Tearing Human Biology Apart

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture on June 25, 2020

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I read with great interest a recent study done on the difference between men and women’s attitudes on the use of robots, specifically sex robots and robots for platonic love relationships. I was not surprised by their findings, but first, let me say a few things about the work of the CBC as it pertains to this research.

Here, at the CBC, we are laser focused on things that undermine the dignity of human beings as it relates to advances in biotechnology, which is why we spend a lot of time in the space of assisted reproductive technology – or what we call “making, manufacturing, and manipulating” life. Our work in third-party conception, egg and sperm donation, and surrogacy underscores our commitment to the dignity of women and children.

Of course, at the heart of robotics are the advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), nanotechnology, and new and improved prosthesis development. Many of these biotechnological advancements will make wonderful contributions in the lives of others. But, as we are prone to say, “Not all progress is good progress” and “just because you can, does not always mean you should.” Our vision statement shapes our work as we strive to see progress in biotechnology that will unite around a common human good, promote human flourishing, working together, for our shared human future.

So, we have our eye on the future always. And what we see ahead includes: artificial wombs, artificial ovaries, artificial eggs, artificial sperm, and artificial relationships with the development of humanlike robots often called humanoids. Bottom line: Will we not need human beings to make new human beings and then raise and nurture them?  Am I being too extreme?  Well, if all life can be made and incubated artificially, who is to say we will not have humanoid robots to care and nurture newborns and beyond? We already see instances where robots may be used in the care and comfort of children and the elderly.  

Back to the study and the aims of the researchers. Acknowledging that advances in A.I. and robotics are happening rather fast and that they predict robots will soon be part of everyday life, “offering personalized service and companionship of different kinds,” the authors set out to test five hypotheses:

  1. Males will have more positive attitudes toward robots, compared to the attitudes held by females.
  2.  Males will be more positive toward sex robots than platonic love robots, while females will be more positive toward platonic love robots than sex robots.
  3. Males will expect to feel more jealous if their female partner gets a sex robot, while females will expect to feel more jealous if their male partner gets a platonic love robot.
  4.  Males will be more negative to the prospect of their female partner getting a sex robot, while females will be more negative to the prospect of their male partner getting a platonic love robot. 
  5. Males will expect that a partner would respond more negatively to him having a platonic love robot, while females will expect that a partner would respond more negatively to her having a sex robot.

The researchers then designed and conducted a vignette experiment with 163 female and 114 male participants and found that “general attitudes toward the robots were negative, regardless of the gender of the participants and type of robot.”  They also found that “women have less positive views of robots, and especially of sex robots, compared to men.”

But will this negative attitude with robots’ shift?  We have certainly seen the shifting attitudes around assisted reproduction with the normalization of IVF, buying eggs and sperm, renting wombs, and designing our babies? Which leads me to wonder- since the acceptance of artificial eggs, sperm and wombs, without our really even noticing it, has been embraced as a good biotechnological advancement and broad acceptance of its use as a means of “helping” people have a baby, will it follow suit that attitudes people have toward robots will also shift?  If robots provide people with mobility issues, greater access to freedom in their daily lives, that would be a good sort of progress. And if robots provide company to the over 1 million Americans living in nursing homes, who seldom get a visit, what harm would there be in that? Would children benefit from robots being in the classroom as an educational extension or the doctor’s office to provide comfort and distraction from painful procedures be necessarily bad?

So, perhaps the good news is, we will reject robots to keep us company and engage in intimate relations with, but I do not expect that attitude to hold. Maybe we should ask Siri?

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