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Ethan Zuckerman: So, wel­come back from lunch, every­one. If you attend a lot of con­fer­ences, as I do, you know that this slot imme­di­ate­ly after lunch is the slot that’s real­ly hard to speak in. Because every­one just wants to be hav­ing the con­ver­sa­tion they were hav­ing over lunch. Everyone’s in a food coma. And so we thought we would com­pli­cate mat­ters by tak­ing both the hard­est slot to fill in a con­fer­ence and then tak­ing on per­haps the most fraught top­ic that we’re going to work on today. You’ll remem­ber that when I start­ed this I said that part of our goal in all of this was to make sure that we made every­body in the room uncom­fort­able. My guess is that this top­ic is going to get a lot of peo­ple on that front.

One of the big things that we’re going to talk about here is para­phil­ia. We’re going to talk about sex­u­al deviance. We’re going to talk about the prob­lem of peo­ple whose sex­u­al desires lead to attrac­tion to chil­dren, lead to attrac­tion towards vio­lent sex, lead to sex­u­al trans­gres­sion in one fash­ion or anoth­er. To be real­ly clear, we’re not show­ing explic­it imagery in this pan­el. But this is a pan­el that may well be trig­ger­ing for peo­ple. If you’re a sur­vivor of sex­u­al assault, if this is an issue that you know that you have a hard time with, it’s a beau­ti­ful day. I would encour­age you to enjoy the bal­cony, to have anoth­er con­ver­sa­tion, to take a break for about an hour. 

But we’re going to try to deal with this very chal­leng­ing top­ic because it’s a top­ic that has lots of real-world impli­ca­tions. There’s some­thing like eleven thou­sand reg­is­tered sex offend­ers in the state of Massachusetts. There are thir­teen hun­dred at the moment serv­ing time for sex crimes. Perhaps most chal­leng­ing, there are sev­er­al hun­dred peo­ple in the state who are in indef­i­nite civ­il con­fine­ment. And the rea­son for this is that these are sex offend­ers who have com­plet­ed their prison sen­tences, but there are con­cerns about releas­ing them into the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion because there’s fears of recidi­vism. And Professor Arkin and I have been real­ly try­ing to research this ques­tion of what are the sta­tis­tics on recidi­vism? What’s the rate on this? We, just doing some Googling over din­ner last night, found num­bers rang­ing from 10% to 50% for con­vict­ed pedophiles, which sug­gests more than any­thing else that there just isn’t a ton of research on this. When you have a range that wide, it sug­gests that we know very lit­tle indeed.

One thing that we do know from research in this field is that most peo­ple who are afflict­ed with pedophil­ia are active­ly try­ing to fight these urges. And when they talk to ther­a­pists, what they end up say­ing is that they’re try­ing very very hard not to act on the urges that they’re suf­fer­ing from. And they do describe it as suf­fer­ing from.” And so the top­ic that we’re look­ing at, which is real­ly this ques­tion of whether there are ways of treat­ing para­phil­ias with com­put­er imagery, with vir­tu­al real­i­ty, pos­si­bly with inti­mate robot­ics (which is a term that I had­n’t heard until the oth­er day), this is the top­ic that we’re going to try to take on here. So, it’s a chal­leng­ing top­ic. We’re lucky to have an incred­i­ble set of peo­ple will­ing to take on this issue here with us on stage. 

To the very far side of me, my friend Dr. Kate Darling. She’s a legal schol­ar who looks at a wide vari­ety of sub­jects, but late­ly has been look­ing at sort of real-world impli­ca­tions of human-robot inter­ac­tions. And not look­ing to the dis­tant future and Asimov’s Law, but real­ly look­ing at right now. What are we doing in our inter­ac­tions with robots? How does this work? How do we inter­act with one another?

Slightly clos­er, my col­league and friend Christina Couch who works in the Comparative Media Studies depart­ment, is also an accom­plished tech­nol­o­gy jour­nal­ist and free­lance writer who has writ­ten on this ques­tion of com­put­er imagery, vir­tu­al real­i­ty, and how it fits in with ques­tions of paraphilias. 

And then imme­di­ate­ly to my left, Professor Ron Arkin from the Georgia Tech College of Computing. He’s some­one who’s done exten­sive work on robot­ics and robot ethics. And while he’s nor­mal­ly some­one that we bring to the table to talk about ques­tions like autonomous killer robots, he’s also some­one who’s going to talk with us on this sub­ject as well. But since Dr. Darling put this pan­el togeth­er, she’s going to lead us off.

Kate Darling: Don’t wor­ry, I don’t have any slides. So as Ethan men­tioned I’m a researcher here at the Lab, and I wear two dif­fer­ent paths. But some­thing that I’m very intense­ly inter­est­ed in is the field of human-robot inter­ac­tion, so the study of how we behave around robots. And I would say that the sin­gle most fas­ci­nat­ing thing to me about robots is that peo­ple will treat them as though they’re alive.

Now, of course every­one knows that robots are just machines. They’re just pro­grammed to do things. But sub­con­scious­ly when we inter­act with robots, we treat them as though they’re alive. And for many of us who work in human-robot inter­ac­tion, a lot of us believe that this isn’t just a mat­ter of peo­ple get­ting used to a new tech­nol­o­gy that they’re unac­cus­tomed to but rather some­thing that’s bio­log­i­cal. So, our brains may be bio­log­i­cal­ly hard­wired to project intent and life onto any move­ment in our phys­i­cal space that seems autonomous to us. And there’s a whole body of research that is doc­u­ment­ing how strong­ly we respond to the cues that these life­like machines give us.

And the rea­son this is cool is because it gives us this real­ly inter­est­ing lens through which we can study human psy­chol­o­gy. So for exam­ple, I did a study here at the Media Lab with Palash Nandy where we found that peo­ple who have low empath­ic con­cern for oth­ers, they will treat a robot dif­fer­ent­ly than peo­ple who have high empath­ic con­cern. So, we can use robots to mea­sure human empa­thy. And in this con­text, robots— I mean the fact that peo­ple treat them sort of like a liv­ing thing makes them poten­tial­ly a real­ly great tool to study and explore sex­u­al behav­iors and sex­u­al urges and try to under­stand those bet­ter. And that in itself is very use­ful as a research ques­tion since we know so lit­tle about this.

But there are actu­al­ly more ques­tions that I’m inter­est­ed in. So, one thing that I want to know is not just can we mea­sure or observe peo­ple’s behav­ior with robots, but can we change it? So, could we use robots ther­a­peu­ti­cal­ly to help peo­ple man­age their behav­ior, con­trol their urges, that type of thing. And anoth­er ques­tion I have which I think is very impor­tant is, once child-size sex robots hit the mar­ket, which they will, is the use of these robots going to be a healthy out­let for peo­ple to express these sex­u­al urges and thus pro­tect chil­dren and reduce child abuse? Or is the use of these robots going to encour­age, nor­mal­ize, prop­a­gate, that behav­ior and endan­ger chil­dren in these peo­ple’s environments?

And we just don’t know the answer to this. We have no idea what direc­tion this goes in, and we can’t research it. Because aside from the fact that there’s this incred­i­ble social stig­ma, of course, to doing work like this or even talk­ing about it, and not to men­tion the lack of research fund­ing, there are also report­ing require­ments in the United States that make it vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble to work with peo­ple who haven’t already been con­vict­ed of sex crimes and often have been in jail for them. So you have a very dif­fi­cult and very skewed sam­ple of the pop­u­la­tion that we need to be studying.

