Sex robots?! For decades, people have debated their dangers or called them ridiculous. But what if these bots can actually be a good thing? Here is the surprisingly human argument for a dystopian-sounding technology — and why it matters far beyond the bedroom.
Jason Feifer: This is Build For Tomorrow, a podcast about the unexpected things that shape us and how we can shape the future. I'm Jason Feifer and in each episode, I take something that seems concerning or confusing today and figure out where it came from, what important things we're missing and how to be more optimistic about tomorrow. Has this ever happened to you? I'm sure it has. Someone is telling you something and then they ask if you know what they're talking about and you say, yeah, yeah, yeah. You know what they're talking about. But you do not know what they're talking about. You said yes, but you meant no. Why do we do this?
Jason Feifer: Well, I am going to play for you moment in which I make that exact mistake. Here, I am interviewing a sex therapist named Gloria Brame. There's a whole long backstory to why I'm talking to Gloria, which I'll get to later. But for now, just know that Gloria and I were talking about the very early days of the internet when she said...
Gloria Brame: I don't know where were you in the '90s, but in the '90s, there was... You know how we have like the robotic sex panic going on?
Jason Feifer: Yeah. And there it is. There is the moment. The moment in which someone asks, if I know what they're talking about and I say, yes, but the answer is really no. Listen to me. Oh yeah. The robotic sex panic. I know all about the robotic sex panic. I don't know anything about the robotic sex panic. What robotic sex panic? So I backed up and asked her to explain.
Gloria Brame: Like, if we make a pleasure toy that can actually give us what we want, that somehow Western civilization will crash.
Jason Feifer: Of course they thought that. And so follow up question. Is this still a thing people are worried about today? Gloria said, yes. Where is that being articulated right now?
Gloria Brame: Type in robot hysteria. And you probably, there are all kinds of ethicists and future scientists who were predicting the rise of the sex robots would demoralize human society.
Jason Feifer: Well, okay. Let's see. What's out there. All right. Well, here, we've got a CNBC headline that says, "Sex robots could make us lonely and unable to form relationships with other humans," report says. And here's a headline from Forbes, "In case you are wondering, sex with robots may not be healthy." Oh, look at that. Here is any entire organization called the Campaign Against Sex Robots. It is headed up by a professor of ethics and culture of robotics and AI at De Montfort University and her name is Kathleen Richardson. So here she is in an end gadget video.
Voice clip (Kathleen Richardson): So the campaign against sex robots is really a campaign to get people to think about this idea that human beings can replace significant human relationships in their lives with machines.
Jason Feifer: Ah, now that is interesting. She of course has a whole bunch of other arguments and we'll get into more anti-sex robot thinking later. But this one in particular really intrigues me because she is talking about more than just sex robots here. She's talking about technology, replacing humans and not just in jobs, which is a more familiar conversation, but in human relationships. The crazy thing is when I heard that, I thought, "Well, that's familiar." Because throughout time, as I have researched the history of innovation for this podcast, I find people routinely concerned about exactly this. About automating relationships, about tech overpowering our natural instincts, about being just one good innovation away from breaking our humanity.
Jason Feifer: It is perhaps the greatest worry of all. I'll give you two examples. Here's the first one from back in the earliest days of recorded music technology. Imagine it, it is the late 18 hundreds and the earliest record players are entering people's homes. This is absolutely mind-blowing because consider it from the dawn of humanity up until that moment, if you wanted to listen to music, you had to have a live musician playing an instrument in front of you. That was the only way. Then this machine came along and you could hear music whenever you wanted.
Jason Feifer: Revolutionary. It completely changed entertainment and musicians. Well, a lot of them hated it because they saw it as a threat, not only to their livelihood, but to the very soul and essence of music. The leader of the resistance was a guy named John Philip Sousa, whose name you may not know, but whose music you definitely do. He was one of the most famous composers of the time. His military marches are still with us today, like.
Jason Feifer: In 1906, Sousa wrote a piece called the The Menace of Mechanical Music in Appleton's magazine and it made all sorts of cases against recorded music. Here's my favorite, Sousa argued that when you allow recorded music technology to enter the home, it will naturally replace all forms of live music. This means that mothers will no longer sing to their children because of course, why would a mother do that when a machine could do it for her? And that is when things get really dangerous. Sousa wrote, "Children are naturally imitative and if in their infancy, they hear only phonographs, will they not sing if they sing at all in imitation and finally become simply human phonographs without soul or expression."
