- 27 May 19
That, as they say, is a very good question. And very few people are better placed to answer it than Kate Devlin, a Senior Lecturer in King’s College, London and the author of the book Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots
In the current issue of Hot Press (Cover Story: What Was The Greatest Slane Gig Ever?), there is a lengthy and thoroughly fascinating interview, conducted by Mark Hogan, with Kate Devlin, an archaeologist-turned-computer science academic from Co. Down. Now based in the UK, Kate is one of the foremost experts on Artificial Intelligence. In the interview, she speaks with great eloquence about what is an increasingly vital, and pressing, issue.
Kate is the author of the book Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots (2018), which has inspired considerable controversy as well as praise. In the full-length Hot Press interview, she also speaks in a very open – and as it turns out, liberal – way about pornography, sex work, virtual reality and sex, the ethics of AI and its biases, sex identity, 3D printing, sex dolls – and a whole lot more besides.
Ideally, what we are publishing here should be read in conjunction with the longer interview, which carries a wealth of greater detail on what is quoted here. However, there is much here also to ponder, which is separate from or additional to the print material.
Indeed, what Kate has to say – omitted from the print interview – in relation to the possible need for consent from machines, or robots, touches on one of the issues that is most engaging the members of the scientific community, and indeed entrepreneurs, who are involved in the field of artificial intelligence.
Because, when the moment arrives that a machine becomes sentient, then the whole game is changed, irrevocably.
“There’s no sentience,” Kate Devlin says of robots now. "And I don’t believe that that is the case, that consent is an issue; these are just objects, and I don’t think there is that knock-on effect. Yet. But if it’s a sentient one, if it was a machine that could think for itself, then absolutely we do need to take into consideration rights and responsibilities…”
Kate Devlin was named as one of London’s 100 Most Influential People by The Progress 1000 in the London Evening Standard. She is a senior lecturer in Digital Humanities at King’s College, London.
For more read on. And for the whole fascinating article, pick up a copy of Hot Press.
ON PORN IN THE DIGITAL WORLD
What implications might online porn have on relationships?
That’s hard to quantify. There are conflicting studies. I agree there definitely is some impact in changes in social behaviour. But what that is, how we quantify it and how we determine whether that’s good or bad is another story. Yes, there are some troubling issues, especially around people under the age of 18 having more access than they should. That’s a whole other story, but it is problematic.
And the effects of VR porn are even more unknown?
VR and porn is strange… everyone thought it was going to be the next big thing, but it hasn’t caught on as much as they thought. The first wave of VR failed in the 90’s. It had a resurgence a few years ago, so we’re on the second wave now. VR porn became part of that. There are companies set up to exploit the fact that virtual reality can be used for porn. But they serve up the same porn that’s out there, just from the first-person viewpoint. In the early days of cybersex, everyone was saying you could have sex in mid-air or under water or with a dragon! But instead you just get a first-person point of view of the woman. That’s essentially it, because it’s expensive to create the content and they stick to what they know.
ON ROBOTS IN HEALTHCARE
Are sex robots a solution or an aggravator to loneliness and misogyny?
We don’t have the evidence so I haven’t made any decisions on this. There are lots of anecdotal stories about people who gain comfort and combat loneliness, not just via sex robots but via technology, just chatting to their voice assistants. There was a news story recently about a company in Dundalk that makes social companion robots. A woman who lived with one of these robots said she didn’t feel lonely anymore, it felt like she had someone else in the house with her. And there are lots of stories like that. Companion robots are being used in old people’s homes. It’s not that we’re replacing humans; we have a problem with loneliness and we don’t have enough carers to go around, so if this can alleviate a bit of that… I’m sceptical if anyone says we can use robots to look after people and be our friends. That’s really simplistic. But they can fill a gap and assist us.
So is there a role for sexually active robots in healthcare?
Yeah! Not necessarily robots, but certainly sex technology. Because when one thinks of sex robots, it’s usually the image of the curvy blonde. If we move away from that and think about intimacy and abstracted forms more broadly… sex toys that are embodied or immersive. Yes, I do think there is!
And will that be accepted by society?
No! It’s hard to get people to talk about older communities and sex. There has been a lot of work done on it. The Alzheimer’s Society in the UK has done a briefing on it. I’ve spoken to specialists who talk about how we infantilise our older relatives when we put them into nursing homes. It’s a different matter if someone’s got dementia, because that raises huge issues around consent. But there are people in nursing homes or care homes who may have had a partner all their lives, and suddenly don’t. And it’s almost like we’re writing off the idea of being sexual over the age of, say, 65! We know from studies – The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing and Natsal (The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles) – that people are having sex, even intimate closeness, right up to their 80’s and 90’s. Not everyone will want to, but we’re taking away that opportunity when people are put into care homes. And already, the Government and the coalitions involved in care are trying to look at that now, not from a technology point of view but from a general, more broad point of view. But it’s very taboo, and carers don’t want to be part of that. There are problems around who can consent and who can’t. But it is something that we should address. And there have been some nice examples, like Grace & Frankie, the TV programme. They had women setting up a vibrator company for people with arthritis. If that can be on mainstream TV maybe that’s a way of educating people. So in that way, sex technology is a really good opportunity to bring sexual expression and pleasure to people who are otherwise isolated. And I think that is a good thing. The issue is not that it would be niche, it’s that taboos would stifle it.