And I under­stand why peo­ple want report­ing require­ments. But I do won­der whether they’re doing more harm than good in these cas­es. Because as much as peo­ple want these sex­u­al urges—the urges, not the act—to be a moral fail­ing, they are a psy­cho­log­i­cal issue, and if we real­ly care about help­ing chil­dren we might need to be a lit­tle bit more pre­emp­tive about this.

So I’ll just fin­ish by say­ing that courts all over the world have been strug­gling since the ear­ly mid-2000s with the ques­tion of vir­tu­al child pornog­ra­phy. So, com­put­er gen­er­at­ed images that aren’t actu­al chil­dren. Courts don’t know what to do with these because no child has been harmed in mak­ing them. And the tech­nol­o­gy that brings this to a more extreme, more phys­i­cal, more real lev­el, is on the hori­zon. And while high-quality sex robots are not actu­al­ly com­ing as quick­ly as many peo­ple think they are, they’re com­ing more quick­ly than soci­ety’s will­ing to have this con­ver­sa­tion. So, I’m very grate­ful to be here today in a room full of real­ly smart peo­ple who care about mak­ing the world a bet­ter place to dis­cuss this very sen­si­tive, very dif­fi­cult, and I think very impor­tant issue. 

Zuckerman: So Kate, I just want you to unpack some­thing a lit­tle bit, because it went by very quick­ly. Child pornog­ra­phy ends up being pro­hib­it­ed for at least two rea­sons. One is that we don’t think such a thing should exist, or that’s been a soci­etal deci­sion. But the more impor­tant rea­son in many ways is that a child is harmed and exploit­ed in the course of pro­duc­ing these images. 3D mod­el­ing, the abil­i­ty to cre­ate dig­i­tal imagery, starts rais­ing this pos­si­bil­i­ty of vir­tu­al child pornog­ra­phy. What’s US law’s take on this thus far, and are there oth­er jurisdictions—because you’re not just a lawyer but an inter­na­tion­al legal scholar—are there oth­er juris­dic­tions that have end­ed up han­dling this issue of vir­tu­al child porn differently?

Darling: Yeah. So, it’s com­pli­cat­ed. In the United States we had, I think in 96, an act that for­bade computer-generated images of chil­dren, and the Supreme Court struck that down in… Do you remem­ber when it was?

Christina Couch: I think it’s 2002.

Darling: In 2002, the Supreme Court said that there was a fun­da­men­tal free speech issue if you’re crim­i­nal­iz­ing just computer-generated images and not an act that actu­al­ly harms peo­ple. And so they end­ed up strik­ing down two of the pro­vi­sions of this act. Since then, there’s been a new act called PROTECT that was passed, which now pro­hibits computer-generated images, or car­toons or whatever—it actu­al­ly explic­it­ly says cartoons—but only if they’re obscene. So they’ve kind of shift­ed away from the child piece towards obscen­i­ty, which is a very con­vo­lut­ed, very com­pli­cat­ed thing that’s not well-defined and kind depends on com­mu­ni­ty stan­dards. So the US has strug­gled because we have such strong First Amendment rights.

Other coun­tries have flat out banned this, like Germany, I believe. And then oth­er coun­tries like Holland have just strug­gled with cas­es where they want to ban it, so they find some oth­er rea­son. Like there was a video that was teach­ing young girls to per­form fel­la­tio, and they end­ed up crim­i­nal­iz­ing that based on the fact that it was tar­get­ed at young girls and try­ing to teach them improp­er behav­ior or unde­sir­able behav­iors rather than the fact that it was a car­toon that depict­ed girls. So it’s very com­pli­cat­ed and I think courts haven’t fig­ured out a good way to strike that balance.

Zuckerman: So, I think we’re going to get back to this ques­tion of what the legal sta­tus is, but we’re also going to be wrestling with this ques­tion of what is exploita­tive of of chil­dren, and what is some­thing that’s ille­gal­ized because it’s uncom­fort­able, it’s social­ly unde­sir­able. And how does that work in with ques­tions of what might be ther­a­peu­tic, what might be help­ful. But I want to pass it to Professor Arkin.

Ron Arkin: I do have slides. I gave a talk just recent­ly in Italy, a paper writ­ten joint­ly with a col­league of mine from Georgia Tech, a philoso­pher named Jason Borenstein. But I’m not going to give that talk here. Just to let you know that I have a few things I’ve reused from it. 

And I’ve been involved quite some­time. I’ve been a roboti­cist for close to—maybe even over—thirty years as well. And I do work in sex, lies, and vio­lence I guess is the best way to describe it. There’s plen­ty of mon­ey, in some ways, for deal­ing with lethal autonomous weapons sys­tems. And the US depart­ment of defense does­n’t do that specif­i­cal­ly, but I work on eth­i­cal aspects of that. But that’s nei­ther here nor there for today.

I also, sup­pos­ed­ly, accord­ing to—that was New York mag­a­zine—taught robots how to lie at one point, and that got us a small piece on The Daily Show, among oth­er things as well in terms of the ques­tions of what are you doing with these sorts of things. But we weren’t for­bid­den, and we’re still doing work in robot decep­tion. But I’m not talk­ing about that today.

What I am talk­ing about is a place where there is no mon­ey to be able to get this kind of research, which is in the broad­er aspects of this. And so this notion of inti­mate robot­ics (Which actu­al­ly is an out­growth of work that Genevieve Bell at Intel did many years ago in an ubi­comp con­fer­ence on inti­mate com­put­ing. I know there was some work here in the Media Lab also that was por­trayed in that case.) deals with more than just sex. Sex toys and sex machines have been around since man and women have been around as well, too. That’s noth­ing new. That’s not what I’m wor­ried about. And this is my sec­ond great­est con­cern with the impacts upon soci­ety. The first again is the lethal autonomous weapons sys­tems which is hap­pen­ing now. This one is about to hap­pen or is hap­pen­ing as we go. But I worked with Sony for ten years and Sony Aibo. On Qrio as well, which were these small plat­forms and have patents in robot emo­tions as well.

So the ques­tion is, we know how to (and you guys know as well, too) at least many here, know how to make peo­ple fall in love with these kinds of plat­forms. Now for a small dog… You can talk about pet psy­chother­a­py and oth­er aspects as well to it, there are clear­ly ben­e­fi­cial roles. But what if we start doing it where we cross this prox­emic bound­ary. Instead of socio­con­sul­tive space or a famil­iar space, but we get into the inti­mate space where these sys­tems start to engage with us more and more deeply?

And so there are many ques­tions which I share. I spend a week with my under­grad­u­ate class in robots in soci­ety talk­ing about this par­tic­u­lar top­ic, and these are the kinds of things. I mean, it’s not just a ques­tion for sex deviants. Do you become a deviant if you engage in sex with a robot? I mean, what does it real­ly mean if you actu­al­ly start get­ting involved with this hunk of met­al and plas­tic and get­ting it on? That’s an inter­est­ing ques­tion itself. The points that I’m also inter­est­ed in the con­text of the premise for this par­tic­u­lar ses­sion, can it serve kind of like methadone for these sex offend­ers, pedophiles, and the like, as well? Will it help to sub­li­mate their desires? We don’t know. This is a research ques­tion, and it needs to be explored.

And the cost if we don’t explore it is intol­er­a­bly high. Whether the recidi­vism rate is 10% or 50%, that’s 10% or 50% too much. And the point is if these peo­ple, which we choose to do as a soci­ety, are released back into soci­ety, there will be more vic­tims. Let’s just face that fact. And we need to find a way to cope with that. And this is poten­tial­ly one. We don’t want to make the world worse, either, as a con­se­quence of that. So there’s a lot of issues, just as there are with weapons sys­tems, asso­ci­at­ed with these sorts of things. 

