Law journal paper on human/robot sex

As our Institute for the Future project on the "future of robotics" continues, my colleague Jake Dunagan follows-up yesterday's "epic robot tattoo" reference with another helpful citation: "Blurring the love lines: The legal implications of intimacy with machines," an academic paper by published last year in the journal Computer Law & Security Review. From the abstract (image from this previous BB post):
 Images Freerobotsex In this paper, I explore an area of emerging science, android science, and attempt to start a dialogue about possible future legal implications of fully conscious robots, referred to in this essay as humanoids. While the world currently has millions of robots doing industrial, commercial, and household tasks, I focus specifically on the legal challenges of human sexual interaction with future humanoids, albeit notional technology at this point in time. While this humanoid is a giant leap forward technologically, if a self-aware, super-intelligent, thinking, feeling humanoid is developed, the legal system will be hard pressed to distinguish this creature legally from human actors on grounds not stemming from a religious or moral prejudice. I consider whether human–humanoid sexual interactions should be regulated, the possible rights that might devolve to humanoids, and, finally, possible cost and benefit implications to humans in providing protections to humanoids. The objective is to discuss how the legal framework might appear if humans are not the only legal actors.
"Blurring the love lines: The legal implications of intimacy with machines"


  1. Second time today I’ve tried to read the full article you guys allude to in posts and it leads to a site asking me to pay $40 to access it. Lame.

    1. It’s linking to a paper in an academic journal, not an article in the truest interwebs sense.

    2. that is the crooked way of academia. tax dollars fund the NSF, with the agreement that they will disseminate the info by publishing via peer-review journals to insure the validity of the results. the journals claim that they have some form of exclusive copyright, even though the work was funded by the public in most instances, and make the access limited to university students (who attend some of the less broke uni.s willing to pay for a subscription). these journals, btw, get professors to review this stuff for free in exchange for prestige and probable publishing consideration. bunk and double bunk, but there you have it. enjoy the boing boing summary. i’m willing to bet dollars to lovebots that it is far more interesting than the wading through the article, which probably feels compelled to define “legal actors” at length in a way that could include robots.

  2. If the humanoid is self aware and “super intelligent,” won’t it be able to write its own legal briefs?

  3. What a waste of time. What we need is papers on the legal implications of intimacy with Unicorns.

    1. Yeah, to be quite honest, human/robot relations is not nearly as interesting as human/sapient-creature relations. I want to see what a legal person thinks would happen when the law and that major taboo collide.

      (I assume you’re talking about intelligent unicorns, since otherwise it’s just a horse with a horn on its head.)

      1. I was shooting more for the ‘intelligent androids are so far in the future that any discussion of them is in the realm of fantasy and science fiction, like a discussion of a unicorn would be’.

        But I’ll go with your take on human/sapient creature relations.
        But I guess we should start with the plausible:
        – Human Bonobo relations
        – Human Cephalopod relations
        – Human Cetatean relations

        1. While it might make more sense to talk about human great ape relations and stuff these days, I still always find these kinds of things interesting, because they DO possibly lead people to THINK about quite exactly where and why we draw distinctions between treatment of humans and non-humans.

        2. I think we should allow human/ape relations as long as the ape in question is played by Helena Bonham Carter, because that was kind of weirdly hot. But everything else about that movie sucked.

          1. Funny, I would have guessed you’d go for Charlton Heston circa 1968. But I guess it’s like they say, once you go gorilla it’s no more vanilla.

    1. There was already a fourth rule — Asimov created a “Zeroth Law” for the later Robots/Empire novels.

      That said, any robotic law pertaining to human-machine relations probably would start the numbering at 4.

      What would it say? “A robot must get off so long as such getting off does not conflict with the first, second, and third laws?”

  4. Um, huh. The promise of easy, no-repercussions sex could seem compelling on a certain level. AFAIK, a major reason for conjugal relations is to metaphorically and physically (some would add, “and spiritually”) to become one. This is an old, human concept. For example, as I recall, Paul used it to argue against relations with prostitutes. No other reasons cited, just “why would you want to equate yourselves with *that*?” The concept of sex dolls and machines certainly takes that argument to another, and I would think, an even more compelling level. I would think most people’s conclusion to that argument is something along the lines of: “Jeez, grab some self respect.” Yet if in some distant future, there were Data-like robots around, having sex with humans (e.g., Tasha Yar), then just like that Star Trek episode, I think it would be a valid support for “human” rights to be extended to such a creature.

  5. Does this mean we should consider the rights of our existing sex toys?

    If humanoids become sentient soon, I’d be more concerned with the economical impact that they will have as potential consumers than their sex lives…


  6. Human/robot sex is interesting and will happen. I don’t know if there are any more legal issues than those brought up by sex toy use.

    However, super-intelligent sapience is a whole other issue. When/if it happens, it will happen first in a pure computer, not a robot, and the sexual relations issues will be near the bottom of a massive list of legal, ethical, and practical issues.

    Also, if we create that intelligence, it will, by definition, out-think any of our thoughts on the matter.