Jason Feifer: In other words, Sousa argued that phonograph will create a generation of machine babies. It will replace the mother and also everything that is mothering. And here's a second example, the year is 1907 and the teddy bear is a brand new toy. It was invented in Germany only a few years of earlier and exploded in popularity in America, which caused a major backlash. The leader of the resistance was a priest in Michigan named Michael G. Esper who gave a fiery sermon to his congregation about the dangers of teddy bears. Here are a few actual lines from that sermon.
Voice Clip (Michael G. Esper): When your little girl asked for a dolly and you gave her a teddy bear, your action was fraught with a consequence that is only excusable on the ground of your ignorance. Bring your babies back to Dolly's or you will have weaned the grownups of the future from the babies that will never be.
Jason Feifer: Those were went viral, or at least 1907 viral, which means that they were reprinted in newspapers across the country and soon schools nationwide were banning teddy bears and others were writing or speaking or preaching about their dangers. And they're thinking often boiled down to this, young girls are good for one thing and that is to grow up and become mothers a that is why it's important for them to play with dolls because dolls help them develop a maternal instinct.
Jason Feifer: But when the teddy bear enters the home, the girls put the dolls aside and play with the bear and the bear does not help them develop a maternal instinct. And that means that they will not grow up to be mothers, and that again is the end of the human race. So there we are. Two stories with the same theme.
Voice clip (Kathleen Richardson): This idea that human beings can replace significant human relationships in their lives with machines.
Jason Feifer: A concern as old as the technology you are using to hear my words and the teddy bear your mother grew up with, but okay, let's be fair. Record players in teddy bears are one thing, sex robots, quite another. So this got me wondering, is there any foundation for this concern, any example through history of a machine truly replacing, not just transactional human relationships, but meaningful ones. And if not, well, is there a case to be made for sex robots? I don't mean like, "Dude, I would totally have sex with that robot." I mean like a real educated case, a moral and ethical case, a reason why the world should have very realistic, very sexy sex robots.
Jason Feifer: So I called around and I found some really great answers. Answers that will make you completely think differently about not just sex robots, but really our relationship to technology and to each other. So strap on, well, that's probably not the right language to use. Hold on. It is going to be a wild ride. Coming up after the break. You are putting in the work to better yourself. So why not put that same effort into your hiring process at work? It doesn't take much. It just takes Indeed. With Indeed you can attract interview and hire all in one place.
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Jason Feifer: All right, we're back. So look, we are about to dive deep into the ethics of sex robots, because this is a thing that people are debating in the world, and I have to admit at first, as I got into this, I was thinking that given the decades hullabaloo around the subject, someone out there has to be having a lot of sex with a sex robot, right? But no.
Neil McArthur: Until you can have some sort of creature that moves like a human and some sort of creature that interacts like a human, you're not going to have a sex robot like people imagine.
Jason Feifer: This is Neil.
Neil McArthur: My name is Neil MacArthur. I am the director of the Center for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. I'm also a professor in the philosophy department at the university, and I am the editor of Robot Sex.
Jason Feifer: That is a book out on MIT Press. The full title of which is Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications. Neil has spent a lot of time investigating those implications. It wasn't exactly a calling of his, but Neil has been researching sexual ethics for a long time and had been seeing all of these concerns about sex robots and he realized that nobody had really written about the subject's legal, political and ethical issues. So he did, and people were really into it.
Neil McArthur: There was a big uptake among my students. My students loved it. People in the media wanted to talk about it.
Jason Feifer: So he kept going and now he's become one of the leading thinkers and writers on the subject even though like you heard a moment ago, we don't actually have sex robots. When people talk about sex robots, they are talking about something out of Westworld or at least something that is passively realistic. A human like robot that feels and moves and interacts like a human. And that is just not technology that we have right now because our AI and robotics are nowhere near as sophisticated enough.
Neil McArthur: You just can't create robots that'll walk around and move and dance. I mean, they're starting to, but it's really difficult. I mean, human leg is an incredibly complex creation. And so just getting something to walk in a human like way just is very difficult.
Jason Feifer: You want to know what we have right now? Go to YouTube and look up sex doll reviews, which is a surprisingly robust genre of videos. They're all like...