THE POSSIBLE USE OF ROBOTS IN THERAPY...
Do you think use should be regulated for therapy?
It’s not that I don’t want to give a yes or no answer, I genuinely don’t know. There’s so much warranted fear around it that people immediately feel they can’t let it happen. It’s the one area where we need to be really careful because it’s so delicate and difficult. The rest of the time I think ‘knock yourself out!’ But this is tricky.
MORE ON ROBOTS AND SEX OFFENDERS
MORE ON ROBOTS AND SEX OFFENDERS
Do you think use should be regulated for therapy?
It’s not that I don’t want to give a yes or no answer, I genuinely don’t know. There’s so much warranted fear around it that people immediately feel they can’t let it happen. It’s the one area where we need to be careful because it’s so delicate and difficult. The rest of the time I think ‘knock yourself out!’, but this is tricky.
Would it make sense to research this area more, to see if there’s a role for AI?
I don’t know. It’s difficult. There are people studying this. Again, it’s about a lack of evidence. I don’t know enough about the condition of paedophilia. There’s still uncertainty about whether it’s intentional or learned behaviour, or an innate thing. It looks like it’s probably an innate thing. But is there a way of – I won’t say conversion therapy – but of getting someone over that? It’s the one place where I advocate caution because I don’t think we can risk it.
ROBOTS WITH FEELINGS
If robots become sentient, does sexual assault on a robot become a real thing?
The AI community is split on this. Some people think we will have conscious machines, others think not. I’m agnostic; it could happen but we might not recognise it as human-like. In the same way that we didn’t think an octopus was smart until recently, we could see some kind of emerging consciousness... but there’s a tiny chance that we could have a sentient machine.
Either way, if it appears to be sentient…
That’s enough, yeah. There’s no test for consciousness, so we can’t know.
So where does that leave us in relation to consent and sexual assault?
That’s an interesting one. Theoretically, could you molest a robot if it was sentient? If a machine is sentient we’ve got to think about rights and responsibilities. It leads to huge ethical questions: should we program a machine to always give consent? Or should we program the right of a machine to refuse? What happens if a machine wants another machine instead of us? That isn’t tricky right now; we can build in refusal. There’s a sex robot maker called Sergi Santos and the premise for his AI is to build robots with reciprocal exchange – you have to woo ‘Samantha’ in order for her to respond positively. If you’re nice to her, she’s more accommodating to the point where you could seduce her. Otherwise you won’t get a response. In the same way, if we wanted, we could make it so that people would have thank their voice assistants.
Should we build in consent today in order to protect against possible knock-on effects in a human-to-human context, as a consequence of interactions with a robot?
Right now yeah, that could be used as an argument. Because there’s no sentience. And I don’t believe that that is the case, that consent is an issue; these are just objects, and I don’t think there is that knock-on effect. Yet. But if it’s a sentient robot, if it was a machine that could think for itself, then absolutely we do need to take into consideration rights and responsibilities, but I think that is so far away…
This is going far beyond a computer beating us at chess.
Yes, it’s a machine that is self-aware. It’s really unlikely. It’s a scenario where a machine can out-think us in terms of making decisions for itself… but also, this is the idea of consciousness in a machine, being aware of its own body situation. Consciousness is so hard to nail down. We all know what we’re talking about when we discuss our own consciousness; I’m aware that you and I are probably conscious because that’s the view of the world I’ve come to accept. We know a machine isn’t conscious. But there’s no test for consciousness – and that brings us into a huge philosophical discussion. If we know a machine is self-aware and can make decisions for itself, it knows it’s a machine performing tasks for us, it has its own self-awareness... then we have rights and responsibilities. Mind you, if we got to that point, the machine is probably going to be in charge of us, because it’s smarter. At that stage, a machine could probably bootstrap itself into superintelligence…
And that’s where the robots do actually – as tabloid headlines have suggested – fuck us all to death?
Yeah! You’ve got people like Nick Bostrom, who wrote Superintelligence, who worry that we’ll end up in a scenario where robots take over because they will outdo us within seconds of being; the idea of singularity. But I’m pretty confident that it’s not going to happen in my lifetime.
• Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots by Kate Devlin is available now. For a fictional take on the same issue, read Ian McEwan’s latest novel Machines Like Me (Vintage).