catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 5 :: 2010.03.05 — 2010.03.18


Roxxxy the Sex Robot

Incarnation of technological salvation

For unto us is born this day, near the city of New York, a sex robot.  At this year’s Adult Entertainment Expo engineer Douglas Hines unveiled Roxxxy, a sex toy with artificial intelligence and downloadable personalities made to order by a New Jersey company called True Companion.  Hines began working on the idea after his friend died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. “I promised myself I would create a program to store his personality,” Hines said, “and that became the foundation for Roxxxy True Companion.” 

A product offering immortal personality is clearly well suited for the sex industry. Many have shown a willingness to pay $7,000 and more for the cheap companionship Roxxxy offers.  But the robot’s appeal must not be understood only in sexual terms.  The birth of the sex robot is part of a religious phenomenon that goes back centuries.

David F. Noble traces this phenomenon in The Religion of Technology:  The Divinity of Man and The Spirit of Invention, claiming the technological explosion of the last few hundred years is driven by the Christian era.  According to the author, the eschatological views that drove early Christians to martyrdom also inspired Christopher Columbus to discover a New World.  This theology of the end times developed into a modern belief that technology would ultimately bring heaven to earth. 

A Renaissance view of the relationship between humanity and divinity also influenced European society as it moved from a medieval to a modern world.  People made in the image of God were seen as master-craftsmen like God.  To Western Europeans of that time, the earth began to look more and more like a chaotic mess waiting to be formed by human hands.  All arts — including the mechanical — were seen as reflections of the divine image in man and were therefore considered reflections of their makers. 

It was this Renaissance understanding of art reflecting the artist that influenced Karl Marx’s criticism of the capitalist system. The relationship between humans and their work is so essential for Marx that humanness itself is threatened when people are cut off from the products of their labor.  Human doing and making is not like the work of animals, Marx protests.  Animals labor only out of necessity.  Humans, however, are capable of free productive activity and are therefore able to see themselves when they gaze upon the work of their hands.

But Marx doesn’t see human nature the way many saw it during the Renaissance.  Marx does not view the mechanical arts as reflections of God’s image in humankind.  Now technology reveals humans alone.  Lee Hardy sums up Marx’s perspective in The Fabric of This World:  “Instead of contemplating God, we are to find our fulfillment in contemplating ourselves in the works of our own hands.” 

By the time Marx came along, modern science, according to Noble, was in the habit of “seeking not merely to know creation as it was made but also to make it themselves, actually to participate in creation and hence know it firsthand.”  This was the desire of people like Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and August Comte who influenced the Freemason’s movement which, according to Noble, was a movement of ritualistic mysticism for technological engineers.  The zeal of the Freemasons and other believers in the salvation of technology can be seen throughout American development, from Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Edison, the founders of MIT and the author of the most popular utopian novel of 19th Century America, Edward Bellamy (Looking Backward).           

In his introduction, Noble explains why he deems it so important to know the religious roots of modern technology.  “The legacy of the religion of technology is still with us, all of us,” the author says.  “Like the technologists themselves, we routinely expect far more from our artificial contrivances than mere convenience, comfort, or even survival.  We demand deliverance.”  Noble hopes that “we might learn to disabuse ourselves of the other-worldly dreams that lie at the heart of our technological enterprise, in order to begin to redirect our astonishing capabilities toward more worldly and humane ends.” 

Though Noble’s effort to show the historic roots of the modern religion of technology is helpful, his overall goal to rid technology of religion is impossible.  As long as we are human, we will never be removed from “other-worldly dreams.”  We are religious creatures.  Our doing and making will always be a response to a call to be human.  What we do is always motivated by a particular view of the world to come, or the world we wish will come. 

So instead of denying something of our humanness, it would be better to ask what our technologies reveal about our hopes for the world.  What do the works of our hands in the 21st Century say about us?  Why do we spend time in this world developing Roxxxy the sex robot, Second Life, military drones, iPods and robotic exoskeletons?  How do these technological innovations reflect our beliefs about ourselves?  

