Steve Jobs and Robot Sex


One of the issues I plan to discuss in more detail both in class and in my blog is the ethics of sex with robots. There are a number of questions that we could raise here. (How about: how realistic do sexbots have to get before sleeping with one counts as cheating? But we’ll get to all that.) But one struck me when I was reading this piece about Apple’s attempts to stop production of a Steve Jobs action figure being made by a Chinese company.

No, it’s not a sex toy, and I don’t want to hear any ideas about how it could be turned into one.  But it does raise the question of “personality rights”. If we get to the point technologically where we are able to make sexbots that look and act a lot like real people – and make no mistake, we will – we will have to decide what restrictions to place on who they look like.

By that time Steve Jobs will probably be too distant a memory for many people to fantasize about him. So, very likely, will Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and anyone else we might think of at the moment when we imagine our sexual ideal. But there will of course be Year 2100 versions of Brad and Ang, and we can be certain there will be a big market for working fascimiles of them. Should we allow that? How about people who are not famous – what if you found out your neighbour down the hall had ordered a Robot You. Definitely creepy – but should it be illegal? It’s not clear there is a harm here. Let’s be honest, celebrities – and neighbours – are already the subject of plenty of fantasies, many of which involve photos and other representations. Why should a three dimensional facsimile be any different? We need to protect people against impersonation. We wouldn’t want someone taking their Brad-bot along with them so they could get a good table at a restaurant. But we might argue that so long as the robot’s owner keeps things private, we – and especially celebrities and other public figures – just need to live with the prospect of being used in people’s sick robot fantasies.

There is a case to be made that the problem here is not the representing but the selling. The Chinese company is trying to turn a profit from Jobs’s image without compensating his family or his company, and we might object that someone who builds a sexbot of us profits from something, our appearance, that rightfully belongs to us. I am sympathetic to that, although I can’t say I have a clear idea of where the boundary lies and why. It’s particularly tricky with public figures. By becoming an actor, or a politician, or in Jobs’s case someone who actively pursued the attention of the media, you place your image in the public domain in a way that the rest of us don’t.

Incidentally, when we are technologically advanced enough to make working sexbots, I hope Jonathan Ive and the Apple design team are still around to create them. It’s hard to imagine a household gadget more in need of elegant design, innovative materials and a seamless user interface. Maybe, somewhere in that top-secret Cupertino laboratory, they’re already hard at work.

Image: Steve Jobs version 1.0 during the early days of Apple
Image courtesy Sigalakos under Creative Commons License

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