Robots and Trafficking

July 16, 2015 Cazzie Reyes Opinion 
Sex Trafficking, Forced Labor, Business, News

Humanoids and artificial intelligence are topics widely discussed in sci-fi films as well as the tech community. A myriad of shows explore the innovative possibilities and negative consequences associated with such tools. One of these series, Humans, depicts robots as domestic helpers, crop harvesters and sex workers and poses ethical questions revolving around inhumane treatment and exploitation.

The idea of having human-like robots working alongside people has been around for years, but how close are we to achieving such advancement? Furthermore, how would the presence of these inventions affect the way that people work with and treat each other? 

© Jiuguang Wang

In Labor Trafficking

People have been talking about robots replacing human workers for decades, but if you look at the garment industry, workers are still underpaid and utilized. Yet, factory owners and countries facing labor shortages are increasingly finding that robots may be faster, stronger and cheaper replacements. In China, for example, factories no longer have an endless supply of cheap laborers as wages, worker strikes and education levels increase. To address the labor gap, China purchased 56,000 industrial robots in 2014 and announced that one of its provincial capitals, Guangzhou, plans to have 80% of its factories automated by 2020.

As this work force shift occurs, what will happen to displaced low-skilled workers? There might be jobs created in robot manufacturing and employees might be moved from completing routine to more value-added tasks, but the end result could also be an increase in unemployed poor workers. In addition, as developing countries move toward producing higher-value goods, low-value assembly work will most likely continue – if not move to – less affluent states. It’s in these factories, as well as in industries requiring manual assembly, that labor exploitation could persist.

© Brad Beattie

In Sex Trafficking

A Big Think and io9 study in the Futures journal asserts that by 2050, robots will replace all sex workers in Amsterdam. Inventors anticipate a lower risk of disease since they can make the outer covering out of a bacteria resistant fiber that can be flushed after each use. Proponents say that it’s not a stretch for people to hire robots for sexual purposes since people, to an extent, have already accepted the use human-like dolls and machines in their daily lives. From RealDolls to Siri, people already have relationships with inanimate objects and electronics.

So how far are we from having these red light districts? We’re already getting there. In Japan, Doll No Mori rents sex dolls priced between 13,000-45,000 yen (approximately $105 to $360). South Korean hotels started renting out “doll experience rooms” in the 2000s after the government passed an anti-prostitution law in 2004. In 2010, US Roxxy was revealed at an adult entertainment expo. The fem-bot retails for $7,000 to $9,000 and owners can program it with different personalities. Currently, RealDoll’s CEO, Matt McMullen is attempting to fashion more realistic and responsive dolls.

Critics argue that purchasing sexual services is not about the sex at all but is more about the demonstration and assertion of power and domination over another. The human reaction is needed, and robots cannot interact in the ways that humans can. In addition, at least initially, not everyone can afford these robots. Cheap sex services from people – particularly from those who have been trafficked – will still be more accessible and present fewer limitations. With regards to limits, there’s the question of whether robots should be or can be made to meet every demand. What about those wanting to exploit minors for sex? Researchers are proposing studies on the use of child sex robots by pedophiles and sex offenders, but all implications must be considered.

Ethical Questions

As stakeholders look at the potential profits and other benefits associated with using robots for labor, several questions emerge. Would using humanoids have an effect on social interactions? Is it possible that having the ability to create and direct the actions of such human-like objects would eventually exacerbate racial stereotypes and gender roles? What laws and regulations would need to be implemented? How would the employment of these robots affect work migration patterns and tourism flows? What are other social, political and economic impacts?


Topics: Sex Trafficking, Forced Labor, Business, News

About the Author



Cazzie Reyes

Cazzie Reyes is a Researcher for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center's Anti-Trafficking Programs. She graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor's degree in International Studies and a minor in Women's Studies.