    In other words, I’m joining the people saying this seems pretty silly.

    1. “However, super-intelligent sapience is a whole other issue. When/if it happens, it will happen first in a pure computer, not a robot, and the sexual relations issues will be near the bottom of a massive list of legal, ethical, and practical issues.”

      I don’t think current Turing based machines can become conscious. Here is something written by Andrew Steane:

      ( page 22)

      “The new version of the Church-Turing thesis (now called the ‘Church-Turing Principle’) does not refer to Turing machines. This is important because there are fundamental differences between the very nature of the Turing machine and the principles of quantum mechanics. One is described in terms of operations on classical bits, the other in terms of evolution of quantum states. Hence there is the possibility that the universal Turing machine, and hence all classical computers, might not be able to simulate some of the behaviour to be found in Nature. Conversely, it may be physically possible (i.e. not ruled out by the laws of Nature) to realise a new type of computation essentially different from that of classical computer science. This is the central aim of quantum computing.”

      *shrug* I came up with a fundamentally different way of computing. Unfortunately, the working code is too difficult for anyone to understand that I have show it to. No one is even interested in why it works. I do not need Boolean logic to do some very complex things; just connections in memory and nothing else – that’s right, no numbers, no do-whiles, no if-thens, etc.

  7. Dear Penthouse Letters,

    I never thought this would happen to me, but the other day when my Neato XV-11 was forcefully sucking the dirt out of my bearskin rug I got to thinking … maybe there’s another carpet my robot servant can clean!

  8. I agree with imag about this being at the bottom of a long list. Author specifies “feeling” robots in her article. The minute we develop aware robots that can feel, i.e. pain or distress, we had better be damn sure they are extremely well-protected with rights. Otherwise we become nothing more than abusive slavers.

  9. Somewhat along the lines of robot sex and the future legal issues thereon….

    Rigor Amortis — zombie erotica. Given questions of souls, self-awareness, etc, a number of the stories touch on similar issues.

  10. I took a short trip to Las Vegas last week. As usual, walking down the Strip meant having brochures and cards for in-room (ahem) exotic entertainers shoved at you by grubby touts.

    This story makes me want to print up a bunch of cards for robot and uplifted-animal hookers. It would be interesting to see how many calls came in.

  11. if a self-aware, super-intelligent, thinking, feeling humanoid is developed, the legal system will be hard pressed to distinguish this creature legally from human actors on grounds not stemming from a religious or moral prejudice

    Searle and Penrose would disagree. I think I’m with them.

  12. beautiful binary love.
    01100010 01110010 01101001 01101110 01100111 00100000 01101001 01110100 00101110

  13. I dare say, already done in Japan. Granted, in a purely fictional not-serious standpoint, but argument’s there.

  14. There are those who seem convinced that this isn’t at all far away:

    ‘if a self-aware, super-intelligent, thinking, feeling humanoid is developed, the legal system will be hard pressed to distinguish this creature legally from human actors on grounds not stemming from a religious or moral prejudice’

    That is surely undeniable. The question would be when and how we would know we had reached such a point. And even human-level intelligence shouldn’t be necessary for the attribution of some legal and moral status; most of us think it right to try to protect animals from cruelty, without thinking of them as persons. A purportedly minimally sentient robot would pose a challenge to a legal system that struggles even to know how to respond to great apes.

    1. harangutan said “That is surely undeniable.”

      No, it’s quite deniable. I deny it.

      You are assuming functional equivalence of consciousness equals consciousness, which equals moral equivalence.

      This is way, way, way from certain, and the arguments against accepting it come from respected philosophers, and have no basis in religion or morality. They are logical arguments about the nature of mind.

      I mentioned Penrose and Searle in an earlier post, they offer very strong challenges to functionalism, and a few other isms I can’t quite remember at the moment.

  15. No, robulus, you’re having a different argument from me, and from the article’s author. We both accept as a starting premise that situation wherein ‘a self-aware, super-intelligent, thinking, feeling humanoid is developed’. I don’t think she takes – and I know I didn’t take – any position on whether this is possible, or even likely.

    I make no claim about whether ‘functional equivalence of consciousness’ = consciousness. I’m saying that if a robot is conscious, then there is no non-superstitious basis for treating it otherwise, and I’d be surprised if even John Searle disagreed with that.

    1. But surely the central question is how do we determine a robot is conscious, rather than simply functionally equivalent to a conscious entity?

      We will presumably one day achieve functional equivalence with AI, the question of whether such AI will be conscious is probably unknowable.

