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In 1985, Teddy Ruxpin became the world's first animated toy that could talk. For many children whose real parents were devoted to "quality time" parenting, the cuddly bear served as a virtual parent, reading stories, singing songs, and expressing affection to them.
A generation later, artificial intelligence (AI) engineer Douglas Hines has unveiled "Roxxxy," a life-size doll that can also talk and express affection, but with a difference.
Roxxxy, as the name implies, is a triple-X-rated, anatomically correct robot, or "sexbot." Created to learn an owner's likes and dislikes, the 5' 7", 120-pound doll is the most interactive of its kind to date. Says Hines, Roxxxy, is "a companion. She has a personality. She hears you. She listens to you. She speaks. She feels your touch. She goes to sleep."1
This is not your uncle's Teddy Ruxpin.
A Real Girl?
From Teddy Ruxpin to "Ready" Roxxxy, advances in computer technology have led to the creation of robots that are so life-like, they make it seem possible to blur the line between human and humanoid. Add a dose of relativism, and the line is all but obliterated, as depicted in the 2007 film Lars and the Real Girl.
In this movie, the title character, Lars Lindstrom (played by Ryan Gosling), is a socially challenged man who buys a life-size doll he names Bianca for non-sexual companionship. After introducing his new "friend" to his brother and sister-in-law as a paraplegic missionary, Lars starts taking Bianca everywhere, even to church.
Family and friends are initially dumbstruck by the doll and the role it plays in Lars's life. But in time, because Bianca has become so real to him, she becomes real to them: A beautician gives Bianca a makeover; a therapist treats her for low blood pressure; a department store uses her to model clothes. One by one, members of the community come to accept Bianca as the real girl Lars believes her to be.
It is a tender story about empathy and kindness towards those we love. But it is also about the relativity of truth and the sanctity of choice: If a man believes a doll is a real person, who am I, you, or anyone else to disagree? If he chooses to have a relationship with that doll, sexual or otherwise, we should respect his choice and not venture to either criticize or correct him.
Despite Roxxxy's $7,000–$9,000 price tag, consumer demand is brisk. Since her debut in 2010, Hines has received 4,000 pre-orders for the doll. And for those desiring male "companionship," Hines's company, TrueCompanion, is developing a "Rocky" version.
To be sure, these "companions" are creating quite a stir, and not only among consumers interested in on-demand sex. People are already asking whether a married man's having sex with an android constitutes marital infidelity. (They might ask one among the growing multitude of married women who have been devastated by their husbands' activities with the 2-D mistresses of cyberporn.)
California attorney Sonya Ziaja has been contemplating some of the potential legal wrangles sexbots present.2 For example, in a conference paper she asks, "If the doll's owner becomes enamored with the doll, and leaves his spouse, can the spouse sue as she or he would be able to if the interloper had been human? And who would be sued? The manufacturer? Inventor? The AI itself?"3
The AI itself? Could Lady Justice's blindfold become opaque even to the distinctions between man and machine? Maybe so, if David Levy is right.
The Next Advance
David Levy is an AI expert who predicts that, within the next forty years, marriages between humans and androids will be legally recognized. His prediction is based on his read of history.
Levy notes that, whereas "one hundred years ago, interracial marriage and same-sex marriages were illegal in the United States," the former has been "legal now for 50 years" and the latter is recognized in six states.4 By assuming a rational and moral equivalence between interracial marriage and so-called same-sex marriage, although none exists, Levy is able to extrapolate to the next taboo-breaking advance: "There has been this trend in marriage where each partner gets to make their own choice of who they want to be with. The question is not if [man-machine marriage] will happen, but when."
And the when, he beams confidently, will come "much earlier than you think." (If so, I predict that the advance will be preceded by the push for a new class of protected citizens: "Technosexuals"—persons whose sexual preference is for androids.)
I sense a raised eyebrow from folks trusting in the guardrails of common sense and collective reason—wide-eyed souls like me, who, little more than a decade ago, could never have imagined that same-sex "marriage" would be seriously entertained, much less legally recognized.
Yet, once marriage is accepted as a social convention rather than a natural institution, there is no basis for excluding any union that man can conceive of. "Well, what's the harm with that?" someone is sure to ask.
