Volume 23, Issue 3, 2019
Social Robots, Emotions, and Social Cognition
Janna van Grunsven, Aimee van Wynsberghe
A Semblance of Aliveness
How the Peculiar Embodiment of Sex Robots Will Matter
While the design of sex robots is still in the early stages, the social implications of the potential proliferation of sex robots into our lives has been heavily debated by activists and scholars from various disciplines. What is missing in the current debate on sex robots and their potential impact on human social relations is a targeted look at the boundedness and bodily expressivity typically characteristic of humans, the role that these dimensions of human embodiment play in enabling reciprocal human interactions, and the manner in which this contrasts with sex robot-human interactions. Through a fine-grained discussion of these themes, rooted in fruitful but largely untapped resources from the field of enactive embodied cognition, we explore the unique embodiment of sex robots. We argue that the embodiment of the sex robot is constituted by what we term restricted expressivity and a lack of bodily boundedness and that this is the locus of negative but also potentially positive implications. We discuss the possible benefits that these two dimensions of embodiment may have for people within a specific demographic, namely some persons on the autism spectrum. Our preliminary conclusion—that the benefits and the downsides of sex robots reside in the same capability of the robot, its restricted expressivity and lack of bodily boundedness as we call it—demands we take stock of future developments in the design of sex robot embodiment. Given the importance of evidence-based research pertaining to sex robots in particular, as reinforced by Nature (2017) for drawing correlations and making claims, the analysis is intended to set the stage for future research.