In an online interview, Peter Asaro of Rutgers University reveals how belief about human nature drives technology.  Asaro suggests robot soldiers offer hopeful possibilities for future just wars.  “We might be able to design robotic soldiers that could be more ethical than human soldiers,” Asaro imagines.  “Robots might be better at distinguishing civilians from combatants; or at choosing targets with lower risk of collateral damage, or understanding the implications of their actions. Or they might even be programmed with cultural or linguistic knowledge that is impractical to train every human soldier to understand.”

It would seem at first glance that Asaro is repeating the common modernist belief that humans ought to be more like machines — objective, standardized, logical.  This belief that machines can do things better than humans was put into practice in the 19th Century when Frederick W. Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management introduced techniques promoting standardization of the work force in order to increase productivity.  Taylor believed greater efficiency would increase laborers’ quality of life.  According to Taylor’s theory, if workers were more machine-like they would waste less energy and gain the financial benefits of the company’s increased profits. 

Unfortunately Taylor didn’t take into account the fact that according to the economic system in place, sharing the wealth was not considered the responsibility of large industrial corporations.  Such a trait may have been common among people in a gift-giving economy, but distributing wealth was the work of an invisible, not a human hand in the mechanism Adam Smith’s followers described.  The end of the19th Century, therefore, appears to be an age when human needs were eclipsed by the needs of the profit-making machine.  And so the 20th Century saw a backlash against Taylor’s methods, or at least an awareness of its limitations, in the form of workers’ rights movements. 

As we transition into the 21st Century, the focus seems to have shifted from making humans more machine-like to making machines more human.  And this is indeed what Asaro hopes will happen with the increasing use of robots in the military.  Asaro’s more contemporary view of the machine can be detected in his praise for Ron Arkin, a roboethicist at Georgia Institute of Technology"

[Ron Arkin] thinks that because robots can be programmed to be more inclined to self-sacrifice, they will also be able to avoid making overly hasty decisions without enough information. Ron also designed architecture for robots to override their orders when they see them as being in conflict with humanitarian laws or the rules of engagement. I think this is possible in principle, but only if we really invest time and effort into ensuring that robots really do act this way.

Asaro has high hopes for humanizing robots, but what kind of human does he believe they should be?

It’s clear from the interview Asaro wants robots to be the kind of human beings whose ethics are based on Kant’s categorical imperative.  “I think we are now starting to see robots that are capable of taking morally significant actions, and we’re beginning to see the design of systems that choose these actions based on moral reasoning,” Asaro says.  “In this sense, they are moral, but not really autonomous because they are not coming up with the morality themselves…or for themselves.”  Asaro’s hope seems to be that robotics will be able to achieve what humans failed to achieve with the Enlightenment: the immortal, autonomous rational human being.

Certainly anyone purchasing Roxxxy does not shell out 7K on a sex robot out of a desire to invest in the furtherance of the modern Enlightenment project.  But it should be noted: the mindset leading to the enslavement of other human beings during the modern age still drives technological innovation in the 21st Century.  These new technologies offer the promise of continuing slave practices without harming human beings.  But even though advances in robotics would eliminate the use of human slaves, the real danger continues to be the spiritual harm done to “Masters” in a slave system! 

The dominant beliefs of an age always determine what is invented and how technologies develop.  And technology itself helps determine what we believe about humanity and divinity.  For thousands of years philosophers made determinations about the uniqueness of human beings by contrasting them with animals.  Now that Roxxxy has arrived, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, the call to question our humanness in relation to technology gains a new dimension…and regains its sense of urgency. 

In the age of the True Companion, we are compelled to ask how the failings or limitations of human companionship in this world have led to such a bold other-worldly fantasy.  How is it that we have come to accept the machine as a valid substitute for the human?  Is this journey toward technological substitution truly the evolution of humans toward divine power and control?  Or are we headed down a path of self-destruction as humans caught up in our own delusion, rebelliously denying our dependence on the Creator?  So far we have not been able to answer these questions.  But we hope to create robots who can some day.

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