Don’t Tell Me Not To Make Love with My Robot

Pepper is one of the most sophisticated household robots in existence today. It has a body shape that reminds one of a prepubescent child, only reaching a height of 120 centimeters, and with a tablet on its chest. It constantly analyzes its owner’s emotions according to their speech, facial expressions and gestures, and responds accordingly. It also learns – for example, by analyzing which modes of behavior it can enact in order to make its owner feel better. It can even use its hands to hug people.

Pepper the Robot. Source: The Monitor Daily.

No wonder that when the first 1,000 Pepper units were offered for sale in Japan for $1,600, they were all sold in one minute. Pepper is now the most famous household robot in the world.

Pepper is probably also the only robot you’re not allowed to have sex with.

According to the contract, written in Japanese legal speak and translated to English, users are not allowed to perform –

“(4) Acts for the purpose of sexual or indecent behavior, or for the purpose of associating with unacquainted persons of the opposite sex.”

What does this development mean? Here is the summary, in just three short points.


First Point: Is Pepper Being Used for Surveillance?

First, one has to wonder just how SoftBank, the robot’s distributors in Japan, is going to keep tabs on whether the robot has been sexually used or not. Since Pepper’s price includes a $200 monthly “data and insurance fee”, it’s a safe bet that every Pepper unit is transmitting some of its data back to SoftBank’s servers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: as I’ve written in Four Robot Myths it’s Time We Let Go of, robots can no longer be seen as individual units. Instead, they are a form of a hive brain, relying on each other’s experience and insights to guide their behavior. In order to do that, they must be connected to the cloud.

This is obviously a form of surveillance. Pepper is sophisticated enough to analyze its owner’s emotions and responses, and can thus deliver a plethora of information to SoftBank, advertisers and even government authorities. The owners could probably activate a privacy mode (if there’s not a privacy mode now, it will almost certainly be added in the near future by common demand), but the rest of the time their behavior will be under close scrutiny. Not necessarily because SoftBank is actually interested in what you’re doing in your houses, but simply because it wants to improve the robots.

And, well, also because it may not want you to have sex with them.

This is where things get bizarre. It is almost certainly the case that if SoftBank wished to, it could set up a sex alarm to blare up autonomously if Pepper is repeatedly exposed to sexual acts. There doesn’t even have to be a human in the loop – just train the AI engine behind Pepper on a large enough number of porn and erotic movies, and pretty soon the robot will be able to tell by itself just what the owner is dangling in front of its cameras.

The rest of the tale is obvious: the robot will complain to SoftBank via the cloud, but will do so without sharing any pictures or videos it’s taken. In other words, it won’t share information but only its insights and understandings of what’s been going on in that house. SoftBank might issue a soft warning to the owner, asking it to act more coyly around Pepper. If such chastity alerts keep coming up, though, SoftBank might have to retrieve Pepper from that house. And almost certainly, it will not allow other Pepper units to learn from the one that has been exposed to sexual acts.

And here’s the rub: if SoftBank wants to keep on developing its robots, they must learn from each other, and thus they must be connected to the cloud. But as long as SoftBank doesn’t want them to learn how to engage in sexual acts, it will have to set some kind of a filter – meaning that the robots will have to learn to recognize sexual acts, and refuse to talk about them with other robots. And silence, in the case of an always-operational robot, is as good as any testimony.

So yes, SoftBank will know when you’re having sex with Pepper.

I’ve written extensively in the past about the meaning of private property being changed, as everything are being connected to the cloud. Tesla are selling you a car, but they still control some parts of it. Google are selling you devices for controlling your smart house – which they then can (and do) shut down from a distance. And yes, SoftBank is selling you a robot which becomes your private property – as long as you don’t do anything with it that SoftBank doesn’t like you to.

And that was only the first point.


Second Point: Is Sex the Answer, or the Question?

There’s been some public outrage recently about sex with robots, with an actual campaign against using robots as sex objects. I sent the leaders of the campaign, Kathleen Richardson and Erik Brilling, several questions to understand the nature of their issues with the robots. They have not answered my questions, but according to their campaign website it seems that they equate ‘robot prostitution’ with human prostitution.

“But robots don’t feel anything.” You might say now. “They don’t have feelings, or dignity of their own. Do they?”

Let’s set things straight: sexual abuse is among the most horrible things any human can do to another. The abuser is causing both temporary and permanent injury to the victim’s body and mind. That’s why we call it an abuse. But if there are no laws to protect a robot’s body, and no mind to speak of, why should we care whether someone uses a robot in a sexual way?

Richardson’s and Brilling basically claim that it doesn’t matter whether the robots are actually experiencing the joys of coitus or suffering the ignominy of prostitution. The mere fact that people will use robots in the shape of children or women for sexual release will serve to perpetuate our current society model in which women and children are being sexually abused.

Let’s approach the issue from another point of view, though. Could sex with robots actually prevent some cases of sexual abuse?