Voice Clip (YouTube): These breasts are without any doubt the best doll breasts that I have ever felt.
Jason Feifer: I watched that video for research purposes. They looked like breasts, but doll looked very much like a doll. All the same, people are upset about what these dolls could evolve into and Neil and some others are trying to bring reason to the conversation because Neil says there is a moral and ethical reason to develop sex robots. So of course, I wanted to hear what that reason is. And he said, all right, here's the place to start.
Neil McArthur: I understand people feel powerless when it comes to technology. So I think we sometimes forget, this is a consumer technology and consumer technologies get adopted because people adopt them. I will tell you for a fact, nobody is forcing sex robots on the public. There's no corporation. There is no cabal of world leaders who are sitting around saying, we really need to make people use sex robots so that we can undermine human intimacy. I mean, that just isn't happening.
Jason Feifer: And if you think of a sex robot as a consumer technology and consumer to technologies get adopted because there's a demand for them, then what would be driving that demand?
Neil McArthur: If you start from the premise that sex, physical contact, intimacy are all human goods and they're not irrelevant to people's happiness, at least for most of us, then the question of access to those goods should be important. I mean, we talk a lot out access to education. We talk a lot about access to healthcare. Why do we care about those things? Health is a human good, education is a human good, knowledge is a human good. Well, sex and intimacy. Those are human goods in the same way. And just as we have inequalities and access to healthcare and everything else, we have a lot of inequalities when it comes to accessing intimacy and sex.
Jason Feifer: "We do not like to talk about this." Neil says, "but we should not forget it. Lots of people do not have access to a market for sex and intimacy." This could be because of where they live or their age or their health or their physical abilities or sexual orientation or whether or not they're considered conventionally attractive or whatever other reason.
Neil McArthur: A lot of people who write about sex and intimacy and think about sex and intimacy are people who are young, smart, educated. People living in New York, they have lots of access to partners and they look around them and they say, "Well, why would anyone want a sex robot?" Well, I mean, yeah. As you say, it might not be for you, but that doesn't mean it's for nobody.
Jason Feifer: And this is a good point about sex robots, but it's actually a, also a good larger point about anything that we as individuals think is weird and don't understand. So to bring that point to life, I'm going to hit pause on Neil for a moment and go back to Gloria Brame, the sex therapist you heard at the beginning of the episode. For the record, she is very pro sex robot.
Gloria Brame: I'm an actual sexologist. I don't think making people better sex toys is the end of civilization.
Jason Feifer: As it happens, I have a history of sorts with Gloria. Back in 2004, when I was just a kid trying to make it in journalism, I heard about this weird thing called distance sex therapy. This was a small, but growing trend of people receiving therapy for issues about sexual function or feelings or intimacy or whatever. But instead of seeing their therapist in person as is traditional, these people were talking on the phone or communicating by email. Remember this is 2004. Nobody had smart phones, video streaming barely worked. Distance sex therapy was really pushing boundaries.
Jason Feifer: I pitched the story to the Washington Post and for some reason they said, yes, and suddenly I was writing my very first national newspaper story. I interviewed every distance sex therapist I could find and one of them was Gloria Brame who was working with many remote patient. The story came out and it was very exciting. And then honestly, I never thought about the subject again until a few months ago, when out of nowhere, Gloria DMs me on Twitter.
Jason Feifer: She just wanted to say hi, after all these years and to congratulate me on being ahead of the curve, because of course, today remote therapy is very common, not just for sexual issues, but for all sorts of issues. So I said, "Hey, Gloria, it's great to hear from you." I suggested that we chat because I don't know why not? When you're a reporter, you learn amazing things from totally random conversations. Nice to connect after all these years.
Gloria Brame: Yes, 17 years.
Jason Feifer: So then we got chatting and she told me this story that I totally forgot, and that the origins of distance sex therapy. Because back then, when people first heard of distance sex therapy, they were like, "What? You can't help someone virtually. You're setting unreasonable expectations for patients. You're going to harm the reputation of therapy." But of course, those were all reactions from people who felt like this weird new thing was being jammed into who their otherwise very stable world.
Jason Feifer: But what if you look at it from the opposite perspective, not from the perspective of the status quo, but from the perspective of the people whose needs helped shape the supposedly weird new thing. That is Gloria's story. Gloria was a very early internet adopter. She started on BBS's which were these little networks you could dial into with your modem in the 1980s. And then she joined CompuServe when it came along and I am just old enough to remember using CompuServe, but in case you're not familiar, it was an early digital network that was popular before Prodigy and AOL. And for a while, there were no graphics.
