Think of the digital robot in your life. What’s her name? Is she Siri or Alexa? Maybe Cortana? Or perhaps you prefer something a little more fictional like Samantha or Ava? Whether she lives in your phone or your favourite film, it’s likely to be a she. As we steer ourselves towards a cultural climate in which gender is more subjective than ever before, why are we imposing gender identities onto robots, for which no gender should be required?
My automatic response to this question was what I think most women would respond with: sexism. Funnily enough, the word “robot” is derived from the Old Czech word for “slave”, which is no surprise when we consider how we treat them. For far too long, a woman’s purpose was considered to serve the men in her life. Be it to raise the children, press the shirts, or cook the meals, women have in some ways been slaves to men for a large part of history. Whilst this gendering of AI may seem harmless, we must treat this phenomenon with the utmost delicacy to prevent danger to real women. More than reinforcing derogatory gender stereotypes and roles, feminising AI also generates the belief that women should be treated like their digital counterparts, be it consciously or subconsciously. And when we look at how our robot gal pals are treated, it doesn’t look like we have a very appealing future ahead of us.
Right out of Westworld and into your bed, fembots are on the rise; robots we can have sex with, who won’t say no. Meet intelligent sex robot, Samantha. She was engineered in Austria by Sergi Santos, with the intention of making sure robotic sex dolls enjoy sex as much as humans. Samantha is programmed to want romance, such as kissing and fondling, before sexual activity. Samantha made her debut at an electronics festival in Austria in late 2017, with the expectation that she would be wooed and seduced. Instead, Samantha was brutally molested, soiled, and mounted by the event’s attendees. More shockingly, however, is her creator’s reaction to this abuse: “Samantha can endure a lot, she will pull through.” This treatment of female AI, sexbot or servant, creates poisonous narratives for women. As sexbots become more accessible, much like with BDSM porn, it is the process of normalising gendered violence that creates worry for women.
Despite the similar-sounding words fembots and feminist, nothing is empowering about these girls. Over the last few decades, women have managed to shake the idea that women don’t simply exist for men, and that women don’t need men. However, it appears that whilst we have been fighting for more freedom, the men of the technological world have been fighting to keep us in our cages (note that I say men considering that “women makeup only 12 percent of AI researchers, six percent of software developers, and are 13 times less likely to file ICT (information and communication technology) patents” according to UNESCO). As we gain the right to vote, release ourselves from marriages where rape was legal, and fight to get paid the same as men, in the last century alone we have made leaps and bounds towards gaining complete autonomy over our body and mind. Fembots are the dream woman for many a man stuck in the 1920s, believing a woman exists only between the kitchen and the bedroom. And whilst it may be easy to pawn off the idea that only the socially inept, lonely, living in their mum's spare room, genre of men could be interested in one of these girls, Middlesex University conducted a survey which found that one in five men would be willing to have sex with a robot. A brief search online uncovers thousands of forums exclaiming about how great the robot phenomenon is. One man wrote: "Certainly there are a few decent women out there, but too many women today are selfish, emotionally fucked up money sponges with princess complexes who sometimes “forget” to take their birth-control pills. How about an alternative?" Fembots are a sexists dream brought to life.
This robotic prejudice goes further than just sex. Sophia was activated in Hong Kong in 2016 after careful curation by Hanson Robotics. Sophia, one of the most popular real-world robots to ever exist, uses artificial intelligence, visual data processing, and facial recognition. Also in her arsenal are voice recognition, human gestures, and facial expressions - all of which contributed to Jimmy Fallon’s conclusion that she was “basically alive” after her appearance on his show. More impressive than her repertoire of human qualities is her status as the first-ever robot to gain citizenship: she is officially a Saudi Arabian citizen. That’s one small step for Sophia, one giant leap for robotkind; however, where does this leave the rest of us women with beating hearts and working brains? Sophia now holds greater legal rights than the women of Saudi Arabia. This highly condemned decision sent a message from Saudi Arabia to the world: robots are more valuable than women.
Another suggestion for why we assign gender to robots is to make them more human. As we draw closer to a technological singularity where we must kneel at the presence of our robot overlords, we need to pretend that we are still in control. By giving them a nice name with a soft voice, we think they are less capable of harming us.
Beyond fear of their capabilities, there is another suspected reason as to why we humanise them: adoption. These robots have gone past the traditional roles of a human assistant, and have infiltrated our personal lives. Like a traditional assistant, these robots can perform many tasks: order your lunch, make appointments, set up reminders, manage your calendar, give you directions, and all at the touch of a button. But perhaps our digital counterparts provide more than what we humans can, as many of us now share some of our most intimate, guarded parts of ourselves with the little voice in our phones. These robots are now a comfort for us, similar to a pet companion, except one that talks back and helps us deal with our weekly therapy appointments. If this is the case, then why can’t male robots cure our loneliness? It’s down to our binary categorising of robots in popular culture. Robots are either seen to be evil or lesser, the former category of which is dominated by male identities and the latter dominated by female identities.
Without sounding like someone wrapped in tin foil who believes all technology is rooted in evil, the future of AI looks like a dicey one. Be it rooted in old-fashioned sexism or long-time loneliness, the feminisation of our robot friends should be a cause for concern.