Samantha's suffering—why sex machines should have rights too

April 5, 2018 by Victoria Brooks, The Conversation
Credit: Fossiant/

Late in 2017 at a tech fair in Austria, a sex robot was "molested" repeatedly and left in a "filthy" state. The robot, named Samantha, received a barrage of male attention, which resulted in her sustaining two broken fingers. This incident confirms worries that the possibility of fully functioning sex robots raises both tantalising possibilities for human desire (by mirroring human/sex-worker relationships), as well as serious ethical questions.

So what should be done? The campaign to "ban" sex robots, as the computer scientist Kate Devlin has argued, is only likely to lead to a lack of discussion. Instead, she hypothesises that many ways of sexual and social inclusivity could be explored as a result of human- relationships.

To be sure, there are certain elements of relationships between humans and sex workers that we may not wish to repeat. But to me, it is the ethical aspects of the way we think about human-robot desire that are particularly key.

Why? Because we do not even agree yet on what sex is. Sex can mean lots of different things for different bodies – and the types of joys and sufferings associated with it are radically different for each individual body. We are only just beginning to understand and know these stories. But with Europe's first sex robot brothel open in Barcelona and the building of "Harmony", a talking in California, it is clear that humans are already contemplating imposing our barely understood sexual ethic upon machines.

It is argued by some in the field that there are positive implications in the development of sex robots, such as "therapeutic" uses. Such arguments are mainly focused on male use in relation to problems such as premature ejaculation and erectile dysfunction, although there are also mentions of "healing potential" for sexual trauma. But there are also warnings that the rise of sex robots is a symptom of the "pornification" of sexual culture and the increasing "dehumanisation of women". Meanwhile, Samantha has recovered and we are assured by the doll's developer, Sergi Santos, that "she can endure a lot and will pull through", and that her career looks "promising".

Samantha's desires

We are asked by Santos (with a dose of inhuman "humour") to applaud Samantha's overcoming of her ordeal – without fully recognising the violence she suffered. But I think that most of us will experience some discomfort on hearing Samantha's story. And it's important that, just because she's a machine, we do not let ourselves "off the hook" by making her yet another victim and heroine who survived an encounter, only for it to be repeated. Yes, she is a machine, but does this mean it is justifiable to act destructively towards her? Surely the fact that she is in a human form makes her a surface on which human sexuality is projected, and symbolic of a futuristic human sexuality. If this is the case, then Samatha's case is especially sad.

It is Devlin who has asked the crucial question: whether sex robots will have rights. "Should we build in the idea of consent," she asks? In legal terms, this would mean having to recognise the robot as human – such is the limitation of a law made by and for humans.

I have researched how institutions, theories, legal regimes (and in some cases lovers) tend to make assumptions about my (human) sexuality. These assumptions can often lead to telling me what I need, what I should feel and what I should have. The assumption that we know what the other body wants is often the root of suffering. The inevitable discomfort of reading about Samantha demonstrates again the real – yet to human beings unknowable – violence of these assumptions.

Samantha's ethics

Suffering is a way of knowing that you, as a body, have come out on the "wrong" side of an ethical dilemma. This idea of an "embodied" ethic understood through suffering has been developed on the basis of the work of the famous philosopher Spinoza and is of particular use for legal thinkers. It is useful as it allows us to judge rightness by virtue of the real and personal experience of the body itself, rather than judging by virtue of what we "think" is right in connection with what we assume to be true about their identity.

This helps us with Samantha's case, since it tells us that in accordance with human desire, it is clear she would not have wanted what she got. The contact Samantha received was distinctly human in the sense that this case mirrors some of the most violent sexual offences cases. While human concepts such as "law" and "ethics" are flawed, we know we don't want to make others suffer. We are making these robot lovers in our image and we ought not pick and choose whether to be kind to our sexual partners, even when we choose to have relationships outside of the "norm", or with beings that have a supposedly limited consciousness, or even no (humanly detectable) consciousness.

Samantha's rights

Machines are indeed what we make them. This means we have an opportunity to avoid assumptions and prejudices brought about by the way we project human feelings and desires. But does this ethically entail that robots should be able to consent to or refuse sex, as human beings would?

The innovative philosophers and scientists Frank and Nyholm have found many legal reasons for answering both yes and no (a robot's lack of human consciousness and legal personhood, and the "harm" principle, for example). Again, we find ourselves seeking to apply a very human law. But feelings of suffering outside of relationships, or identities accepted as the "norm", are often illegitimised by law.

