines. Would it be ethically wrong for robots to deceive people? Yes, and those who built and programmed them, not the robots, would be accountable. Cyborgs are people, and our laws can handle that hypothetical now: if my artificial leg goes flying off and kills someone, then it is either my fault for not attaching it properly or the manufacturer for building it carelessly. Rothman seems to be thinking of a robot arm that runs amuck, like Dr. Strangelove’s. Whether a malfunctioning arm is a robot or just mechanical, the responsibility will be determined the same way. And no, a robot cannot decide if there is probable cause.

Rothman is especially intrigued by this selection from the book:

“Upmarket sex dolls were introduced to the Korean public at the Sexpo exposition in Seoul in August 2005, and were immediately seen as a possible antidote to Korea’s Special Law on Prostitution that had been placed on the statute books the previous year. Before long, hotels in Korea were hiring out “doll experience rooms” for around 25,000 won per hour ($25)…. This initiative quickly became so successful at plugging the gap created by the anti-prostituion law that, before long, establishments were opening up that were dedicated solely to the use of sex dolls… These hotels assumed, quite reasonably, that there was no question of them running foul of the law, since their dolls were not human. But the Korean police were not so sure. The news website Chosun.com… reported, in October 2006, that the police in Gyeonggi Province were “looking into whether these businesses violate the law . . . Since the sex acts are occurring with a doll and not a human being, it is unclear whether the Special Law on Prostitution applies.”

Well, the fact that the Korean police are confused does not an ethical dilemma make. Robot sex is not adultery or prostitution: it is elaborate masturbation. There is only one human being involved, and if this can be called adultery, so can a spouse’s devotion to a car, the golf course, or the demon rum. I will concede that if the day comes when robots are so lifelike that humans don’t know when they are dealing with them, as in “Blade Runner,” the question of whether a man is guilty of adultery when he thinks he is having sex with a woman that is really a robot that looks like Darryl Hannah might be worth an ethics quiz (Pssst…he’d be guilty of attempted adultery). Before that highly doubtful occurrence, however, there are too many important real ethical problems that need solving, to spend much time on this.

18 thoughts on “Robot Ethics: Let’s Not Get Silly About It

  1. ‘The robot itself’is not going to be held ‘responsible’ under any legal system in existence or likely to come into existence.”

    On the other hand, there is some precedent to be found in the medieval practice of prosecuting animals for harming humans. If they could prosecute a cow for trampling a farmer, prosecuting robots doesn’t seem quite so unlikely.

    • Nowadays, however, we tend to judge things based on the individual’s thinking capacity and intent; basically, it’s probably not going to be an issue unless we somehow develop machines with at least a human level of sapience and sentience.

      • But its a self-contradiction: a machine that is sentient is no longer a machine, but artificial life. This was the theme in several Data episodes, notably the one where Star Fleet wanted to take him apart to understand why he seemed so human.

        • I seem to be like the one nerd who has little to no interest in Star Trek. Also, in popular parlance today, “sentient machine” is considered synonymous with “artificial life of a non-biological nature” (of course, I’ll leave it to the philosophers to determine whether an intelligent robot is truly any less biological than a vat-grown sheep).

    • I remember reading about people hanging “bad” animals. Doing something similar to a machine of any kind strikes me as akin to people throwing bricks at their TV sets or shooting their cars.

  2. As someone who has written several stories about humanoid sex androids (including one murder mystery), I can say I’ve ruminated on related issues for some time. I can think of one way it could be construed as adultery, and that would be if the person was in love with the robot. This would mean a husband could be both in love with and making love to an android while married. This could also just be an “android as mistress” scenario, if she is understanding.

    You might say that adultery can only take place between two humans, but how different is that from people who say that marriage can only take place between a man and a woman? (This is all under the assumption that, by the time we make robots who you would actually WANT to have sex with, they will be vastly more advanced than they are now, and dismissing them as “just robots” might be the first step towards Terminator).

    • It’s a lot different. What it’s like is people who say that marriage can only be between two sentient adult humans, as opposed to, say a man and a stuffed Moose head, a woman and a baseball bat, a man and a vacuum cleaner, or a woman and a piece of dry wall. Call me unimaginative, but I don’t see those couplings being approved in any referenda any time soon.

  3. Wasn’t Sherry Jackson beautiful when she grew up? Wasn’t Darryl Hannah… weird?!

    A lot has been written and filmed about robots and computers that are intelligent to the point of effectual sentience. Futurists have routinely claimed that AI will eventually take over, with organic beings reduced to obsolescence and eventual extinction. But what is intelligence without motivation? That’s where humans still are necessary. No matter how complex or well programmed, computers can only function along the lines for which they are built. Biological imperative is still the necessary initiator of purpose.

    It’s interesting to note that, after many decades, Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are still paid lip service to.

    As for robotic party girls, I guess that had to happen. Feminists like to dream about a world without men. Yet, if this comes in- and cloning is perfected- then what gender becomes obsolete?! The two prime functions of femininity will then have been usurped by science. Somewhat disturbing thought, that.

  4. This post really has me thinking hard. I think sex with a robot could be adultery in certain cases. But now that I’m really thinking about the issue, masturbation with sexual or nonsexual objects could also constitute adultery. As cliche as it sounds, it just depends on how you define adultery. Anyone who would define adultery as purely a physical act is deluded because sex is not a purely physical act. There are always mental/emotional/psychological aspects to it. And once you accept these as part of the introduction, the black and white sides rush together to blur everything into a grey haze.

    • I think I know where the distinction comes into it. Adultery can only happen when a man has sex with a real life person who isn’t his wife. Adultery is one of the big reasons marriages split up.

      On the other hand, let’s say you walked in on him having sex with a doughnut. This might ALSO be grounds for divorce, but adultery it’s not.

      • Jeff,

        I respectfully disagree. My definition of adultery focuses more on the mental state involved at the time of the act. Of course, by broadening the criteria I run the risk of making adultery an easy offense that nearly everyone is guilty of. But then again, I don’t really see a problem with that. Just because some people would not want to admit it, doesn’t make my definition wrong, necessarily.

        Thus, I define adultery as any act that is sexual in nature and that involves longing for something or someone other than your spouse. Now what critics may say is that adultery is nearly impossible to avoid under that definition. But just because something is difficult doesn’t make it wrong. That’s how I feel at least.

      • That’s it exactly, Jeff. Adultery involves the betrayal of a union blessed by God, the family being essential to human society and being built on trust. However, a man who “satisfies” himself with toys (or whatever!), while he’s not committing adultery physically, is doing so in his mind. Many pastors will tell you that there’s essentially no difference. But that’s between a man and God, I guess. Certainly, a man who becomes sex obsessed in any way becomes a danger to himself and to others.

  5. Dave…. Dave, we talked about that… What are you doing Dave?…
    That’s not the pod bay door, Dave…..

    Meanwhile back in the present… Steven, where does that leave the marriage performed by a justice of the peace….? Just wondering.

  6. Wait’ll Baltar and his Cylon babe walk into the Saratoga Springs JP’s office and demand matrimony. “Can she pass a blood test”, queries the magistrate. “No blood”, stiffly replies Baltar. “How about brake fluid?”

  7. Could not a robot be sued in rem or seized under civil forfeiture laws it it were to, say, injure someone? This would be sort of holding the robot responsible for its actions, in the sense that the motel on 434 Main Street, Tewkesbury, Mass. might be, in some sense, held responsible for the crimes that have been committed within.

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