Jason Feifer: The experience was entirely text based. This was where a lot of people for the very first time found an online community. We take it for granted that today you can just find like-minded people online who are basically into anything you're into, but back then it was a revelation. People would spend their entire lives feeling weird or alone, and then discover that they were not alone at all. That was especially true for people with very particular sexual interests.
Gloria Brame: I founded a support BDSM support group in 1987 on CompuServe. The really amazing thing is that we started with like 35 members, and in two years we had 75,000 members.
Jason Feifer: Gloria was working to become a therapist at that time, and so she stepped into the role of educator on the platform.
Gloria Brame: I had been doing a tremendous amount of education and there were like three different people who had met me in these various forums who begged to work with me once I became a therapist.
Jason Feifer: And there was good reason that people begged Gloria to do this. It wasn't just that she was a good educator. It was because these people who she met on this forum had no access to anyone else who could help them. They didn't know how to express their needs or how to build meaning and healthy sexual relationships and they felt alone and they were never, ever going to go to a therapist in their own town.
Gloria Brame: Their comfort zone is ultra privacy and their comfort zone is being able to control where they are, when they're speaking and being sure that nobody can listen. So physically going to somebody's office, being seen and having to sit and face them and tell them the stuff that they've never said out loud is actually challenging.
Jason Feifer: Gloria wanted to help them, but she couldn't go traveling around the country, meeting with everyone in need. That was impossible. So she decided to help however, she could. Even though therapy at the time was an entirely in person service, she started working with a few clients by the ways that they were connecting now, virtually, by phone and email.
Gloria Brame: A weekly talk with me, even without seeing me actually really helped them.
Jason Feifer: So she began offering this service more widely and soon she was building a robust practice with many virtual clients. And that is where her distance sex therapy came from. It wasn't a radical idea imposed on a status quo. It was born out of a need that the status quo didn't serve. This is so often the case with new things and that is the point Neil was making with sex robots. They sound weird to most people because honestly they're not for most people, but okay, let's imagine that sex robots become so amazing and so hyper realistic that they are appealing to everyone. Well, what then? Neil says that this comes up a lot in the debates about sex robots, and here is a rundown of the fears.
Neil McArthur: The way they're going to break us is they're just going to get us used to the easy solution.
Jason Feifer: Because humans naturally gravitate towards what's easiest. We don't choose hard paths, our critics say, we choose easy.
Neil McArthur: So if you have the choice between going out with friends who might argue with you and telling you you're stupid and tease you, or staying at home with your robot and telling you you're awesome and you're sexy, and they're always up for sex with you. Maybe we'll just get you used to relationships like that. We'll never want to negotiate and make hard choices.
Jason Feifer: This idea is played out to the extreme. In an old episode of Futurama called I Dated a Robot, it features a parody of these school propaganda fill like Reefer Madness. And this one opens up by explaining that the purpose of human courtship is to make babies, but...
Voice Clip (Futurama): When a human dates an artificial mate, there is no purpose, only enjoyment and that leads to tragedy.
Jason Feifer: We see a teenage boy making out with a Marilyn Monrobot, then a real human girl from the neighborhood stops by with an offer.
Voice Clip (Futurama): Do you want to come over tonight? we can make out together.
Voice Clip (Futurama): Gee, Mavis, your house is across the street. That's an awfully long way to go for making out.
Jason Feifer: And then the boy goes back to making out with a robot. It is the easy path, too easy.
Voice Clip (Futurama): Ordinarily, Billy would work hard to make money with his paper route. Then he'd use the money to buy dinner for Mavis, thus earning a slim chance to perform the reproductive act, but in a world where teens can date robots, why should he bother? Why should anyone bother?
Jason Feifer: Soon, every human has a robot and no humans are having sex with humans and that like when record players are introduced to the home and teddy bears are given to girls is the end of humanity. And to all of this, Neil says, "Okay, sure. Let's do some science and see if there is evidence that when given the easy the option, people will always take it." But Neil's assessment, which I happen to agree with is that this worry of easy versus hard is premised on an overly simplified view of life, where we make one kind of choice and we have one kind of relationship. And that's not really how we are. Everyday life proves otherwise.