So, this whole notion of talk­ing about this is just in many cas­es off the board. There was a love and sex with robots work­shop at a com­put­ing enter­tain­ment meet­ing that Malaysia came and shut down that con­fer­ence as well. They called it ridicu­lous, but I think it was more than just ridicu­lous from their per­spec­tive, it’s taboo. It is com­plete­ly taboo to talk about these par­tic­u­lar issues. And I thank you for this par­tic­u­lar forum to start to raise these par­tic­u­lar ques­tions with this audi­ence and with those that are not in the room as well.

The point is, many of you here are famil­iar I’m sure with the Uncanny Valley. That’s prob­a­bly noth­ing new to you. But we are start­ing, some peo­ple, and I’ll show Ishiguro’s work as well, that come out of the val­ley of zom­bies at the bot­tom of that par­tic­u­lar chart. Interesting, I was think­ing about that the oth­er day. It’s a two-dimensional chart. One deals with behav­iors, and the oth­er deals with the mor­phol­o­gy or the shape or the appear­ance of the robot. The appear­ance we’re get­ting pret­ty good at, although not tac­tile and not with tem­per­a­ture con­trol and oth­er things like that as well. But behav­ior can still be a prob­lem. And the bot­tom of that is kin­da like zombie-like, and so necrophiles might be down in that par­tic­u­lar lev­el, if we real­ly want to talk about the breadth of abuse that occurs with­in humanity.

This is Ishiguro’s lat­est work. I’ll have the plea­sure of vis­it­ing his lab­o­ra­to­ry in September, which I have not done. These are not sex robots, but he does have exten­sive fund­ing from Japan to con­tin­ue this par­tic­u­lar work, and he has a com­pa­ny as well to deal with these par­tic­u­lar kinds of plat­forms. It’s quite remarkable. 

In the inter­est of time I will just move ahead and show you what the real state of the art is com­mer­cial­ly, which is kind of…not there. Let’s take a look at that. That’s Roxxxy over there, which actu­al­ly sup­pos­ed­ly—sup­pos­ed­ly—has AI because it can chat with you and tell you the base­ball scores and oth­er things as fore­play. So that’s the notion of that par­tic­u­lar robot.

The VR Robot as you see has a VR head and it has an arm which is doing what you think that arm is prob­a­bly doing in that case. And oth­er aspects as well deal with papers and oth­ers have been con­sid­ered how the pros­ti­tu­tion indus­try will pros­per through the use of robot dolls, and many robot lovers. And many say this is a good thing for women because it will free pros­ti­tutes and the like. And oth­ers are say­ing it’s a bad thing because it’ll end the age-old pro­fes­sion. So, I don’t have a posi­tion on that. I’m just try­ing to tell you what’s com­ing down the pike.

Now this was a good arti­cle that was writ­ten by The Atlantic a while back. There is a com­pa­ny in Japan. I think it’s [Trottla], some­thing like that. I’ve actu­al­ly been in con­tact with the guy. I asked him if I could use some pic­tures for this talk and I decid­ed against it because, for the very rea­son I might end up being accused of child pornog­ra­phy, of hav­ing pic­tures of robot child dolls on that. But his moti­va­tion, report­ed­ly, and in the email mes­sage, is that he wants to help pedophiles. He wants to both reduce the urges, and he wants to help the vic­tims as well. So, this com­pa­ny can lead to a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent things.

One, if you look at the right side there, one of those robots was deliv­ered to Canada. The guy was arrest­ed and is await­ing tri­al. So what is…is it a crime? I mean, this is not just a com­put­er graph­ic image. It’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly based on any real child. But…what do we do with this? And so if you talk about methadone again, that’s prescription-oriented. Maybe there are cer­tain peo­ple that would war­rant this par­tic­u­lar case. And it would, in my esti­ma­tion, war­rant strong reg­u­la­tion and con­trol and not just be avail­able for the gen­er­al pub­lic. That to me would be the wrong answer.

But even more­so, there is the— Kathleen Richardson has start­ed the Campaign Against Sex Robots. You may have heard about the cam­paign against killer robots. Well this is kind of mod­eled after that. Not quite as big. But they had a state­ment on the pro­duc­tion of child sex dolls, and they said basi­cal­ly Japan should shut down this par­tic­u­lar guy. And we should­n’t do it. It’s a pre­emp­tive ban. That’s what the killer robots, as well. We don’t want these kinds of robots. And so if you believe that, there’s an orga­ni­za­tion which you can sign up and join.

My big­ger con­cerns are how it affects our rela­tion­ships with each oth­er. Having these devices poten­tial­ly… And you’ve seen shows like, maybe some of you saw the TV show, I don’t even know if it’s been renewed, Humans, which had a robot which had an adult mode which the hus­band found and turned on and caused kin­da trou­ble in the rela­tion­ship over time. But Ex Machina, of course. And Blade Runner. I mean, we see this all time in Hollywood. But we can’t talk about it in the real world, which is real­ly strange in some ways. 

So there’s these notions of how the future is going to be affect­ed by these sorts of things. One sci­en­tif­ic study came out of Stanford just recent­ly. And it talks about peo­ple becom­ing aroused if they touch a robot­’s pri­vate parts. This is a gener­ic Nao robot. I’ve got two in the labs. And I used to pick it up at any place which I could get a hold of, but now I’m a lit­tle con­cerned if I do. But these are the kinds of plat­forms that can be used to show that peo­ple, if you’re told it’s a pri­vate part such as, what does it say? Please touch my but­tock,” in this par­tic­u­lar case, peo­ple might feel uncom­fort­able, and they report­ed this. But they report­ed this, in one of the most obscure con­fer­ences I ever heard of. And that’s prob­a­bly because it’s not ready to be sub­mit­ted. I could not find an attri­bu­tion of a fund­ing source, either. So I’m not sure it was nec­es­sar­i­ly fund­ed. I could be wrong on both of those counts, ultimately.

And again, work­ing with Sony, we start­ed to learn the dif­fer­ences of the cul­tur­al vari­a­tions of where it’s appro­pri­ate to touch peo­ple and dif­fer­ent types of friends and oth­ers from say, the East ver­sus the West. And so if you’re a Japanese indi­vid­ual, you would mind being touched in cer­tain places that Westerners might not, and vice ver­sa. These are the sorts of things that a robot design­er would think about.

So the goal I have, basi­cal­ly, is to estab­lish a research agen­da. The two ques­tions that I men­tion over here…the red ones are the ones that real­ly deal with the ques­tion here. Can we increase or decrease the vio­lent behavior—uh, we don’t want to increase it—but will it increase or decrease the vio­lent behav­ior by the user of the tech­nol­o­gy? And can it be used for ther­a­peu­tic pur­pos­es for dif­fer­ent types of poten­tial socio­path­ic conditions? 

So, the real issue from my point of view is that we need to under­stand this because of the human-human rela­tion­ships that could poten­tial­ly be affect­ed by it. And I would con­tend that we have an eth­i­cal, and yes even moral oblig­a­tion accord­ing to our local codes here, to inves­ti­gate this. And if we don’t do so, we do so at our own per­il. So, I will stop with that. And if you’re inter­est­ed in some oth­er infor­ma­tion as well, you can find it at that source. Thank you very much.