Institution vs. Convention
Marriage is innate to our humanness, patterned after the most basic and visible feature of human nature—the hand-in-glove architecture of sexuality designed specifically for procreation. By design, marriage is the most natural of all human institutions; by function, it is the most essential, serving as the foundation for the building blocks of society.
The matrimonial covenant, uniting a man and a woman in a lasting bond, is uniquely suited to create stable families—in which children are attached to their biological parents, who, intrinsically, have their best interests at heart—and to safeguard society from the pathologies produced by non-marital sex (like divorce, STDs, and out-of-wedlock births).
Marriage affirms the dignity of man as a moral agent who is endowed with procreative powers and the ability to reserve those powers for the common good in a life-welcoming, life-nurturing union. It embodies a moral norm essential to both the well-being of children and a well-ordered society.
This moral norm, however, offends the sensibilities of individuals who self-identify according to their sexual desires (homosexual, bisexual, transgendered) rather than their human design (male, female). Such individuals view marriage, with its moral norm, as an affront to their personhood. In their way of thinking, marriage invalidates them as persons because it prevents their desires from receiving social validation. Their solution: replace the institution with a convention that gives primacy not to truth, but to the acknowledgement and affirmation of a particular identity group.
What for convenience I will call "convention marriage" is a denial of human nature and an attack on man's dignity. It denigrates man by reducing him to a stimulus-response organism driven by the pursuit of sensual satisfaction. Infinitely malleable to accommodate any type or number of partners, this kind of so-called marriage is not about promoting the well-being of children but the well-feeling of adults.
All About Approval
Contrary to what the social architects would have us believe, the motive behind the push for convention marriage has less to do with procuring the privileges currently reserved for married couples than with winning social approval of a chosen lifestyle. For, as recent history demonstrates, once marriage is redefined to include a new group, such as same-sex couples, surprisingly few of the newly eligible individuals get married. The state of Massachusetts presents a case in point.
In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state in the U.S. to recognize same-sex marriage. Since then, 10,000 same-sex couples have been married in the state.5 Yet, according to the 2010 U.S. Census data6 and estimates from the Williams Institute,7 a pro-LGBT think-tank, Massachusetts is home to roughly 100,000 gay and lesbian adults. In other words, only 20 percent of marriageable same-sex individuals have married in the seven years since legalization. That compares to 72 percent nationwide8 for heterosexual adults (51 percent currently married, and 21 percent who have ever been married).
Katherine Franke, a lesbian activist and law professor, wrote a piece for the New York Times explaining why so few homosexuals take advantage of their "right" to marry. Shortly before a same-sex marriage bill was passed in New York last summer, Franke confessed that while she and her homosexual friends welcomed the symbolic importance of the legislation, many were "not ready to abandon [their] nonmarital ways of loving."9
Yet, once marriage becomes a symbol of social approval "to love whomever you want," as we often hear, it affects more than a fringe subculture. (Yes, fringe, as the number of married same-sex individuals in Massachusetts amounts to less than one percent of the adult population of the state.)
Eight years ago, writer Stanley Kurtz observed that, a decade after same-sex marriage became legal in Scandinavia, there was a 25 percent increase in co-habitation and a 60 percent out-of-wedlock birthrate in some Scandinavian countries.10
Here at home, the Pew Center recently categorized the 51 percent of adults currently married in the U.S. as "a record low," down from 72 percent in 1960. And in 2007, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) reported that the out-of-wedlock birthrate hit 40 percent, up from 18 percent in 1980, with the "sharpest rise [occurring] from 2002 to 2007."11
It should come as no surprise that when marriage no longer means what it has always meant, fewer people see the advantages of getting married, especially when non-marital sex is an option. Predictably, an increase in non-marital sex leads to increased out-of-wedlock births with all the concomitant problems of fatherless families, single-parent homes, poverty, and child abuse, neglect and delinquency.
Thus, it is no coincidence that the trends reported by Kurtz, Pew, and the NCHS are coterminous with the cultural drift toward increased acceptance of non-marital sex. If the drift continues unabated, another convention will be created to bestow social approval on those tortured souls who are "romancing" their robots. As David Levy would put it, it's not a question of if, but when. •
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