Neil McArthur: Meeting people at bars is awful. People still do it. Well, I think that people make different levels of choice. People are now buying tons of vinyl rather than listening to Spotify. People use straight razors rather than whatever instant razors. So you always get people doing the easy thing and people doing the hard thing and most of us, our lives are a mix of both.
Jason Feifer: We don't default to easy. We default to variety, and this is also how we advance our lives and our careers by choosing hard, over easy by ourselves. Not every time of course, but enough times. And here's one more ethical not to untangle with sex robots, do they violate our view of healthy sexual interactions?
Neil McArthur: That's going to depend on whether you think that relationships based on physical gratification are somehow inherently immoral or damaging.
Jason Feifer: For at least hundreds of years, people have been writing about what Neil calls, the reciprocity view of sex. The idea is that in our intimate relationships, what we really want is a reciprocal interaction.
Neil McArthur: We desire someone who desires us and they desire our desire, and you get this kind of spiraling mirror or whatever you want to call it of desire. And that's really the best form of relationship that there has to be that deep reciprocity.
Jason Feifer: I think we would all agree, this is ideal necessary in fact, when you're dealing with humans. And in fact, if you do not care about deep reciprocity, you can create very unhealthy relationships, but, and this is why it's worth calling someone who studies ethics, when you look at the range of relationships we develop, it is worth noting that we can and do manage many different kinds.
Neil McArthur: Lots of people form bonds with lots of things, besides human beings who reciprocate their emotions. I mean, people are incredibly attached to their cars, their pets, their sports teams.
Jason Feifer: And let's be honest, if some people could have sex with their sports teams, they totally would.
Neil McArthur: We don't really worry about that as much. And some people are just asexual or just not interested in having relationships. And again, we don't worry about that. So I think that the fact that some people choose this form of connection rather than being obsessed with the Green Bay Packers, I'm not all that concerned about that.
Jason Feifer: But OK, to be fair, those aren’t actual sexual relationships. So… what about porn? Or, what about sex work? Both are, technically speaking, non-reciprocal sexual relationships. And leaving aside anyone’s particular moral objections, what do we know about them? Well, both come with all sorts of caveats, and I’ll acknowledge that this is a big and complicated subject that I can’t do total justice to in 20 seconds, but for what it’s worth, I’ll try: Both can be overused or abused, just like anything can be overused or abused. Both can feature prominently in unhealthy relationships. And the wide accessibility of porn has been linked to unreasonable expectations and unsafe sexual health practices in young people — though it’s equally important to acknowledge that many young people, and adults for that matter, are often not provided with the kind of quality sexual education that could help them use these tools in a healthy way. But all that said, on the narrow question of whether we can balance reciprocal and non-reciprocal sexual relationships, these are useful case studies: Users of porn and sex work — and producers of porn and sex work — both can and do balance these things with healthy reciprocal relationships. Engaging in one does not necessarily eliminate or in many cases even interfere with the other. If that were the case, the untold millions of people who watch porn every day would cause a crisis unlike anything humanity has ever seen.
Jason Feifer: And so that the people who frequent them or have visited them are capable of the same. And sure, both can be overused or abused, just like anything can be overused and abused, but at large, they represent common and widely available options for non-reciprocal sexual relationships that do not necessarily eliminate, or in many cases, even interfere with the ability to form a reciprocal relationship. And also, let's make sure to note opponents think of sex robots as a thing that could draw people away from our natural tendency towards reciprocal relationships, but it is very likely to be the other way around.
Jason Feifer: Why do we always think that the new thing will be more powerful than the old thing? That the thing that is the core part of us is the one that's more fragile. It doesn't really makes sense. What if our need for reciprocal relationships is in fact why sex robots will always be an interesting tool, a cool idea, but never our main desire, just like all the other things I just described. Is short, the argument that Neil is making goes like this, a sex robot, like any new thing will fit into different people's lives in different ways.
Jason Feifer: For some, it may fulfill a need that the masses tend to ignore like access to intimacy and sex. For others, it might be one option of many like being in a sexually healthy relationship, but also watching porn because both can serve different purposes at different times. But let us be fair, every defense that you have heard is premised in some way on the belief that some core parts of our humanity are stable.