Zuckerman: Ron, let me just ask one quick ques­tion before we go to Christina. When we were look­ing at your slides and sort of talk­ing this over yes­ter­day, one of the things that you were sug­gest­ing is that as inti­mate robots become more com­mon, that’s like­ly to be a rela­tion­ship that we have to deal with soci­etal­ly. People who end up decid­ing that they have robots pri­mar­i­ly as their sex part­ners, that may become an iden­ti­ty. There’s a good chance that that iden­ti­ty will end up being stigmatized.

This ques­tion of nor­mal­iza­tion also rais­es this ques­tion of, if peo­ple are reg­u­lar­ly reliev­ing urges with child robots, is that also a nor­mal­iza­tion of behav­ior? And is that a dan­ger that by nor­mal­iz­ing that behav­ior, reg­u­lar­iz­ing that behav­ior, that this becomes less of a taboo and in some sense this actu­al­ly may become more dan­ger­ous in terms of pedophil­ia acceptance?

Arkin: The real point here is we just have research hypothe­ses right now. We don’t have answers to those par­tic­u­lar ques­tions, and they def­i­nite­ly need to be inves­ti­gat­ed. The point that you men­tioned ear­li­er is the fact that we have a rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of peo­ple— And if you’ve ever seen, there’s a movie called Guys and Dolls? It’s not the movie Guys and Dolls (1955), but there’s anoth­er movie Guys and Dolls (2002) which talks about peo­ple kind of like Lars and the Real Girl, who actu­al­ly are…in some form deep attach­ments to these par­tic­u­lar platforms.

I expect as we get more sophis­ti­cat­ed plat­forms, the sec­tor will rapid­ly and sig­nif­i­cant­ly expand as well. How that pro­found­ly affects soci­ety is an unknown ques­tion, but we don’t want to wait and be reactive to it, we want to be proactive, and that’s what I’m try­ing to encour­age here, is proac­tive research into this space. Because hope­ful­ly as you’ve seen in some of those videos there, it’s hap­pen­ing. There’s a lot of mon­ey to be made if you get that even close to right in the near term, as it hap­pened with dig­i­tal video devices and the Internet, which are major pur­vey­ors of pornog­ra­phy. These kinds of things will find a home and a mar­ket and will be sold. And right now it’s hap­pen­ing in places like that, and not under appro­pri­ate guid­ance and eth­i­cal review. We need to con­sid­er this sig­nif­i­cant­ly so we don’t make the kinds of mis­takes that you’re talk­ing about.

Zuckerman: Ron, thanks so much. Christina, can I get you to con­tribute on maybe the visu­al imagery side of this dis­cus­sion as well?

Christina Couch: Hi. My name is Christina Couch and I am a free­lance sci­ence writer. So, specif­i­cal­ly what inter­ests me is tech­nol­o­gy, psy­chol­o­gy, and kind of the inter­sec­tions between those two things. So I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in things like how our feel­ings and thoughts and desires shape how tech­nolo­gies are designed, and in turn the impact that those tech­nolo­gies have on our psy­chol­o­gy and neu­rol­o­gy and the way that we inter­act with each other.

So, what got me inter­est­ed in the top­ic of this par­tic­u­lar pan­el was about a year ago I was work­ing on an arti­cle about ther­a­peu­tic uses of vir­tu­al real­i­ty. So I was inter­view­ing researchers who are using vir­tu­al real­i­ty to treat things like post-traumatic stress dis­or­der, depres­sion, anx­i­ety, pho­bias, addic­tions, all sorts of things. And I stum­bled across a guy named Patrice Renaud, who is a researcher at a max­i­mum secu­ri­ty psy­chi­atric facil­i­ty in Montréal. And Dr. Renaud is actu­al­ly using vir­tu­al real­i­ty to study pedophiles, specif­i­cal­ly pedophiles right at the point of arousal, which his­tor­i­cal­ly has been an incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult thing to do because in order to have a study sub­ject be right at that point, you need some sort of stim­uli to get them there. And typ­i­cal­ly that’s images or audio files which come with these very very valid moral and legal issues attached to them. Super valid.

So Dr. Renaud actu­al­ly start­ed research­ing sex offend­ers in 1994. And at that point he was using pre­dom­i­nate­ly audio files to kind of do this research, and he was­n’t real­ly get­ting very good results. He was hav­ing a hard time get­ting enough data. When he was con­duct­ing his orig­i­nal exper­i­ments, his team actu­al­ly pub­lished a paper on which showed that even when they absolute­ly knew that a study sub­ject was a known pedophile, they could not evoke a phys­i­o­log­i­cal response in about 40% of cas­es, using just audio files.

So, fast for­ward a few years when vir­tu­al real­i­ty becomes a lit­tle bit more acces­si­ble. Dr. Renaud start­ed build­ing vir­tu­al envi­ron­ments that came with…few­er legal and moral issues attached. And he actu­al­ly found that he was able to get a lot more data. And not only was able to get a lot more data, but he was also able to actu­al­ly find a dif­fer­ence in the phys­i­o­log­i­cal response when a pedophile is aroused ver­sus a non-pedophile, and those dif­fer­ences are main­ly in motor and eye movement.

So when I heard this I was real­ly sort of blown away, because it with all the media that we have on sex offend­ers and recidi­vism rates, etc., etc., I was real­ly sur­prised that it is incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to study this par­tic­u­lar group of peo­ple. And at the same time I was also real­ly sur­prised that of all the tools we have for study­ing crim­i­nol­o­gy, vir­tu­al real­i­ty was kind of a key piece of tech­nol­o­gy that opened up this par­tic­u­lar study.

So at the same time that we sort of have these new research tools, or at least poten­tial new research tools com­ing out, we’re also in the mid­dle of some­what of a shift in terms of how we think about child sex offend­ers. And at least a small part of that is due to groups like Virtuous Pedophiles. They are a sup­port group specif­i­cal­ly for pedophiles, run by pedophiles, and they’re designed to pre­vent peo­ple from act­ing out. So it’s a group that if peo­ple are feel­ing those types of incli­na­tions, they can go to this group and try and find tools and resources to pre­vent act­ing on their impulses.

And they’re not actu­al­ly the only group of their kind. A project of sort of a sim­i­lar fla­vor that’s been going on for a longer peri­od of time is in Germany. It’s called the Dunkelfeld Project, and that is a vol­un­tary con­fi­den­tial treat­ment for peo­ple who are pedophiles, specif­i­cal­ly designed to pre­vent them from act­ing out.

So, kind of at the same time that we have this poten­tial for new research tools and we also have acces­si­bil­i­ty to a pop­u­la­tion that his­tor­i­cal­ly has been much more dif­fi­cult to access, typ­i­cal­ly when those two things come togeth­er you see a lot of research com­ing out right at that inter­sec­tion. But for this par­tic­u­lar top­ic, there are still real­ly sig­nif­i­cant bar­ri­ers to doing that research. And I’m kind of hop­ing that our fel­low pan­elists who are actu­al­ly on the ground floor of doing research can talk about what some of these bar­ri­ers are. 

Zuckerman: Christina, thank you so much for that. Can you talk just a lit­tle bit about why this pro­gram’s been able to get off the ground in Germany? That this ther­a­peu­tic pro­gram in Germany that’s allow­ing peo­ple to come forth and actu­al­ly seek treat­ment, what are the bar­ri­ers against that in the United States at this point?

