Should we be having sex with robots?
It's a question that has sparked fierce debate among moralists and the robotics industry. And it turns out, they're all split on what role machines should play in future relationships.
During a discussion at the Web Summit technology conference in Dublin on Wednesday, experts warned about the dangers of getting intimate with robots.
"It's something we should be very concerned about...because if people feel they can have an intimate relationship with a machine, that is saying something serious about how we're experiencing empathy with each other," Kathleen Richardson, senior research fellow in the ethics of robotics at the U.K.'s De Montfort University, said during the panel.
The academic, who launched the "campaign against sex robots" earlier this year, added that "we are losing our sense of humanity."
Sex robots are becoming a reality with companies rushing to get them to market. For example, New Jersey-based True Companion has been designing what it claims is the world's first sex robot—called Roxxxy—for several years.
And at the same time smartphone apps called "chatbots" have taken off - particularly in Asia. Xiaoice is one such service. It is software designed by Microsoft for the Chinese market that enables people to type and receive answers to questions for hours on end.
This proliferation of machines in intimate roles is something that should in fact be welcomed however, according to one expert.
"We talk about the biggest killers in our society being things like heart disease. I actually wonder if one of the greatest killers of our age is loneliness. Now, machines can be a conduit towards not being so alone, towards getting some sort of emotional response, even if it's from a machine," Nell Watson, a futurist at the Singularity University in Silicon Valley, told the audience at Web Summit.
She said that she has seen people use chatbots to get over relationships, something that could be positive for a human's emotional side. "I think machines can be a way to repair the hurt and trauma in ourselves," Watson said.
And Jim Hunter, the chief scientist at Greenwave Systems, said robots can be used to help people who have a particularly hard time communicating or integrating into society.
"There's a lot of people who have challenges with regards to social interactions. And this provides them an opportunity...to actually share...at least some sort of interaction with something that they can have some sort of relationship with," Hunter said.
But Richardson warned about such a liberal use of machines and robots interfering in people's relationships. The academic said that they could be used in a "specific therapeutic context," but said there were dangers of robots becoming substitutes for partners.
"If a robot was in a therapeutic context with somebody...then that might be helpful, but you've got to remember...people are saying you can have this as a substitute and in the future it might be a replacement, and that's when we get into very dangerous territory," Richardson said.