Jason Feifer: It is the belief that we are social and cooperative creatures, and that we work towards the betterment of ourselves and our communities and this is coded deep inside of us and has enabled us to build the modern world. It is certainly messy and imperfect and our cooperativeness is always in conflict with our selfishness, but still, these are undeniable parts of who we are as humans and they do not change even when presented with very compelling alternatives, but let's entertain it.
Jason Feifer: Is that true? What if it's not? What if technology actually can be so compelling that its users willingly abandon meaningful human connection in favor of it? John Phillips Sousa thought that recorded music would cause people to willingly abandon meaningful human connections. Father Michael G. Esper thought that teddy bears would cause people to willingly abandon meaningful human connections. They were both wrong, but maybe there is something else out there. Some precedent, some proof. Something that we can look at and say, aha, when humans were presented with this compelling technology, everything changed and therefore everything can change again. Is that thing out there? Is there any evidence of it? After the break, I call the guy who would know.
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Jason Feifer: All right, we're back before the break, I posed a question. Is there any example from history or today where at a population level, people willingly abandoned meaningful human connections in favor of a technological replacement. I emailed around for a while to find someone who could speak to this and eventually reached the president of the Society for the History of Technology. When I asked her the question, she said that I should really speak to a guy named Edward Tenner.
Edward Tenner: My name is Edward Tenner. My original field was modern European history in which I have a PhD, but I have involved in science and technology ever since I became science editor of Princeton University Press in the 1970s.
Jason Feifer: These days, Edward is an independent writer and speaker, but he's also...
Edward Tenner: A so-called distinguished scholar of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at Smithsonian Institution. I've also been a guest lecturer at Princeton and a visiting researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study.
Jason Feifer: And Edward, it turns out is not worried that sex robots will destroy us. To appreciate why, he says you have to start by looking beyond the part where they're sex robots. Look instead at what a sex robot represents, because what it represents is efficiency. It is a tool that's built for maximum satisfaction, programmed to please you.
Jason Feifer: A machine that eliminates everything that's difficult about finding someone to have sex with, or if you already have someone to have sex with that, it eliminates everything that's difficult about having sex with that person whenever or however, or however often you want. This is all deeply, deeply efficient. And there is a problem with efficiency, Edward says. He calls it the efficiency paradox.
Edward Tenner: The efficiency paradox is based on the idea that too much efficiency in the short run can make us less efficient in the long run. So I am not an opponent of efficiency, but one of my points, which is pretty obvious to people who have studied the history of technology or of entrepreneurship, is that innovation very seldom can be done efficiently. There are always lots of mistakes involved. So if you have software or any other arrangement that optimizes things too soon, you might be passing up the biggest opportunity.
Jason Feifer: Now, this is really a principle designed to apply to the fields of business and innovate. He is warning entrepreneurs, that if they rely too much on efficiency, they will blind themselves to all the innovative ideas that are born out of inefficiency. For example, because book publishers built models to evaluate which books will sell and which won't...
Edward Tenner: There were 20 publishers who turned down Harry Potter, and I'm sure it was because their historical sales data suggested that there really wasn't money to be made in that book. It was just different from what had come before.
Jason Feifer: So how did we get Harry Potter? It is because someone somewhere will always do something inefficient. They will notice the opportunity that others missed. They will try something that no algorithm can consider. Inefficiency becomes the competitive advantage.
Edward Tenner: The publisher who did accept Harry Potter, after all the others turned it down, the editor really consulted his eight-year-old daughter and he gave her part of the book to read and she loved it. So one person's kid outweighed all of the collective data of publishers.
Jason Feifer: Efficiency is imperfect because our world is unpredictable. Because we are humans driven by curiosity, because we are drawn to things that we've never seen before. Because some of the things we value most like art and ideas and human relationships are deeply inefficient pursuits. And sure, we might lose sight of this, but someone else will always prove us wrong. That is the efficiency paradox. The more efficient we try to be, the less efficient we may actually become.
Jason Feifer: Now, how does that get applied to sex robots? I could imagine the argument from an opponent of sex robots. They might say, "Ah, you are making my point." Edward just said that if you optimize things too much, you might pass up the biggest opportunity and this is the whole problem because when a human has an efficient sex robot, they will pass up the inefficient satisfaction of a human relationship.