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… Or lovers? Source: Redsilverj

Assuming that robots can provide a high-quality sexual experience to human beings, it seems reasonable that some pent-up sexual tensions can be relieved using sex robots. There are arguments that porn might actually deter sexual violence, and while the debate is nowhere near to conclusion on that point, it’s interesting to ask: if robots can actually relieve human sexual tensions, and thus deter sexual violence against other human beings – should we allow that to happen, even though it objectifies robots, any by association, women and children as well?

I would wait for more data to come in on this subject before I actually advocate for sex with robots, but in the meantime we should probably refrain from making judgement on people who have sex with robots. Who knows? It might actually serve a useful purpose even in the near future. Which brings me to the third point –


Third Point: Don’t You Tell Me Not to have Sex with MY Robot

And really, that’s all there is to it.


The Future of Kindness – and the World of Karma

Today is World Kindness Day and that serves as a wonderful starting point for a discussion of where kindness is heading to, and why we’re heading towards a World of Karma: a world filled with infinite kindness – and almost none at all.

In order to understand the future of kindness, we must first take a look at two parallel trends occurring nowadays, and analyze their impact in relation to each other. These trends are the growing Omni-connectivity, and Cognitive Computing. Let’s go quickly over each, and see how they culminate together in a world of infinite kindness.


Omni-connectivity is my definition for a world in which everyone is connected, and everything is known. This world will be brought about by the growing Internet of Things, which connects between every-‘thing’. Every item, every object. From the floor under your feet that counts how many people have walker over it today, to the cement brick in the nearby bridge that senses when the structure is about to fail. Your mirror is also connected to the internet, as is your toothbrush and your comb. And yes, your clothes are all sending data about what’s happening to you every minute and every second of the day.

The Internet of Things is becoming a reality because of the incredible leaps forward in technology. The cost of sensors has gone down by 40% over the last ten years, while the costs of bandwidth and processing have gone down by 4,000% and 6,000% respectively over the same period of time. By the year 2020 – just five years ahead – there are expected to be 28 billion ‘things’ connected to the internet, and the number is only expected to grow larger after that.

In the Internet of Things era, everything that happens in the physical world is recorded, uploaded to the cloud as data and analyzed by computers. Very few people, if any, can remain invisible or under the shroud of anonymity. Everything you do is analyzed, quantified and catalogued in vast databases.

Cognitive Computing

The other piece of the puzzle is the growing capability of cognitive computing. Today, we are beginning to teach computers by training them: we’re showing them images of many cats so that they can gain an understanding for what a cat is, for example. Many of these computers are based on the workings of the human brain, making use of artificial neural networks, so it should come as no surprise that they can be taught basic concepts, imageries and even to play games just by seeing human beings playing them.

Computers are already better than human beings at image recognition, and it won’t take them long (probably less than two decades) to be just as proficient as human beings are at analyzing video clips as well. The computers of the near future won’t simply look for cats in videos, but instead they will focus on human emotions: are the people in the video clip happy? Are they sad, or just frustrated?

And this will just be the beginning.

Recall that in the omni-connected world, we are all monitored all the time by wearable computers that are listening to our heart beats, recording our temperature and voices, measuring our activity and the food that we eat, and everything in between. All of this data is uploaded to the cognitive computers who can determine what’s going on with our lives at any distinct moment. They can know where we are, what we do, and even how we feel about it: whether we are sad, sexually aroused, or anything in-between.

The World of Karma

We already have apps today that try to quantify kindness and good deeds, and pay you back for them. The only problem is that they’re extremely reliant on the jurisdiction of human beings, and that most people feel very uncomfortable asking for someone else to rate that kind deed they did. Or they can just lie and report from their bed that they just saved the world three times over. These challenges are difficult to overcome without some kind of a ‘god’ overlooking us all and quantifying our actions.

Now let’s call this ‘god’ an omni-computer, in an omni-connected world.

In an omni-connected world which is constantly analyzed by computers, the doings of every individual are recorded and compared to the direct impact they have on other the lives of everyone else. If I stop to help someone whose car is stuck at the side of the road, the omni-computer up above knows I performed a good deed because of the beneficial effect it had on the physiology of that poor guy I helped. And when I insult someone on the street, it similarly knows I just acted negatively. Now we only have to program the algorithms that will make the omni-computer repay my kindness.

In the world of the future, then, whenever I stop to give a helping hand to a stranger, I can know for certain that my deed is recorded, and that I will receive some kind of help in the near future in return. I may walk in the market place, feel hot and sweaty, and immediately get handed a cool beverage by a passerby. Or maybe, if I gather enough ‘kindness coins’, I can even receive larger gifts and more substantial aid from strangers. I call it The World of Karma, for obvious reasons.

While I realize such a future world sounds quite weird to us, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible or even improbable. It’s just weird – which makes it a suitable contender as one of the futures that may become real, since a future that looks just like the present is almost certainly a comforting lie that we tell ourselves.

I would like to leave you with one last thought. In the World of Karma, people’s kindness can be an enormous force for good, since everyone knows that every act of kindness is recorded, counted and will aid them in return at some point in the future. And yet, is this true kindness? Altruistic kindness, after all, is based on the idea that people help each other without expecting a return. Can such altruistic kindness exist in a world where every deed has a value, and “no good deed goes unpaid”?

And if so, is that such a bad thing?