Couch: Well, I mean we still have, like Kate men­tioned, the report­ing issues. One of the things with the Dunkelfeld Project is that there aren’t report­ing issues, so peo­ple can come in and be com­plete­ly anony­mous. From what I under­stand they just get a digital—a num­ber. So you’re actu­al­ly just… There’s no names involved what­so­ev­er. So the report­ing issues are a lot different.

And also they have a lot more sup­port. At some point there was a push by some group of peo­ple (all the qual­i­fiers in the world here) to actu­al­ly get this thing cov­ered under health insur­ance. Which is mind-blowing to me. I think you would have a real­ly tough time with that in the United States.

Zuckerman: It’s inter­est­ing. In the US, some­thing that is becom­ing more com­mon is the option of chem­i­cal cas­tra­tion as a response to pedophilic urges. And there are cas­es, at least in Massachusetts, where Lupron, which is the drug that peo­ple end up using for this, has been cov­ered under pre­scrip­tion insurance. 

What’s inter­est­ing to me in some ways is the idea that this is a treat­able con­di­tion. And that what we’re see­ing are essen­tial­ly these sort of vol­un­tary groups try­ing to help peo­ple who self-identify as pedophiles not act on urges. And to pick up Professor Arkin’s notion that, is there a pos­si­bil­i­ty that this is the methadone to hero­in? That hav­ing, whether it’s vir­tu­al real­i­ty imagery, whether it’s inti­mate robots, there’s some way of sort of pre­vent­ing this. It seems like the big shift that we would have to have first is an under­stand­ing of para­phil­ias as a med­ical prob­lem, a psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lem, rather than a moral failing. 

Kate, can you talk a lit­tle bit about how the legal sys­tem makes that change? So you know, there was a moment in time where homo­sex­u­al­i­ty was moral fail­ing and crime, and then became dis­ease. And then over time has become nor­mal­ized. How does law deal with changes from some­thing being eth­i­cal­ly unac­cept­able to being medicalized?

Darling: Well, I mean the law in the case of homo­sex­u­al­i­ty was real­ly kind of fol­low­ing pop­u­lar cul­ture and not the oth­er way around. So there was a mas­sive shift in pop­u­lar cul­ture, prob­a­bly start­ed with TV shows hav­ing a lot of gay and les­bian peo­ple who were open, and that kind of seep­ing into the pub­lic con­scious­ness and becom­ing an okay thing. And then the law kind of came afterwards.

In this case… So, I just saw the doc­u­men­tary Untouchable that pre­miered at Tribeca, which is about this issue and how the legal sys­tem deals with it. And it was shock­ing to see how—I think they were look­ing at the case of Florida, but… If you throw the word pedophil­ia” into any type of pol­i­cy or legal debate, all the politi­cians are imme­di­ate­ly like, Oh, this is a law that’s going to crack down pedophil­ia? I have to vote for it.” And there’s no way that they can have any sort of con­ver­sa­tion about any of these things because it’s such a… The top­ic just rais­es—under­stand­ably rais­es so many emo­tions in peo­ple that there’s no ratio­nal con­ver­sa­tion to be had. 

And I was shocked when I was doing some online read­ing for this pan­el at how peo­ple who had writ­ten New York Times op-eds about per­haps new meth­ods of treat­ing this, they were getting—like, there are YouTube videos about them where peo­ple are say­ing that they should be slaugh­tered and what­not. Just for sug­gest­ing that this could pos­si­bly be an ill­ness rather than a moral fail­ing. So it’s very hard and I think the social con­ver­sa­tion has to hap­pen before the legal conversation.

Zuckerman: Do you think there’s some­thing in German soci­ety, which you know at least some­thing about, that is dif­fer­ent in sort of under­stand­ing— And just to be clear, in my pre­vi­ous ques­tion I was not in any way try­ing to sug­gest the med­ical­iza­tion of homo­sex­u­al­i­ty as a prob­lem, nor was I try­ing to sug­gest the nor­mal­iza­tion of pedophil­ia. What I was try­ing to sug­gest was there are shifts where we bring some­thing out of a moral­ly unac­cept­able ter­ri­to­ry and then deal with it as a dif­fer­ent issue. For instance deal­ing with it as a med­ical issue.

It sounds like Germany around pedophil­ia has fig­ured out how to make a shift into deal­ing with this as a med­ical and psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tion. And you’ve just point­ed out, in the US we’re will­ing to pass laws that lit­er­al­ly make it impos­si­ble for peo­ple con­vict­ed of child sex crimes to live with­in a state. They’re actu­al­ly con­strain­ing phys­i­cal space in which sex offend­ers can live so nar­row­ly that there are huge swaths of for instance the state of Florida where peo­ple can’t legal­ly live. How does that shift take place?

Darling: Well, I feel like con­ti­nen­tal Europe gen­er­al­ly has a very dif­fer­ent atti­tude towards any­thing sex­u­al, real­ly. They’re less Puritan than American soci­ety. I mean the Germans in par­tic­u­lar have always been very prac­ti­cal about this sort of thing. And for exam­ple, I believe you had some of the German gov­ern­ment vis­it­ing your lab one day, and they were from the Green Party. And they want­ed to instate I think a flat tax on down­load­ing files from the Internet, and just get rid of copy­right law, and just tax peo­ple on what they download. 

And I was like, Well, how does pornog­ra­phy fit into that?” And they did­n’t bat an eye­lid. They were like, Of course that,” and they explained how it would work, and they were like, Yes, that’s like any oth­er file.” I just could­n’t imag­ine hav­ing that con­ver­sa­tion with politi­cians in the United States. So I just feel like European cul­ture is a lit­tle bit more you know…less up in arms and screamy about this top­ic, generally.

Zuckerman: Ron, you were end­ing your remarks with basi­cal­ly the out­lines of a research agen­da. You are a roboti­cist. You are a robot ethi­cist. What’s stop­ping you?

Arkin: Funding. That’s the pri­ma­ry ques­tion. Actually, the first time I raised the top­ic of pedophiles being treat­ed as methadone was maybe ten years ago. I can even remem­ber the meet­ing I was at. But of course the press was present there as well, and that got arti­cles of course because that’s what the press does. And hope­ful­ly we won’t be quite as sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic as an after­math of this entire meet­ing as well. 

But I did get an email from a social work­er who had offered to me twen­ty or thirty—I can’t remem­ber the number—human sub­jects. Sex offend­ers that they were work­ing with. And they said, Here are some peo­ple that we can pro­vide for these stud­ies.” And you know, I just had to wist­ful­ly smile and say, Okay. Where am I going to get those resources from?” Do I want the equiv­a­lent of the Golden Fleece Award in the National Science Foundation or NIH—if they did fund me—to have the sen­a­tors come out and parade this research as robots for sex? You know, that’s the end of that dis­cus­sion as well.

The only hope, I would con­tend, are foun­da­tions. Foundations are one pos­si­bil­i­ty. And there was a well-known foun­da­tion which I will not name here who I had a cham­pi­on at, who dis­cussed a pro­pos­al I had. And this was­n’t even a con­crete pro­pos­al to do the research. This was just try­ing to deal with eth­i­cal guide­lines and like. And they evi­dent­ly had—based on what my cham­pi­on told me—had dis­cus­sions of this and oth­ers over a peri­od of two days, and noth­ing came from that. So if it’s not from foun­da­tions, I hon­est­ly don’t know where the fund­ing is going to come from.