So a "legal" framework which has its origins in heteronormative desire does not necessarily construct the foundation of consent and sexual rights for robots. Rather, as the renowned post-human thinker Rosi Braidotti argues, we need an ethic, as opposed to a law, which helps us find a practical and sensitive way of deciding, taking into account emergences from cross-species relations. The kindness and empathy we feel toward Samantha may be a good place to begin.

Explore further: New study measures human-robot relations

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4 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2018
If a man is masturbating in bed, and the bed breaks..... do we need to put him in prison for 'hurting the bed'? does he need to be included in the sex offender list? Does he need to be prohibited to use a bed again? What is the bed is ''intelligent''? Is it murder then? What if he was not only masturbating but also humping the mattress?

I just felt like adding more stupidity lol

3 / 5 (2) Apr 05, 2018
More idiocy for this article. OK LADIES... What about your "Personal Massage Devices" dehumanizing and abusing them ??? Even saw a "Male Doll" advertised somewhere (freaky thing) but was that for Gay Men or Seriously depraved women ? Maybe Lesbians will buy one and have a "Bash the Male Sex Doll" as we hate men party !

Seriously, some people need to CHILLAX !
3 / 5 (2) Apr 05, 2018
I was expecting some sort of cogent argument but instead it boils down to "I felt sorry for the robot and assumed that every other human would feel sorry for it as well. I'm also under the impression that the robot can suffer and has desires that are similar to a human's."
3 / 5 (2) Apr 05, 2018
A robot can suffer?

A robot is an non-living object that can mimic behaviors of living creatures, but a robot is not alive, it just might has its power turned on!!!!!!

A robot does not have a real desire either!!! humans want to reproduce, to have a child like themselves walking around and being cute. Can a robot reproduce?

A human might have the desire to drink water to keep biochemical processes running. A robot might be programmed to search for a power outlet when energy is hitting levels which are critically low, therefore what you might see is a computer program running on a machine, not a biological system displaying purposive behavior.

Machines can not have mystical experiences
Apr 05, 2018
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Apr 05, 2018
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Apr 05, 2018
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3 / 5 (2) Apr 05, 2018
of course this robot has rights. We need to propagate these robots so as to kill feminism. Women think they are so powerful now and they can do everything a man can do because of movies like WonderBroad and all the other philth from hollywood. Men are a dying species if this keeps up, and we will be left with a bunch of metrosexuals who have hands as soft as butter. SEx robots eliminate fickle women out of the picture and they can go on to live in their own feministic commune. These robots save you so much money! No birthday gifts, expensive jewelry, food, etc. WE can keep men feeling like men with these robots!
3 / 5 (2) Apr 05, 2018
These comments make it painfully obvious that sexual dysfunction is a description for many males.

Unable to deal and compromise with their perceived female inferiors.

These 'males' (no I don't think they qualify as 'men') need anything they can abuse that won't get them sent to prison. Where most of the commentators above would find themselves being treated as poorly as the women they despise.

Sure, let'm have machines to damage in a frenzy of testosteronic histrionics. Makes me laugh to think of the expression on the repairman's faces when you louts bring your sex robots in for repairs.

And the expression on your faces when you get the bill!

The cost of a date, flowers, show tickets, nice restaurant, looking better already?
1 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2018
Feminists feel the menace of the machine, very obviously...... Women of class do not feel that way, as they do not see themselves as a set of holes, because they know that they are beings of light.
5 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2018
Sure, let'm have machines to damage in a frenzy of testosteronic histrionics. Makes me laugh to think of the expression on the repairman's faces when you louts bring your sex robots in for repairs.
Hey willis I was wondering... do you think your dick pump has rights? Or the mirror you use to reflect the object of your desires?

Just curious.
not rated yet Apr 06, 2018
This has got to be a joke. Otherwise I would have to say that this world is truly going mad.
1 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2018
Oh, otto, you are such a cutiepie for a raving loon!

And z, yes...Yes, this 'Planet of the Crazy Apes' should be renamed 'Bedlam'!
5 / 5 (1) Apr 07, 2018
The article has a strange angle to it. We are in the example talking about destructive behaviour towards a non-living object. As long as such an object is in our own legal possession, this matter has nothing to do with law making and law breaking. To be sure, I am assuming that your violent behaviours are not promoted in Youtube "training videos" or otherwise leaving your private space. And that brings me to the troubling side of it. Giving in to brutality and unjustified violence and thus gross disrespect, versa oneself and/or non-living things out there in nature and our environment creates unwanted and undesirable effects for our mental state. Expect over time harm for the own psyche. No law is broken, but thinking and resulting feelings and deeds deviate from what nature recommends in our own best interest.

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