Jason Feifer: But no, no, no. That view is based on the assumption that humans do not adapt. That you give us one thing and as long as that, one thing fulfills, whatever particular need we have at a particular time, we will stay with that one thing forever and ever. It is the view of a humanity that is fixed, but we are not fixed. I mean, my six-year-old son is obsessed with his iPad as all kids his age are. And if I give him complete and unregulated access to that iPad, you know what he'll do, he will watch videos and play games for hours. It is an efficient delivery of joy.
Jason Feifer: For a while, he is indeed fixed. He's fixed in one place, done. Fully satisfied, but you know what? After a few hours, even he loses interest. He to do something else. He asks me to play a game with him or he wants to go outside. That's because there is something he wants more than efficient delivery of joy and that is inefficient variety and human connection. It is baked into him, just as it's baked into all of us.
Jason Feifer: If you build the world's greatest sex robot, it might indeed an efficient tool sometimes for some people, but it will not be efficient for all times with all people. That's against human nature and human nature is not as fragile as we think. So. Okay, with all that said, now let's get to our historical question. In terms of technology replacing a human in a human relationship, whether that's that we are no longer interested in being sung two by humans, we're no longer interested in being touched by humans. Is there any history to speak of?
Edward Tenner: I really can't think of a single one.
Jason Feifer: Edward and I tried to think of real life examples where meaningful human relationships have been replaced by robots. There are of course, lots of examples where human labor is replaced by robots, as I mentioned earlier in the show, but that's an economic trade off. Our deep humanity is not organized around whether someone works on an assembly line or not. So we're really asking a narrow question. It is the one being addressed by record players and teddy bears and sex robots. And Edward says that if you really, really want to answer this question, then you've got to actually parse it further.
Edward Tenner: One of the problems there is that if a relationship really is completely replaced by a machine, then you could say it was never meaningful.
Jason Feifer: For example, consider the ATM replacing the bank teller. This was an example that I had given Edward. I said the machine may have replaced a human interaction, but it wasn't a meaningful human interaction. Nobody wants to stand in line just to withdraw cash from a human being. And Edward said, "Ah, but there's actually more nuance here because I, me, live in New York City where standing in line to see a bank teller is super annoying. The line is long, everyone wants to move fast and it's very unlikely that I will ever see that bank teller again in my life. I am therefore very happy to interact instead with an ATM. I just want my money. But Edward says that if you live elsewhere in the country, you might feel differently.
Edward Tenner: You might know the tellers at your local bank and they might be your neighbors. Do you really want to eliminate their jobs by doing all of your banking with an ATM?
Jason Feifer: In this case, it is not accurate to think of ATMs replacing all tellers. Instead, you need to split it into two categories, ATMs in places where people have no relationship with the teller and ATMs in places where people do have a relationship. Then you see that people act differently in each case. In places with no relationships, the ATM is simply a matter of efficiency. In places with relationships, those relationships will factor into how someone either does or does not use this technology. That's not to say that every single time, of course they're going to stand in line to see the bank teller, but you know, it's different. And the same is true with email.
Edward Tenner: You would think that people would no longer be sending handwritten letters, but actually because people get so much email, when they do get something handwritten, it's much more meaningful. It because it's inefficient.
Jason Feifer: Email became useful for a particular form of communication and a written letter became useful for other forms. It is a lesson that I have learned repeatedly as research, the history of innovation for this podcast. People will always fear that the new replaces the old, but it never does. New integrates with the old. We combine the best of both. So there it is. If sex robots are to overpower us and cause us to choose mechanical relationships over meaningful human ones, it would be a historical first.
Jason Feifer: But as we bring our exploration of this to a close, here is one final question that has nagged at me throughout. What is the point of everything that I just said? Like, the idea of sex robots is fun and all, but did I just waste a few weeks of my time researching this and roughly 45 minutes of your time listening to it? Because as Neil told us in the very beginning, there are no sex robots. The technology simply doesn't exist. Maybe it never will. So what's the point of us discussing it or anyone discussing it. I asked Neil this and he gave a really valuable answer.
Neil McArthur: The stigma we have around sex robots affects first of all, how quickly they develop, and second, how they develop. If we have these stigmas, it means that the research isn't going to get funded. That the people are going to be hesitant to push this research forward until if we don't show a receptiveness. I also think that a lot of the concerns people have that it's just going to be targeted towards a certain type of man, it's going to be overwhelmingly male. It's going to be unimaginative. It's just going to be these porn bots.