Zuckerman: Christina, you’ve had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk to peo­ple who are doing ther­a­py in this space who are real­ly mak­ing these sort of inter­ven­tions to try to fig­ure out whether para­phil­ias are treat­able, whether peo­ple can get help with their urges. What are peo­ple’s moti­va­tions for doing this work? Clearly this is work that’s incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult. There’s huge bar­ri­ers asso­ci­at­ed with it. There’s enor­mous social stig­ma asso­ci­at­ed with it. Do you have a sense for who the peo­ple who are doing this work are, and to what extent they’re able to com­mu­ni­cate this work and per­haps start work­ing on norm shift on whether there are ways that we can deal with these issues as a dis­ease rather than moral failing?

Couch: I don’t know that the land­scape of the research com­ing out is big enough to draw any type of gen­er­al­iza­tions. I mean, as far as I know, I only know of two researchers that are using vir­tu­al real­i­ty in any­thing deal­ing with this. And maybe that land­scape is big­ger than my scope of knowl­edge, but it is small to begin with. And so it’s tough to draw any sort of gen­er­al­iza­tions about who the peo­ple are who are research­ing, or what chal­lenges they’re fac­ing, because the field is tiny. So I don’t know how to answer that, unfortunately.

Zuckerman: Yeah. In talk­ing with the two that you’ve worked on, is there a back­sto­ry to how they got involved with this work?

Couch: I’m not sure. I’m not sure what Dr. Renaud’s back­sto­ry is. I know that he had been study­ing sex offend­ers for years pri­or to using vir­tu­al real­i­ty. I real­ly think that for him at least, the prob­lem of not being able to get usable data was forc­ing him to look for any oth­er means of find­ing it. So, I’m not sure.

Zuckerman: So, I want to open the mics. so if any­one feels like ask­ing a ques­tion please come on up.

Kate, I just want to put one more ques­tion to you, because I know that in many ways you find your­self sort of tak­ing on these issues as they’re imme­di­ate­ly sort of emerg­ing in the space. Dr. Arkin put a num­ber of pos­si­ble issues on the table that hap­pen around inti­mate robot­ics. What do you see as the key research ques­tions that’re not nec­es­sar­i­ly around pedophil­ia or para­phil­ias? As an active researcher in this space, what do you find your­self sort of look­ing at around the ques­tions of inti­mate robot­ics and these sort of col­li­sions, as you described it? What do you pre­dict need­ing research in that space?

Darling: I mean, my main research inter­est is how do our inter­ac­tions with robots affect our inter­ac­tions with humans. And I’m very much a fan of the harm prin­ci­ple, where if our inter­ac­tions with robots end up lead­ing to harm­ful inter­ac­tions with oth­er humans, then that’s a bad thing. But we also have no idea whether any of our inter­ac­tions with robots are going to lead to any of the con­se­quences that peo­ple are con­cerned about. So I think that’s incred­i­bly impor­tant to study in inti­mate robot­ics in par­tic­u­lar. And…what was the oth­er part of your question?

Zuckerman: It was real­ly that ques­tion of, as an exper­i­men­tal­ist in this field, as some­one who’s sort of look­ing at design­ing research in this space, are there things that you’re think­ing about study­ing around this? Are there things that you know peo­ple are active­ly study­ing around inti­mate robot­ics that’re going to help us answer some of those ques­tions? Whether it is ques­tions about harm or whether it’s ques­tions about how human rela­tion­ships are trans­formed? I don’t know if you want to talk about any of your robot harm research with­in this, but…

Darling: I mean, our robot harm research was look­ing at vio­lent behav­ior towards robots. And basi­cal­ly we’ve only got­ten to the point where again, we can observe the behav­ior, we can mea­sure the behav­ior, but we don’t know whether inter­act­ing with robots changes your behav­ior towards peo­ple. And I think that’s real­ly the key ques­tion. It’s a very dif­fi­cult ques­tion to research. And par­tic­u­lar­ly in the area of inti­mate robot­ics, with no fund­ing and the social stig­ma, I’m wor­ried that it won’t be addressed at all. And I would be inter­est­ed in doing it, but again like Ron said. I mean he’s a big name in social robot­ics, he can’t get the fund­ing to do it. How are any of us going to?

Zuckerman: So, we’re going to go to a ques­tion first from the mic in the mid­dle. Let let me just say some­thing that I prob­a­bly should’ve said ear­li­er in this con­fer­ence. It’s some­thing that I like to say at aca­d­e­m­ic con­fer­ences. Academics in many cas­es have for­got­ten what a ques­tion is. A ques­tion is not a state­ment, it is also not a speech. It is an inter­rog­a­tive. You can tell that it’s a ques­tion because usu­al­ly some­one’s voice ris­es at the end of it?

And if you have a test of whether this is a ques­tion or not, let me first say that This is what I think. What do you think of what I think?” is not a ques­tion. A ques­tion is some­thing that some­one on this pan­el in the­o­ry could give a nov­el answer to. So with that in mind, if you would intro­duce your­self and put for­ward a ques­tion, that would be great.

Sheila Hayman: Well, that was a bit daunting. 

Zuckerman: Not you specifically.

Hayman: I’m Sheila Hayman. And in the past three weeks, I’ve had to get used apol­o­giz­ing for being British. I would just like to say in this con­text that I shall be cam­paign­ing for a return to absolute monar­chy on the basis that the Queen is the only per­son with a track record, the author­i­ty, and the pub­lic trust to actu­al­ly repair the dam­age that’s been done. Thank you.

So, in defense of con­ti­nen­tal Europe and its cul­ture, I have a bit of expe­ri­ence of the Quakers’ work in this field. As you know, the Quakers were some of the first peo­ple to start vis­it­ing peo­ple in prison, and they’ve also been work­ing with sex offend­ers. Because one of the things that wor­ries me (and this will become a ques­tion, don’t wor­ry) about the the direc­tion of this con­ver­sa­tion is that all these tech­nolo­gies seem to me to be fur­ther seques­ter­ing and iso­lat­ing the sex offend­ers from human soci­ety. And that sure­ly, as you said at the begin­ning, is some­thing that they’re try­ing very hard to get over. They want to be inte­grat­ed with our soci­ety. They want to be part of it. And so my ques­tion is, do you think that it is pos­si­ble in this coun­try to propose—I think you sort of start­ed to answer it—a sys­tem like that, where­by there are groups of peo­ple who are actu­al­ly vol­un­tar­i­ly engaged with pedophiles and sex offend­ers on the basis that they are humans too, and that we should­n’t treat them even worse, nec­es­sar­i­ly, that we treat vio­lent criminals?

Zuckerman: Terrific. Thank you. Christina, do you want to try that one?

Couch: Sure. I mean, I know that there are cer­tain places in the coun­try that are sort of begin­ning to rethink things like sex offend­er reg­istry and hous­ing. A sto­ry just came out yes­ter­day about Connecticut, I think, has a task force specif­i­cal­ly devot­ed to that? So I mean, there are some options there, and unfor­tu­nate­ly I am in no way pre­pared to give any sort of pre­scrip­tive answer or say this is right or this is wrong. But at least some peo­ple are begin­ning to look into it. And I think that even that is some­what of a step for fig­ur­ing out the best way to deal with this seg­ment of the population. 

Zuckerman: Ron? Or Kate.

Arkin: Yeah, sure. As I men­tioned, I’m pri­mar­i­ly con­cerned with the vic­tims as opposed to the offend­ers in this par­tic­u­lar case. But if you take the methadone exam­ple, if we could use it as a man­age­ment tool where oth­er human adjunct ther­a­pies could be put in place to do exact­ly what you say, that might be appro­pri­ate. I don’t believe that this is a cure-all or panacea for rein­te­grat­ing sex offend­ers into soci­ety. That’s a very com­plex prob­lem and it also deals with the stig­ma that you folks were refer­ring to, as well. But I do believe it can play a posi­ti— This is a hypoth­e­sis again. I believe the hypoth­e­sis that it can play a pos­i­tive role needs to be under­stood, and at least in the man­age­ment of the…if it is a dis­ease, the disease.

