Robots, Babies, and What’s Time Got to Do with It

Claudia Wiesemann

“The First Babies Conceived with a Sperm-injecting Robot Have Been Born”

Have they? Should we be afraid of the “fertility machines” that are apparently about to be developed? There are many reasons why this headline in the renowned magazine “Technology Review” of the even more renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology is misleading, badly motivated and – in short – annoying. The disregard for time is one of them.

Conceiving a child is usually understood as a process over time. It somehow lasts from human intercourse over the fertilization of an egg in the body of the woman and its implantation in her uterus until, finally, pregnancy is established anatomically and hormonally. Also, the verbal construction “to conceive a child” has a specific subject: the woman conceiving. Conception comes to be realized when the woman notices she is pregnant and, more importantly, when she decides to carry the child to term. “Conceiving a child” is something that takes human lifetime, biologically and psychologically.

Yet, do we now live in times when robots are the main agent in “conceiving” a child? The headline no longer mentions the woman. Her disappearance is somehow blurred by the fact that, now, the child is the subject of the sentence, albeit in a rather passive way. The active part is given to the robot injecting the sperm. The illustration shows us the process of being conceived by a robot stork, his long beak pictured like a nozzle poking the egg. A thorough robotic process resulting in a baby in a pram, and this impression is further enhanced by technical engineering details. Obviously, a “fertility machine” has already been developed. We see the future of this robotic way of coming-into-existence: The next pram is already waiting on a conveyor belt. A Fordist image of reproduction technology is evoked. “Meet the start-ups trying to engineer a desktop fertility machine.”

Why should we be concerned about this conceptualization of conception? Well, it grossly overstates the contribution the robot made to conception: just pricking the membrane of the egg cell without destroying the egg. Technically, injecting something into something is a very simple task. The achievement in this case the technical mastery of manipulating such a miniature object, the egg cell. However, injecting sperm into the egg cell is far from achieving conception. It is just a prerequisite of the unfolding process of conception. A process dependent on the ensuing physiological processes in the egg, the willingness of a woman to have the fertilized egg transferred in her womb and her biological capacity to host and nurture the developing embryo. Frankly, it is ridiculous to inflate such a robot prick into something like conception, and for some very good reasons, reproductive technologists have wisely abstained from exaggerating their role in a similar way.

Even more disconcertingly, it effaces the woman in play. It actively denies the time this process takes, her decisions, her efforts, her burdens, her flesh – in sum, the fact that she is literally investing her life to conceive a child and let it come into being.

One has to suspect that this marginalization of the woman’s role in conception is not just by chance. It’s the very nature of the game. The aim is to create a Frankensteinian image of artificial reproductive technologies. Evoking the notorious homunculus will stir up fear and gather clicks, which is great for journals, but bad for human beings. Because in this game, the other players will inevitably lose. Those couples who desperately need reproductive healthcare as the last resort and only means to help them realize their desire to have children. Couples that invest their lifetime to become mothers and fathers. Couples needing our empathy, not some weird fascination for sci-fi machines.



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