Will We Someday Use Child Sex Robots to Treat Pedophiles?
If we create robots that look like children, the uncanny valley may be the least of our problems. At a robot ethics panel at Berkeley on Friday, experts discussed the potential societal benefits of robotic sex workers, which could help to eliminate the demand for prostitution. This led to a discussion of the possibility of building lifelike child robots for pedophiles.
Sitting in on the discussion were a range of experts in the fields of Law, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics including Noel Sharkey, a Professor of Robotics and A.I at Sheffield University; Kate Darling, a research specialist at MIT; and Ronald C. Arkin the Regents' Professor at the College of Computing at Georgia Tech and author of "Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots."
Arkin maintained that he did not believe childlike sex robots should be used recreationally, but that there could be valuable uses for them in the realm of treating sex offenders: "Child-like robots could be used for pedophiles the way methadone is used to treat drug addicts." But he also conceded that, even if they were only sanctioned for research purposes, a black market for these robots may arise, and any attempt to create them should proceed with caution for a myriad of reasons: "There are no presumptions that this will assuredly yield positive results – I only believe it is worth investigating in a controlled way to possibly provide better protection to society from recidivism in sex offenders. If we can save some children, I think it's a worthwhile project."
The question then becomes whether any attempt to build these robots would be legal under U.S. law. While there are creepily realistic baby dolls, these are intended for childless people to nurture in place of an actual child, not for any sexual purposes, so the law has never been tested in this particular arena. However, University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo argued that the precedent may be set regardless, as a result of the Supreme Court case Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, in which the justices ruled that virtual child pornography, or pornography produced with adult actors who are digitally altered to look like children, is legal. "What appears to be child porn, but isn't, is not illegal," said Calo. That logic may be extended to having sex with a robot that looks like a child, but isn't.
If and when this occurs, we may all wish we lived in Canada. Child sex dolls are illegal in Canada, and as a result, a 48-year-old man toting a short foam doll in a school uniform was arrested at a Toronto airport for child pornography last year. Needless to say, these hypothetical child sex robots would not be nearly as likely to be legalized in Canada as they would be in the U.S.
The Canadian case demonstrates that the legalization or criminalization of this technology may be culture dependent. Robot expert Noel Sharkey said at the panel, "It's a decision for society to make."