The android child and her papa in Sandra Wollner's film 'The Trouble With Being Born'

An Austrian film called The Trouble with Being Born is winning high praise from critics at film festivals. It received a special jury award at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year. On Rotten Tomatoes, it scores 100% amongst critics.

It’s a “hidden gem”, according to Hollywood Reporter. “A powerful and revelatory achievement,” wrote a critic for Screen Daily. “A strange, haunting parable about innocence exploited,” said the Sydney Morning Herald. Variety had mixed feelings: “desperately creepy, queasy, [and] thought-provoking.”

I haven’t seen it and I won’t see it. But Variety probably got it right. A film about robot paedophilia is bound to be creepy.

The plot is thin, the attraction cerebral and the pace languid, but from all accounts The Trouble with Being Born leaves audiences feeling very queasy indeed. Some people walked out of the Berlin showing and it was dropped from the Melbourne International Film Festival (to the indignation of local critics who rabbitted on about censorship).

Set in the near future, the film opens with an isolated house in the country where a middle-aged man lives with his 10-year-old daughter – who turns out to be an android resembling his deceased daughter. Although nothing appears on screen, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that their “relationship” is sexual. On the taboo-smashing scoreboard, The Trouble with Being Born hits both incest and paedophilia right out of the ballpark.

Sex robots are a staple of Hollywood films, but The Trouble with Being Born is probably the first to tackle the issue of sex robots for paedophiles. It was a deliberate choice, as the director, Sandra Wollner, originally worked on a script involving a robot which looked 20 instead of 10.

While the film has sparked a bit of controversy, it seems the barriers against sex with robots are being eroded. Not all that long ago, it would have been condemned as not only creepy, but immoral. But philosophers, who, along with artists, are the midwives of cultural change, are forging arguments to make it not just plausible, but necessary and good.

According to recent article in one of the world’s leading bioethics publications, the Journal of Medical Ethics sex robots are needed for older people, especially older people with disabilities.

Nancy S. Jecker, a bioethicist at the University of Washington, in Seattle, contends that “the non-voluntary absence of sex from someone’s life is not just a bad thing but also a threat to a person’s identity and dignity” and sex robots can fill this gap in the lives of the elderly. Society should make “reasonable efforts” to help them as a way of promoting human dignity.

Jecker, who has written extensively about ethical issues associated with ageing societies, cites other writers who believe that robots are the answer to the affective needs of lonely elderly and disabled people. “Almost everyone wants someone to love, but many people have no one. If this natural human desire can be satisfied for everyone… surely the world will be a much happier place,” writes David Levy, an authority on computer chess.

Michael Hauskeller, a philosopher at the University of Exeter, in the UK, points out that some people actually believe that the advantage of sex robots is regarded as their reliability compared to human partners, who are unreliable and thereby inferior. “The problem with entering into relationships with other people, [advocates think], is that, although they certainly can be a source of pleasure, more often than not they stand in the way of it. Moreover, even when they give us pleasure and happiness…this pleasure can always be taken away.” (It’s not a point of view that he shares.)

Trusting that sex toys will become more and more sophisticated, Jecker contends that “Unlike sex devices that function merely to enhance sexual pleasure, people bond to sex robots and feel close to them. Sex robots create the possibility not just of sexual pleasure but also of sexual relationships and interpersonal intimacy.”

While acknowledging that many people are sceptical about the idea that a robot can ever substitute for the affection of a human being, she argues that: “sex robots are not a perversion but a way to enhance dignity by shoring up capability shortfalls.”

There are so many things wrong with this sentence that it would require a whole book to discuss them adequately. But the short response is this: dignity is awakened by love and you can only love a person, not a thing. Things give pleasure, at best, but they can never give love. A robot can no more give love than a bucket of sand. And lack of love is the greatest torment that we can experience in life. Philosophers should be using their nous to show us how to love better, not how to legitimize a 3-D pornography industry.

The notion of “relationships” with robots, perverse as this may be, is not the problem. Fundamentally it is that too many of us have such an impoverished sense of humanity that we can’t tell the difference between people and robots. One of the troubles of being born is that we have to put up with self-deluding nonsense like this film.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet