Is data a toaster? Gender, sex, sexuality and robots

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Palgrave Communications, 2016, 2
Issue Date:
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© 2016, Palgrave Macmillan Ltd. All rights reserved. This article considers the development of robotics through the lens of Gender Studies, with a particular interest in exploring relationships of intimacy involving robots. The production of sex robots has prompted some ethicists to set up the Campaign Against Sex Robots, their position articulated in Kathleen Richardson’s, 2015 paper, “The Asymmetrical ‘Relationship’: Parallels Between Prostitution and the Development of Sex Robots”. It is notable that these sex robots are commonly referred to as sexbots or fembots, but there is seldom reference to a malebot, though makers suggest that they can or will be made. Others (notably the makers) see this technology as no different from a vibrator or dildo and suggest that it could be a way of dealing with aberrant and criminal sexual behaviours including paedophilia. Intimacy is more than sexual practice, of course, and the ability of humans to form emotional attachments to technology is well-documented. Consider, for example, Maja Mataric’s description of the relationships formed by families with their Roomba vacuum cleaner in the Robotics Primer (2007). This led to problems for the makers for whom it was less expensive to replace a broken machine than to fix it, but who were faced with demands from families that their Roomba be repaired and returned to them. This article addresses this debate, exploring a range of contributions from ethicists, roboticists, gender theorists and others, and making specific reference to the television programs, the Scandinavian series, Real Humans (2012) and its English version, Humans (2015), as well as to Jordan Wolfson’s recent artwork, Female Figure (2014). This article is published as part of a collection on gender studies.
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