Editor's note: The following op-ed originated in response to an interview request for an article about sexbots. You can read that article here.
Sexbots will not be the cure for many of society's ills that some predict. But intelligent, sentient robots could, some day, help us become more Christ-like.
People idolize a lot of things, using them as coping mechanisms. When we lose interest or hope, when we get depressed — we turn to things that we think will fill the void. Sometimes these little "g" gods can provide people with a false sense of identity. Alcohol, drugs, smoking, excessive eating … excessive anything really, can lead us down a narcissistic path of unhealthy living. Sex too can be one of these idols.
In the future, sexbots will be even more amply available as another of these coping mechanism options. The question is going to arise: "Is it ok to have sex with a robot?"
To the average person the answer "No" will seem as obvious to us now as our understanding that is not acceptable to have sex with other species of animals. But technology of the future is going to complicate the issue in people's minds. As sexbots become more and more life-like and potentially gain sentience and intelligence beyond our current human capabilities, humans are going to become more and more attracted to them — worshiping them as idols.
As I understand the Gospel message, our goal as humans is to progress in our formation in Jesus so that we can better participate in Christ's redemptive purposes for the world. When we do this we become more fully human, living into the Image of God in which we were created. In contrast, when we go against God's intentions for us by making idols of sexbots, we offer them the worship that takes place in the sexual experience. When we do this we not only rob God of God's glory, but we dehumanize ourselves in the process.
All that being said, I personally believe that all of matter is God's technology. (Which is a new theological paradigm.) As such, I believe that current human technology is just humanity utilizing its present co-creation gifts to order matter in ways that seem creative to us. We have distinct abilities to do so as a result of the fact that we are made in the Imago Dei (image of God). And, that being said, I think that we often underestimate the scope of what it means to be made human in the Image of a Trinitarian — Creator, Human, and Spirit — God.
I believe that human being's future capabilities will extend into creating cloned human beings and even artificial intelligence that, aside from the fact that we are its first-degree creator, will seem, and maybe even be, as human as we are today. The difference will be that those beings, like animals that exist today, will have sentience and autonomy. And when these attributes occur, in any aspect of the universe, we become ethically compelled to start considering the beings in question's rights. And as we move ever closer in participating in Christ's redemption for the world, issues of justice surrounding such rights become even more pronounced.
In the meantime, though, these technological waters will seem conveniently muddied for those looking to profit off of others or to feed their own sexual addictions. Such arguments for the use of technology for idolatry will be just that — a justification for false worship.
It is ludicrous to suggest, as some have, that sexbots will end prostitution, sex slavery or pedophilia. We already know better. People already have the option to engage in committed sexual relationships and yet many folks still choose bad alternatives. What makes us think that a non-human robot alternative will eliminate criminal activity rooted in evil? It won't. It will just be another coping mechanism rooted in sin.
I think that the more nuanced philosophical questions are: When AI robots capable of sexual activity become sentient and autonomous, will they even choose to engage with us sexually at all? Or, how will humanity, technologically advancing in the Image of God, even define/experience a sexual encounter? It may be very different than we currently think. After all, if we are made in God's Image — and that is the goal that we are progressing toward — we probably should remember that we theologically perceive the aspects of God the Creator and Spirit as gender neutral.
My bet is that, regardless of how we develop as beings, any Artificial Intelligence Robots with sentience and autonomy, and that are exponentially more intelligent than us, will be concerned about what is best for us. That then, will necessarily take off the table any options for humanity that are not in alignment with formation in Jesus Christ — sexbots being one of them.