Love, sex, and robots: Doctoral candidate studying ethics of humanoid robots
Is it possible to have a loving relationship with a robot? Is a machine capable of giving consent? And how do gender dynamics play out among beings made of metal and silicone? These are questions that scholars and tech companies alike are increasingly asking as humanoid robots make the jump from science fiction to reality. “I really want to get to the bottom of these emerging humanoid technologies,” Wenger said, “because they embody so much: our dreams, our fears, our desires, our anxieties. For that project, the American Council of Learned Societies has awarded Wenger an Andrew W. Wenger, a doctoral student in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought, more commonly known as ASPECT, is an avid science fiction fan, listing Octavia E. “I became interested in how these futuristic technologies are portrayed in our contemporary world,” she said.
In her dissertation, Wenger examines the controversial issue of humanoid sex robots and the questions of consent, gender roles, and interpersonal relationships they bring with them. “Sex technology companies have framed sex robots as feminized solutions to masculine desires, offering humanlike companionship without the implications of consent,” Wenger said. The project came about through what Wenger calls a “feminist vexation” with how humanoid robots are designed and portrayed. “I vividly remember thinking, hey, I’m a child of science fiction, too. Wenger was attracted to the Mellon/ACLS fellowship because it has a history of funding dissertation projects that challenge scholarly convention. When Wenger began her doctorate at Virginia Tech in 2018, it was because she was drawn to ASPECT for a similar reason.
“What attracted me to the program was there was so much unique work being done,” Wenger said. Wenger gives credit to her professors and colleagues in ASPECT for providing feedback on her dissertation and her fellowship application. “Sara’s project is critically important and so deserving of the ACLS’s support,” said Labuski. “For Sara to receive this fellowship is an amazing achievement, which speaks to the quality, the originality, and the broad critical impact of her work as well as to her unique skills as a researcher,” said François Debrix, a professor in the Department of Political Science and the director of ASPECT. The Mellon/ACLS fellowship is not Wenger’s first time receiving an award in support of her work; the Roothbert Fund selected her as a fellow in 2020 and then as a renewal fellow a year later. “Graduate students as a whole deserve to feel valued throughout their educational careers,” she said.
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