There's a Consent Problem With the Scarlett Johansson Robot, and We Need to Talk About It

Reuters

She winks, wears a crop top and giggles when you tell her she's beautiful. With her silicon skin, she's a dead ringer for actress Scarlett Johansson. She was built for $50,000 by a product designer in Hong Kong — a flirty robot clone of one man's dream girl.

When you design a robot in someone's sexualized likeness, dress it up, make it talk and give it behaviors, do you need to ask that person for consent? 

If that sexy humanoid were modeled off of you, you'd likely be screaming, "Fuck yes." 

Source: Reuters
Source: Reuters

We need an ethical code of conduct when designing robots in other people's likeness — especially as we interact more intimately with these human-like machines. 

Experts agree.  

Before the ScarJo bot, there was Nadine: a human-like robot modeled after its creator, professor Nadia Thalmann. 

Source: YouTube
Source: YouTube

I asked Thalmann if she thought it was OK to design a robot in someone else's likeness without getting consent first. 

"It is not OK," she said in an email.

Thalmann wouldn't be happy if someone had created Nadine without her consent; after all, Nadine doesn't just embody a physical likeness, but also moves, speaks and emotes in human-like ways. It doesn't just simulate her likeness — it simulates intimacy.

What should the rules be for designers modeling robots after real people?

If the people are living, designers should have to obtain formal consent, Thalmann suggested. Perhaps designers can forego consent if the people have been dead for at least 50 years, she said.

In other words, you can't go around making fembots of whomever you please without getting permission from the human being who inspired it. 

Source: Reuters
Source: Reuters

The Scarlett Johansson robot doesn't just have an aesthetic similarity to the actress. She moves, speaks and laughs. When simulated behavior is coupled with artificial intelligence, machines have more than just mechanical or functional purposes — there exists a level of affection. 

Science has shown that these humanized machines can elicit an emotional — and sexual — response in humans. A Stanford study found that "humans can become physiologically aroused from touching a human-shaped robot in private places like their eyes and buttocks," the Independent reported. 

When someone has the ability to forge an intimate physical relationship with a machine modeled after your likeness, and you feel violated, shouldn't you have a say in whether or not that relationship should exist? 

You should, especially if that person can get aroused by touching your robo-butt. 

Robot clones, whether for sex or intimacy, grant their makers access to an otherwise unattainable fantasy. The designers can forge a real emotional and/or sexual relationship with their subject without permission. If that makes the subjects after whom these robots are modeled feel violated, they deserve a voice.