In 1965, Gordon Moore, an engineer and co-founder of the Intel Corporation, made a now-famous observation: the processing power of a single computer chip doubles every year. Over fifty years later, “Moore law,” as it’s often referred to, has proven (mostly) correct. In just a few decades, the world has gone from computers that take up a whole room to supercomputers that fit in our pockets.
Over the past century, technological innovation has occurred at an exponential rate, to the point where it’s hard for us to keep up. It only took Uber six years to completely dismantle the taxi industry. Facebook, with over 2.3 billion users, is a communication juggernaut that has aided revolutions and helped sway elections, and governments worldwide are still grappling with the platform’s power. Internet pornography is a multi-billion dollar industry, yet only recently has there been substantial research on porn’s psychological and social impact. As these examples demonstrate, each technological innovation comes with its own set of moral and ethical issues.
But with innovations happening so rapidly, there’s barely time to address one question before the next one crops up. Maybe that’s why Christians have yet to adequately address an imminent concern: sex robots.
Yes, I’m serious. Now, Christians have a hard enough time figuring out what to do with sex, period, and when you factor in that 68% of churchgoing men view pornography, it’s no wonder that there hasn’t been much consideration of, well, sexbots. We’ve got other things on our mind. But the reality is, the technology is right around the corner. 49% of Americans believe that sex with robots will become commonplace within the next fifty years. Make no mistake, sex robots will radically transform human sexuality, and, if nothing else, Christians should be prepared. Be warned: it might get a little squirmy. But this is important stuff. So, consider this article a primer on sexbots.
49% of Americans believe that sex with robots will become commonplace within the next fifty years.
To begin with, the idea of “sex robots” is not a new one. Some scholars point to the Greek myth of Pygmalion—a sculptor who constructs an ivory statue of a woman and brings her to life with his kiss—as the precursor to our modern concept of a sexbot. Regardless, people have been deriving sexual pleasure from inanimate and humanoid objects for centuries. Agalmatophilia, or “statue lust,” was recorded in ancient Greece as early as 350 BCE. Dutch sailors in the 17th century would sew sex puppets out of old clothes and fabric. Although the first sex doll was designed in Germany in the 1950s, they were legalized in the United States in 1968, and since then, they have only grown more realistic and more advanced.
Of course, with all of this, the accompanying moral question has always been, Is it wrong to have sex with an inanimate object?
For Christians, the answer has been, resoundingly, Yes. In a recent interview, Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Evangelical Seminary summed up the traditional position pretty nicely: “The Bible is very clear that God created sex to make two people one person. Any sexual relationship that violates that purpose for sex is rebelling against God.” In addition, many Christians would argue that sex with an inanimate object is masturbation, which, although not explicitly condemned in the Bible, does play into the lust that Jesus calls “adultery” in the heart. Statue, homemade puppet, inflatable doll, whatever—if it’s outside of the marital union described in Genesis 2, most Christians would call it a sin.
But here’s where things get problematic, because sex dolls and sex robots differ in one major respect: AI or artificial intelligence. Whether you know it or not, there are numerous examples of AI in your life right now. Siri. Alexa. Your email filtering itself into categories. Google predicting your searches. Essentially, what AI does is replicate human intelligence via computer systems.
Make no mistake, sex robots will radically transform human sexuality, and, if nothing else, Christians should be prepared.
AI is what separates sex dolls from sex robots. With AI technology, sex robots no longer just look and feel like a human being; through complex algorithms, they are able to think and talk (almost) like one. To be clear, the technology is still in its early stages. In 2017, engineer Sergi Santo created a robotic sex doll named Samantha that responds to sexual advances and can spout off various facts about philosophy and Ed Sheeran. That same year, Matt McMullen of the RealDoll company unveiled “Harmony,” the most advanced sex robot to date. Harmony is able to learn the sexual proclivities of the owner, carry a conversation, remember the names of your loved ones, blink and smile. As of 2018, McMullen had retooled Harmony to be capable of swapping faces and personalities. Obviously, these robots are still a far cry from human. But they’re also not inanimate objects, exactly. McMullen maintains that Harmony is more than a sex doll; “its main function,” he told Channel 4, “is companionship and conversational context…” With AI, the question becomes, is it okay to have an emotional relationship with a robot?
