Seen is Harmony, a sex robot developed by the U.S.-based sex tech firm Realbotix. / Courtesy of Realbotix
Sex robot "brothels" have emerged as a potentially lucrative business as sex doll manufacturers offer more sophisticated, individually tailored models, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies.
With many shops that offer sex with these robots popping up in Europe and Canada, some technology pundits here are cautiously suggesting Korea may have to deal with this controversial issue in the near future.
Advocates say sex with robots can reduce the need for sex workers and help disabled people enjoy the same sexual pleasure as others do, in the privacy of their own room.
The head of Harmony, a sex robot / Courtesy of Realbotix
But opponents argue that sex robots cannot replace women and they will dehumanize the relationship between men and women.
The latest controversy over sex robots erupted in Houston in late September as Canadian sex robot maker KinkySdollS sought to open a shop that rents and sells sex robots in the U.S. city.
Although there were no laws that could stop the business from opening, the firm had to withdraw the plan as it had met with opposition from city officials and residents. To prevent further issues, the city council members voted unanimously on Oct. 3 to change the city's ordinance, whereby companies are allowed to sell sex robots but customers are not allowed to use those robots inside the shops.
Sex robots are banned from import to Korea. Under article 234 of the customs law, goods that disrupt the constitutional order, disturb public safety and order or corrupt morals shall not be exported or imported.
However, it is possible to purchase life-size sex dolls online here. Also, sex dolls made by local firms are available on the internet. While it is illegal to import or export sex dolls, there are no laws that forbid manufacturing and selling the dolls here.
While sex robots are still legally unavailable here, experts say possibilities are open for Korea to allow "robot prostitution."
"The positive aspect of sex robots is that they will help decrease the number of women who sell sex illegally," said Kang Dong-woo, director at the Korean Institute for Sexual and Couple's Health (KISCH). The KISCH is a private clinic for sex counseling in Seoul.
"It is no secret that there are many men who use prostitution services. Prostitution is available everywhere here through the internet. In such circumstances, I think chances are open for the country to introduce robot prostitution in the near future as it can reduce sex crimes and illegal prostitution," Kang said.
Stating that it is impossible to stop technical advances of the sex robot industry, Kang said robot prostitution can prevent other social problems.
"No matter how strict the regulations are, sex robots will continue to be improved. Those robots can reduce sexual abuse of children and they will be helpful in reducing sexually transmitted infections," he said.
Kang also agreed sex robots would offer sexual gratification to some people who cannot achieve it in relationships with other humans.
"In terms of satisfying sexual gratification, sex robots can help people fulfill their desires. In that sense, robot prostitution is likely to be legalized," he said.
Matt McMullen, CEO of Realbotix, sculpts the face of Harmony, a sex robot. / Courtesy of Realbotix
Predicting the future of the sex robot industry, the Foundation for Responsible Robotics (FRR) in the Netherlands said "it is possible that the use of sex robots in some therapies could potentially help with sexual healing."
"For example, it may be beneficial to use a robot for personal private practice in the treatment of problems such as impaired sexual functioning or social anxiety about sex," the foundation said in its report on "Our Sexual Future with Robots."
"All adults are entitled to a sex life and sex robots have also been proposed as a means of gratification for the disabled and the elderly," the report said.
The report added sex robots "could be used as robot prostitutes working in bordellos, sexual companions for the lonely or the elderly in care homes or as a new means for sexual healing."
From an industrial aspect, sex robots may create more jobs. Since New Jersey-based firm TrueCompanion introduced the first sex robot Roxxxy in 2010, a growing number of people are purchasing sex robots.
The sex toy industry is no longer hush-hush. It is growing at a rapid pace, and is estimated to grow to $29.07 billion globally by 2020, according to market researcher Statista.
Experts warn of dehumanization by sex robots
However, opponents to "prostitute robots" say they will increase sexual objectification of women for the entertainment of men.
A local human rights organization working against prostitution opposed legalizing prostitution by robots.
"We oppose a move to find another replacement for sex workers. It is groundless to say sex robots can reduce the number of sex workers. These arguments are based on insufficient evidence," said an official from the National Solidarity against Sexual Exploitation of Women.
"Some say sex robots can replace sex workers like cleaning robots help ease women's housework burden, but prostitution cannot be equal to housework. It is sexual exploitation of women," the official said. "It would be suitable to assume those sex robots will encourage a mindset of sexual objectification of women."
Youn Ga-hyun, a psychology professor at Chonnam National University, said people who use robot prostitution services may experience difficulties in forging emotional bonds with other real people.
"Silicon sex robots may be good for sexual gratification. But we also should be aware of the possible side effects when lifelike sex robots are really upon us," Youn said. "As more people use robot prostitution services, they may lose the ability to build emotional bonds with other people."
He also pointed out there should be an age restriction on using sex robots. "Among the possible negative effects of sex robots, we need an age restriction to prevent underage people from using sex robots. This is not a scene we want to witness," Youn said.
Also, there have been calls for regulation of sex robots. Experts say these robots should be regulated as they may cause loss of humanity and society needs to have safety measures in case of contingencies.
"We need to regulate the robots sometime or other," said Kang Tae-goo, professor of Department of Human Intelligence and Robot Engineering at Sangmyung University.
"If robots can work just like humans, we should regard them as another species. In that case, we cannot predict what kinds of social issues would arise and we need to be prepared with a minimum level of regulation to respond to them."
He added the current sex robots are specious because they are not real robots that can effectively interact with humans.
"The sex robots in the online sex toy shops are not real robots. They are just sex dolls equipped with an electric motor. Even though sex robot makers are promoting that they applied AI technology to their products, the sex robots still need to be improved to become more competitive," the robot professor said.
Choi Kwang-jin, CEO of augmented reality (AR) and VR firm FXGear, said visual contents using virtual reality technology may prevail, replacing widespread prostitution. Some Japanese companies have already been operating VR rooms that offer sexual content.
"In the near future, I think sexual content will be the most popular experience in VR content in the near future," Choi said.
Choi also said VR has limits to sexual gratification as the technology needs more time to satisfy the tactile experience of sexual intercourse.
"While audio and visual sectors in VR have been greatly advanced recently, tactile technology is slow in progress. But, if sexual content is distributed legitimately, VR would play a bridging role before the sex toy industry actively adopts sex robots," the CEO said.