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.
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?
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.