Okay or not, many people believe that is the way of the future. According to research from psychologists Neil McArthur & Markie L. C. Twist, we are fast approaching the second wave of “digisexuality.” The first wave, they say, has been typified by online pornography, apps like Tinder and sexting, while the second will feature “immersive” forms of sexual technology like virtual reality and AI-enhanced sex robots. McArthur and Twist predict that in the next few decades, “many people will find that their experiences with this technology become integral to their sexual identity, and some will come to prefer them to direct sexual interactions with humans.”
In essence, digisexuality will become a viable mode of sexual identity. There are already numerous individuals across the globe who could be considered “digisexuals.” In 2016, a French woman named Lily was engaged to a robot she’d made with a 3-D printer, explaining that she dislikes “the physical contact with human flesh.” Last year, in Tokyo, a man named Akihiko Kondo was married to a hologram of a pop star. Of course, when you recognize how much of human sexuality is now mediated by technology—from porn to chatrooms to Snapchat—it is worth asking, Who isn’t a digisexual?
Not many Christian voices have weighed in all of this, but of those who have, most express concern. For some, it’s as cut and dry as the sex doll question: if it’s outside of a heterosexual marriage, then it’s outside of God’s will. Others go at the issue with a little more nuance. Tobias Winright, a theologian and ethicist, points out that sex within marriage should be “mutually donative” and edifying for both parties. Sex with a robot, Winright believes, can only ever be a selfish act.
Another fear is that sex robots will only further objectify human beings. In a recent article for The Gospel Coalition, Joe Carter asserts that using sex robots is immoral because “it reduces male empathy by teaching men to treat women (and sometimes children) as…blank canvases on which to enact their sexual fantasies.”
It’s not just Christians who are concerned about this; in 2015, Kathleen Richardson founded the Campaign Against Sex Robots, an organization that takes a stand against the normalization of sex robots. In an interview with Time, Richardson puts it bluntly: “You cannot separate sex robots from the sexist nature of porn. They reinforce this idea that women are just sexual property.”
No Christians that I’ve read necessarily endorse sex robots as a positive thing, but some do raise interesting—and controversial—points. Ron Arkin, a Christian and a robo-ethicist, has suggested that child sex dolls could be used as a non-harmful alternative for pedophiles, in the same manner that “methadone is used to treat drug addicts.” Naturally, this viewpoint has caused a lot of outrage, which Arkin says he empathizes with, while still insisting, “It’s…time when we start talking about these things.”
Others, like podcaster “Science Mike” McHargue, believe that advanced AI will require Christians to really grapple with our understanding of the “soul,” a word Christians throw around a lot without really defining it. “We’ve understood it to be some non-physical essence of an individual that’s not dependent upon or tied to their body,” McHargue told The Atlantic. “Would AI have a soul by that definition?” It’s a question that will no doubt become more and more pertinent as technology progresses.
But that day is far ahead of us. For now, just know that sex robots are becoming more advanced, will likely become more so and lots of Christian thinkers believe this is something to be concerned about. I would agree. We should be concerned.
But I don’t know if we should be afraid. Christians being afraid of sex has rarely been helpful. If anything, we should be confident in what we bring to the table. And what is that, you ask? First and foremost, our conception of imago dei. Inherent to our faith is the belief that every human being is imbued with worth from their Creator, made in the image of God Almighty, loved by the Most High. This the Good News. We cannot lose this. Against dehumanization and objectification, Christians should stand firm with a message of hope for humanity. The Gospel is still needed, even—as preposterous as it sounds—in the age of sex robots.