There are quite a few articles that explore the ethical and moral issues arising from the advent of this type of technology. This article is not one of them. This article is about the incremental technological steps between where we are now and where this is clearly going.
So if you want a yes or no answer to the question, “Is sex with a robot cheating?” you have to reword the question thusly: “Is sex with a surrogate, synthetic human with a convincing amount of AI capabilities cheating?” Asked that way, mostly everyone I’ve discussed this with would quickly say, “Yes.” Which raises the question, “When is this going to become an actual problem, as opposed to a hypothetical one?”
The difficulty in answering “when” is complicated by the verb “to be.” In the series, we (the audience), they (the humans who visit Westworld) and the Hosts (the synthetic humans) do not know if the Hosts are sentient. If they are sentient, then we have created artificial life. That technology will come with its own set of remarkable problems. (We’ll explore artificial life in a different article.)
That aside, if they are not sentient, then they are just mechanical devices. But this line of reasoning has gotten me into a bit of trouble.
Incremental Steps to Human-on-Robot Relationships
“Real” Westworld-style Hosts are the stuff of science fiction. (We’ll discuss what it might take to build one in a minute.) The point is, you don’t need anything like a Westworld-style Host to create a real world of ethical, moral and sexual issues.
In 2013, Joaquin Phoenix starred in Her, a movie about a man who falls in love with a natural language processing (NLP) system named Samantha. According to the Consumer Technology Association, in 2013 NLP systems could understand approximately 3 out of 4 spoken words. Today it’s just shy of 4 out of 4. That is an amazing amount of technological ground to cover in only three years.
Why do we care about NLP? Well, at the current pace of technological change, the science fiction female NLP system that Joaquin Phoenix fell in love with in the movie is just a few years from becoming science fact. We’re just waiting for AI to improve a bit – not all the way to pseudo-consciousness (however that may be defined), but just good enough to fool you. (Do some research about the Turing test if you’re truly interested in what I mean by “fool.”)
Can you fall in love with a computer? Can you have phone sex with it? La-la-la-la, I can’t hear you … don’t answer; they are rhetorical questions. But I have to ask, is a relationship with a non-sentient NLP system cheating?
When trying to qualify what “falling in love” means, most people pointed out, “If you need to fill an emotional void in your life, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing it with a human, a machine, a hobby or your work. If your partner cannot fulfill your emotional needs and you don’t disclose this reality to them, you’re cheating.”
You may or may not agree with that consensus, but this is only armchair research. I’m sure there will be many professional ethicists and scientific researchers exploring the full range of human emotions involved.