  16. Selected quotes from TFA:

    US robotics experts unveiled an ‘‘Einstein-robot’’, a robot that
    has a machine-like resemblance to its eponym. This robot was
    not created for sexual purposes, (…)

    Perhaps no matter how much sexual comingling humans have with
    humanoids, humanoids cannot merit legal rights, only legal
    status, if that. We are left, however, with the question: What is
    the moral basis for making the distinction between future
    humanoids and humans? (…)

    Consciousness is the means to defining humanness, to
    distinguish humans from other creatures, and to establish
    fundamental legal rights for the individual person, adds Cal-

    Levy is clear that not ‘‘if’’, but ‘‘when’’ robots are used for
    sex, they can be expected to enter the prostitution scene; they
    could also, by their very existence and usage {and I assume
    such increased usage inversely affects human-to-human
    sexual activity}, will reduce teenage pregnancy, abortion,
    sexually transmitted diseases, pedophilia, adultery in the
    long-absence of a spouse, and help to broaden sexual expe-
    riences and opportunities while remaining safe for the human

    Interesting that sex with a sentient robot won’t be considered adultery…

    1. That made me snort coffee through my nose. Three times. Those guys manage to extract so much from that simple format.

  17. So I’ve read a little bit of Searle and a little bit of Dennett – and I still haven’t a clue whether I think that computers could have a subjective experiential existence. 99.9% of the population won’t even have got that far. My point? That decisions about attributing legal or moral status to robots will not (alas) be made on the basis of the insights of our finest minds, but on how people relate to them emotionally. It’ll be easier to sympathise and empathise with something that looks & acts basically human, than with an cephalopod that we know – or are pretty sure – can feel. It wouldn’t be surprising if this were even more true when we had sex with them, given that we – or most of us, anyway – seem programmed to feel some degree of affection in such circumstances. (Levy’s book talks a bit about this.)

    But the first level of legal challenge probably won’t involve any question of attributing status to robots. As far as I know, Alabama still outlaws sex toys. How will conservative jurisdictions respond to sex toys that look like people? Or (and let’s face, it’s bound to happen) like children? Many moderate people will find the limits of their tolerance pushed by such cases.

  18. @robulus: I agree, that is a really key question. From a lawyer’s POV, I’d also want to know how we should respond to uncertainty about such things. Is there a case for affording some protection to a robot if we think it might be sentient, even if – on the balance of probabilities – we believe it probably isn’t? I think I might be inclined to err on the side of caution there.

    I’d hate to think that Searle would become for AIs what Descartes was for animal welfare.

    1. I’ll come right out like a big scifi nerd and say it, BSG really delved into the heart of this.

      Even though philosophically we may have good reason to believe they are not conscious entities, will our hard wired feelings of empathy and anthropomorphism lead us to choose to afford them personhood, because of our emotional response to them?

      It is probably this emotional experience of intelligent AI that will guide our thinking, and it was brilliantly observed in BSG.

  19. There’s an aspect of semantic accuracy that has been hinted at by some other posters. Presuming that the first “legally sentient” AI is unlikely to be mobile,self contained etc. In simple terms- it’s legally sentient, Though NOT at all proper to apply the term “Robot” to Sentience # 1 of it’s kind. The inescapable following presumption is that absent something preventing it- that Sentience # 1 *WILL* quickly get mobile units under it’s control. And then the ethical and legal circus begins to get potentially very weird very fast.

    Is the mobile unit considered as a Prosthetic of the AI or is it a situation demanding some precedent determination?

    IANAL but- Setting the self-ownership aside as to “what legal guideline applies?” gets even more interesting. Would it be pure chattel law, or- a case evocative of Dred Scott. Even though that’s not been considered re-openable since the 14th amendment’s handling. But if it’s sentient and not “human” then what applies? And yes, we’ve seen that situation being pleaded in law before..

    Do please recall what sort of worldviews existed contemporary to Dred Scott!

    Applying race to robots any further risks needless flamebating so to avoid disemvowelments let’s be respectful in comments pls.

    I do have to laugh at an amusingly weird chance of new precedent= an intelligence able to speak for itself as to whether applying ex nihilo or ab nihilo to ITSELF is valid. It would be equally amusing to hear discourse on an AI applying to a state bar. And even if not admitted to the bar due to personhood being not yet established, That AI might indeed be able to defend itself from whatever charges it faced for it’s mobile unit violating ohsay- the Texas Sexual Devices laws..

    1. That AI might indeed be able to defend itself from whatever charges it faced for it’s mobile unit violating ohsay- the Texas Sexual Devices laws..

      Yes, because what’s the first thing you do when you invent a conscious robot? You put a dildo on it! :-)

      Anyway, shouldn’t devices controlled by an AI brain be considered its limbs? Handjobs!

      Haha, cool. Philosophize about robots and AI and apply sex to EVERYTHING. That’s what the article is about, right?

      I can’t wait for Searle vs. Dennett on “Do AI robots really have sexual fantasies, or do they just say they do?” :-)

      1. The other implication of your comment RE: “The first thing you do” leaves another open issue. If it was the AI itself of it’s own volition deciding to equip itself with devices unarguably sexually designed by that AI?

        Which of course is 100% consistent in scope of the Law journal paper’s discussion areas.

  20. So, do I have to learn the binary code translation of how to say, “Why weren’t you looking at me during?’

  21. What, no mention of Gigolo Joe? (A.I.)

    Or for that matter, 1. season, episode 3 of GITS:SAC…

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