Couch: And—sorry I just want­ed to jump right back in. As far as inte­gra­tion, whether that’s a good idea, the best meth­ods of doing that, etc., etc., we real­ly can’t talk about that until we know more about this seg­ment. So that seems to me to be a ques­tion that is sev­er­al steps away. The data is scarce. So that’s an impor­tant thing.

Darling: And I’m also con­cerned because the peo­ple who are being vis­it­ed have already been con­vict­ed of a sex crime, and that’s actu­al­ly a very small per­cent­age of the entire pop­u­la­tion of poten­tial sex offend­ers or peo­ple who have these urges. And right now we do have the prob­lem that these peo­ple have a lot of trou­ble com­ing for­ward and even con­fid­ing in any­one at all, because all con­fi­den­tial­i­ty is waived in their case because of the report­ing require­ments. So, while I love the idea that groups are form­ing to help these peo­ple, it’s not enough. We need legal changes, and I think if we can help with tech­nol­o­gy as well, that’s not a bad thing.

Zuckerman: Can we go to Willow for our next question?

Willow Brugh: Hi. My name is Willow Brugh. I’m an affil­i­ate at the Center for Civic Media, among oth­er things. One of my ques­tions has to do with…you’re doing a lot of a lack of data and a lack of research and oth­er things, and this is also the most aca­d­e­m­ic pan­el that we’ve had so far. And so I’m won­der­ing if by open­ing up sex research to a more cit­i­zen sci­ence approach in the way that the pre­vi­ous pan­els have had, these out­lier cas­es that you’re speak­ing of where we’re also lack­ing data, we might catch more that way, and are there any efforts to democ­ra­tize sex research in the same way that these oth­er fields have?

Zuckerman: Ron, maybe do you…?


Yeah. Well, I am an aca­d­e­m­ic so I’ll take par­tial cred­it for that. I believe that this needs to be stud­ied in whichev­er way and what­ev­er way pos­si­ble. Citizen sci­ence is fine as long as it is done in a scientific—a man­ner where we can get a deep­er under­stand­ing of the prob­lems. You could do crowd­sourc­ing I guess as well, or oth­er strate­gies to be able to try and engage a broad­er com­mu­ni­ty. But this does need strict­ly con­trolled sci­en­tif­ic eval­u­a­tion, with IRB boards and all these oth­er things, at least in my mind, to get reli­able data. As we said, we could­n’t even get accu­rate recidi­vism rates, and how hard could that pos­si­bly be? From 10 to 45 to 50%, the num­bers were all over the place. And that’s extreme­ly frus­trat­ing. Because of the dearth of data that you were refer­ring to. [motion­ing toward Christina Couch]

So, I applaud any­one who is try­ing to move for­ward, in any venue pos­si­ble, in any coun­try pos­si­ble, an under­stand­ing of this par­tic­u­lar issue proac­tive­ly. And not just for the pedophiles. Like I said, I’m con­cerned also for broad­er seg­ments of our soci­ety, and oth­er soci­eties, that will be affect­ed by the tech­nol­o­gy that is com­ing down the pike. We need to under­stand that. That might be eas­i­er to do than the the sex­u­al deviant (as so-called) research, which some may view all of this as sex­u­al deviance if you’re engag­ing with machines, for example.

Couch: Oh, it’s worth men­tion­ing that vir­tu­al real­i­ty is also being used to study and treat peo­ple who are vic­tims of sex­u­al trau­ma, as well. So this is not a one-way street. I know that the University California, for exam­ple, is putting together—they are try­ing to build… (I’m going to butch­er this.) They’re try­ing to build a vir­tu­al real­i­ty sim­u­la­tion to treat PTSD suf­fered by vic­tims of sex­u­al assault. And so when we talk about ampli­fy­ing research meth­ods, it’s not just for offend­ers. Those types of appli­ca­tions can also in some cas­es be used to actu­al­ly help vic­tims as well.

Zuckerman: So I want to make sure that every­one who’s stand­ing up gets a chance to ask a ques­tion. And so due to time con­straints, what I’m going to do is just take the next three ques­tions. We’re going to do our best to answer them to the best that we can. So we’ll go mid­dle, side of the room, and then we’ll end with Viktoria.

Audience 3: So, you all seem to agree that a lack of fund­ing and too much stig­ma pre­vents good sci­ence on this? I guess my ques­tion is let’s say there was no stig­ma and there was a sur­plus of fund­ing. What would the sci­ence look like? So you sug­gest­ed strict­ly sci­en­tif­ic con­trolled exper­i­ments. But this does­n’t seem to get at the sorts of ques­tions that Ethan sort of allud­ed to at the very begin­ning of how the cul­ture changes in the medi­um and very long term, and the maybe accep­tance or lack of accep­tance and how these things nor­mal­ize, and how it changes the future of these sorts paraphilias.

Zuckerman: Great. So the ques­tion there is both what would a con­crete research agen­da look like, and how would we make a move around this nor­ma­tive ques­tion of treat­ing para­phil­ias as dis­ease rather than as moral fail­ing? Let’s go over here.

Audience 4: So I think there’s some research that indi­cates that pornog­ra­phy has changed expec­ta­tions of sex. And so if and when these child sex robots are rolled out—and you say it’s hap­pen­ing soon­er than we think it is—who gets to decide whether you can have child sex robot as ther­a­py, and who gets to decide whether you have it as enter­tain­ment? And so how will this be regulated?

Zuckerman: Right. Terrific. So ques­tions about the long-term effects of pornog­ra­phy on sex­u­al­i­ty. And if this is a ther­a­peu­tic tech­nol­o­gy, what’s the line between ther­a­peu­tic and enter­tain­ment tech­nolo­gies. Viktoria.

Viktoria Modesta: Hi. I’m Viktoria Modesta. I’m one of the Director’s Fellows here. I’m very very inter­est­ed in the whole con­cept of sex­u­al iden­ti­ty, espe­cial­ly in areas where it’s kind of con­sid­ered slight­ly inap­pro­pri­ate, like for exam­ple dis­abil­i­ty and sex­u­al­i­ty. It’s just some­thing you don’t real­ly think about. I’m very neu­tral on this, but just look­ing at the idea of sex­u­al deviance and how much how much cor­re­la­tion or research has been done to deter­mine whether some­thing like pedophil­ia is extreme­ly dif­fer­ent from all the oth­er dif­fer­ent sex­u­al deviances we have in soci­ety? You know, BDSM, and obvi­ous­ly up until recent­ly even being attract­ed to the oppo­site sex, or bes­tial­i­ty, or all of those range of things that are con­sid­ered unnat­ur­al,” how much link has there been made between those? 

And just last­ly, if we are look­ing at poten­tial­ly chang­ing unwant­ed behav­ior that humans are kind of express­ing, is it pos­si­ble to cross-examine some­thing like vio­lence and the effects of vir­tu­al real­i­ty or games that have the effect on peo­ple with extreme vio­lence? You know, is it pos­si­bly con­nect­ed to just look at you know, is it real­ly pos­si­ble to cure some­one? Is it a dis­ease or is it just a very unfor­tu­nate nat­ur­al deviance that unfor­tu­nate­ly does­n’t fit with a mod­ern society?