Neil McArthur: I think that's all going to be true if the rest of us just pull away from this and freak out about it. So I think that having an open, healthy approach to it is going to make it come more quickly and also make it come in a more healthy way. I mean, I think that we don't have to be trapped in this vision of sex robots looking a certain way. Sex robots can look like anything. There are designers out there who are designing all kinds of non humanoid sexual technologies. There's one proposal to have like pillows that just sort of wrap around you.
Neil McArthur: I mean, there's all kinds of crazy innovative designs out there and I think that if we unleash the kind of creativity that often is at work in the technology world, if we allow it to be applied to this, I think it could be a really exciting future. Yeah, or we could not have the conversation or have it in a very narrow way, which is often what happens and then we're just going to be trapped in a very slow moving and very uninteresting future.
Jason Feifer: That's the reason to care. The reason to have smart and rational and open-minded conversations about the future, because we should not want a very slow moving and uninteresting future. We should want a fast moving and interesting future where problems are solved and needs are fulfilled and we are not bystanders in that future. We are not simply here to react to change. We can take part in that change. We can help shape it.
Jason Feifer: We can be the ones encouraging innovation and creating an environment where new ideas can flourish and where even weird and uncomfortable ideas can have the time and space to form into wonderful and valuable things like a world where we can listen to music whenever we want and where every child can have teddy bears, if they so desire and a sci-fi pillow might one day wrap around us. Okay, seriously, can someone let me know when that pillow thing is available? Because if that is a sex robot, then bring on the sex robots. Because you know, this has never really been about sex robots. This is about humans, real sexy, inefficient humans.
Jason Feifer: And that's our episode. Hey, just in keeping with the theme of the value of inefficiency for one more moment, I have a really wonderful final example of exactly that and it rhymes with Nightfall Bauer. Oh, I'll play it for you in a minute, but first, do you want to feel more optimistic about the future? Up for my newsletter. It is also called Build For Tomorrow and it will deliver a regular dose of optimism and ways to become more forward thinking. Find it by going to jasonfeifer.bulletin.com. Again, that is Jason Feifer, J-A-S-O-N F-E-I-F-E-R. jasonfeifer.bulletin.com.
Jason Feifer: And if you want to get in touch with me directly, you can do at my website, jasonfeifer.com or follow me on Twitter or Instagram. I am @heyfeifer, H-E-Y F-E-I-F-E-R. This episode was written and reported by me, Jason Feifer. Sound editing by Alec Balas. Our theme music is by Caspar Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. Thanks to Adam Soccolich for production help, to Brent Rose for voicing that anti-teddy bear sermon and to Susan Morse, my old editor at the Washington Post for saying yes to my distance sex therapy story, oh, so many years ago.
Jason Feifer: Also, earlier in this episode, I talked about fear surrounding recorded music and teddy bears. If you want to know more, I have full episodes about both those subjects. Just scroll back in the archives and you will find them. This show is supported in part by the Charles Koch Institute. The Charles Koch Institute believes that advances in technology have transformed society for the better and is looking to support scholars, policy experts, and other projects and creators who focus on embracing innovation, creating a society that fosters innovation and encouraging people to engineer the next great idea.
Jason Feifer: If that's you, then get in touch with them. Proposals for projects in law, economics, history, political science, and philosophy are encouraged. To learn more about their partnership criteria, visit cki.org. That is cki.org. All right. Now, one more bit about the greatness of things we initially don't like. When I was talking with Edward Tenner about the value of inefficiency, he dropped this delightful anecdote that, well, it has nothing to do with sex robots, but anyway, here is something to share at your next cocktail party.
Edward Tenner: The Eiffel Tower was considered a monstrosity by the elite of Paris when it was completed. In fact, there was a conman who made small fortune by scrap metal dealers that he was licensed to sell the Eiffel Tower for scrap. And the basis of that was the early rumor that the Eiffel Tower was a temporary structure that was going to come down one day. So it didn't seem as stupid as it now does, but the point it was that this was something that was considered really impractical and inefficient and turned out to be a real money maker.
Jason Feifer: Come to think of it, I guess the Eiffel Tower is a little like a sex robot in that it is a metal object that people once doubted and now they love to penetrate. Was that too much? Probably too much. That's all for this time. Thanks for listening. I'm Jason Feifer, and let's keep building for tomorrow.
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