Zuckerman: So, some rather deep ques­tions there about what the very nature of para­phil­ias are. Whether there’s a con­tin­u­um from more social­ly accept­able behav­ior like BDSM into more vio­lent sex­u­al­i­ty. Questions about in a world where we had the mon­ey and the abil­i­ty to have a research agen­da around this, what is it that we would actu­al­ly work on? How would we work on this ques­tion of dis­ease ver­sus moral fail­ing, if in fact this turns out to be a dis­ease rather than just a trait? A very provoca­tive ques­tion about what we believe pornog­ra­phy does to desire. And whether robots that might be usable for ther­a­peu­tic pur­pos­es. Kate, can I ask you maybe to take on the pornog­ra­phy ques­tion first?

Darling: Sure. I mean, a lot of the research on pornog­ra­phy is very dif­fi­cult to eval­u­ate. But the fact is that peo­ple have been doing research and have been try­ing to get at the ques­tion of how pornog­ra­phy, or vio­lent video games for that mat­ter, influ­ence peo­ple’s behav­ior. And I think that a lot of this is research that, while we need to be crit­i­cal of it, we can also draw on for these pur­pos­es. So I’m basically—I’m answer­ing all three ques­tions at once, I guess. But the method­olo­gies that have been used in in those cas­es we can also apply to look­ing at robot­ics, and VR, which are more phys­i­cal. I do think that we can’t com­plete­ly just com­pare and learn from those find­ings in those areas, because what we’re talk­ing about is some­thing that’s much more phys­i­cal, and were very phys­i­cal crea­tures. And so that might actu­al­ly bring it to a new lev­el and have dif­fer­ent effects than some­thing that’s just on a screen like pornog­ra­phy or a video game. But draw­ing on that body of research is def­i­nite­ly the direc­tion in which this would go as a research agenda.

Zuckerman: Christina, could I get you to weigh in on any of those question? 

Couch: Sure. The ques­tion regard­ing using tech­nol­o­gy to treat this type of issue? I think that you [ges­tur­ing toward audi­ence] had asked what the research is in terms of pedophil­ia ver­sus bes­tial­i­ty or oth­er forms of para­phil­ia. And, I don’t know, to be hon­est. I’m not a sex­u­al­i­ty researcher. I’m not equipped to com­ment on that spe­cif­ic thing.

But as far as when we look at tech­nol­o­gy, one thing that has emerged in the twenty-plus years that we’ve been look­ing into study vir­tu­al real­i­ty is that it can influ­ence behav­ior. There’s about twen­ty years worth of research on using vir­tu­al real­i­ty to treat post-traumatic stress dis­or­der. For a cer­tain seg­ment of peo­ple that have that, using vir­tu­al real­i­ty can actu­al­ly reduce the symp­toms of PTSD quick­er than tra­di­tion­al ther­a­pies do. 

Virtual real­i­ty has also—there’s at least one study that shows that vir­tu­al real­i­ty can be used to reduce uncon­scious racial bias. I did a big project last year on racial bias, and uncon­scious racial bias is an incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult thing to break, even temporarily. 

So, the research seems to be there in terms of can some­thing like vir­tu­al real­i­ty be used to change behav­ior. Or at least to influ­ence how we think about behav­ior. So I don’t think it’s tremen­dous­ly crazy to think that under cer­tain con­texts that maybe you could use this type of tech­nol­o­gy to actu­al­ly change behav­ior with­in pedophiles. It’s cer­tain­ly a thing that is worth look­ing into.

Zuckerman: Ron, I’m won­der­ing if I can get you, specif­i­cal­ly, because you made this asser­tion which I think is very inter­est­ing that this is com­ing whether we like it or not, to wres­tle with this ques­tion of robots for ther­a­py, robots for plea­sure. If we do start explor­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of what we might call the methadone the­o­ry, do we end up nor­mal­iz­ing sex­u­al­i­ty with child robots? Where does that push us? Where does that take us?

Arkin: Okay. Let me first answer two of the ques­tions. I apol­o­gize to the third ques­tion­er, because I’m not sure I’m capa­ble of talk­ing about the fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences with pedophil­ia and others. 

Regarding sci­en­tif­ic method­olo­gies, the human research inter­ac­tion com­mu­ni­ty has almost become obsessed with data gath­er­ing and data col­lec­tion, to the point where some peo­ple think they’ve gone a lit­tle too far and not accept­ing pub­li­ca­tion to do not have extreme­ly detailed, valid sci­en­tif­ic meth­ods to be able to look at and tease out small pieces of inter­ac­tions which even­tu­al­ly go to both short-term stud­ies and long-term stud­ies. Longitudinal stud­ies as they’re referred to. So I’m con­fi­dent method­olo­gies could be done which would not hap­pen all at once, you know. There’s a series of pro­gres­sion of sci­en­tif­ic exper­i­ments by a larg­er com­mu­ni­ty which would need to be under­tak­en to get that kind of data.

In regard to the sec­ond ques­tion, who would tell, who would get those sys­tems? To my mind, it should be physi­cians and/or courts that would say that this indi­vid­ual is a threat to soci­ety, or has been shown to be a threat to soci­ety, and as such this is an appro­pri­ate treat­ment for that par­tic­u­lar indi­vid­ual, whether to bring them back or to pro­tect soci­ety as a whole. My con­cern, though, is very much relat­ed to that. I don’t like hear­ing about these being used for enter­tain­ment. And the one side-effect of mov­ing for­ward with the design of these robots is the poten­tial black mar­ket which could be cre­at­ed for their use by indi­vid­u­als. That wor­ries me sig­nif­i­cant­ly, and thus they would have to be a quasi-controlled sub­stance, in a sense, to be able to do this accu­rate­ly. But even then it does­n’t always work.

The issue of nor­mal­iza­tion, as you brought up. How does that change of soci­ety as a whole, and the accep­tance of cer­tain kinds of behav­ior? As you men­tioned, that hap­pens rou­tine­ly in almost every, even non-tech­no­log­i­cal aspects, as we’ve seen. We’ve seen a change with respect to the def­i­n­i­tions of mar­riage. You notice I put up there robot mar­riage is a pos­si­bil­i­ty as well. Are you allowed even­tu­al­ly to mar­ry an arti­fact? The ques­tion of bes­tial­i­ty was brought up as well. Is this crim­i­nal­ized because it’s bes­tial­i­ty? I have spent my entire career study­ing ani­mal behav­ior, includ­ing humans, in a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances. And the notion of study­ing sex­u­al deviance and actu­al nor­mal humans inter­act­ing with these things can pro­vide the basis for a deep­er under­stand­ing of how that oper­ates, and then work­ing in con­junc­tion in a tru­ly inter­dis­ci­pli­nary effort with soci­ol­o­gists and anthro­pol­o­gists and the like as well, to get a deep­er under­stand­ing of the poten­tial soci­etal effects is the only effec­tive way to be able to come to answers to that. 

Zuckerman: So, thank you so much. I real­ly want to give an extra spe­cial thanks to my pan­elists. This is not an easy pan­el for any­one to come up and have this con­ver­sa­tion for an hour or so. Really appre­ci­ate the qual­i­ty of the ques­tions, the qual­i­ty of atten­tion from the crowd, in par­tic­u­lar the con­tri­bu­tions from the folks here on stage. 

Let me just check very quick­ly… Great, I’m still employed by MIT. Okay. Just need­ed to check in on that very very quickly.

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