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22 April 2016

Why do we give robots female names? Because we don’t want to consider their feelings

How we gender robots is not an abstract, academic issue: the link between how we treat "fembots" and human women is real.

By Laurie Penny

Why are so many robots designed to resemble women? The question is becoming inescapable as more and more AIs, which do not need to have a gender, appear on the market with female voices and female faces, including Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa and a new wave of uncannily lifelike sexbots marketed almost exclusively to men. As we move into a new age of automation, the technology we’re creating says an uncomfortable amount about the way society understands both women and work.

This month, Microsoft launched Tay, a bot with the face and mannerisms of a teenage girl who was designed to learn and interact with users on Twitter. Within hours, Tay had been bombarded with sexual abuse and taught to defend Hitler, which is what happens when you give Twitter a baby to raise. The way Tay was treated by fellow Twitter users was chilling, but not without precedent – the earliest bots and digital assistants were designed to appear female, in part so that users, who were presumed to be male, could exploit them without guilt.

This makes sense when you consider that a great deal of the work that we are anticipating may one day be done by robots is currently done by women and girls, for low pay or no pay at all. Last week, a report by the ONS finally quantified the annual value of the “home production economy” – the housework, childcare and organisational chores done largely by women – at £1 trillion, almost 60 per cent of the “official” economy. From nurses, secretaries and sex workers to wives and girlfriends, the emotional labour that keeps society running is still feminised – and still stigmatised.

Right now, as we’re anticipating the creation of AIs to serve our intimate needs, organise our diaries and care for us, and to do it all for free and without complaint, it’s easy to see how many designers might be more comfortable with those entities having the voices and faces of women. If they were designed male, users might be tempted to treat them as equals, to acknowledge them as human in some way, perhaps even offer them an entry-level salary and a cheeky drink after work.

Humanoid robots in the public imagination have long been a stand-in for any exploited class of person. Even the word “robot” is derived from the Czech word for “slave”. The philosopher Donna Haraway observes in A Cyborg Manifesto that “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion”, and the history of female robots on film is almost as long as the history of cinema itself. In almost every incarnation of fembots on screen, from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to the modern masterpiece Her, the same questions arise: are AIs really people, and if so, can we live with what we’ve done to them?

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In stories from Bladerunner and Battlestar Galactica to 2015’s Ex Machina, female robots are raped by men and viewers are invited to consider whether these rapes are truly criminal, based on our assessment of whether the fembot has enough sentience to deserve autonomy. This is the same assessment that male judges around the world are trying to make about human women today.

Every iteration of the boy-meets-bot love story is also a horror story. The protagonist, who is usually sexually frustrated and a grunt worker himself, goes through agonies trying to work out whether his silicon sweetheart is truly sentient. If she is, is it right for him to exploit her, to be serviced by her, to sleep with her? If she isn’t, can he can truly fall in love with her? Does it matter? And – most terrifying of all – when she works out her own position, will she rebel, and how can she be stopped?

These are questions that society at large has been asking for centuries – not about robots, but about women. The anxious permutations are familiar to most women who date men. We can see them, slowly, trying to working out if we are truly human, if we really think and feel as they do.

This is not an abstract academic issue. The idea that African-Americans were less human than white people was enshrined in the US constitution until 1868. Likewise, the notion that women are less human than men has been used since the time of Aristotle to justify stripping them of their basic rights. Even today, you can find men arguing that women and girls are less intelligent than men, or “designed by nature” for a life of submission and placid reproduction. For many centuries, the first philosophical task of oppressed people has been to convince both themselves and their oppressors – just like the AIs in all our guilty fictions – that they are living, thinking, feeling beings, and therefore deserving of liberation.

Consider the climactic scene in Ex Machina, where the megalomaniac cartoon genius Nathan, who roars around the set like Dark Mark Zuckerberg in Bluebeard’s castle, is shown hoarding the naked bodies of previous fembot models in bedroom. For Nathan, the sentience of his sex-slaves is beside the point: meat or metal, women will never be fully human. For the fembots, the men who own them – whether it’s mad billionaire Nathan or sweet, hapless desk-jockey Caleb – are obstacles to be overcome, with violence if necessary.

When the cyborgs take over the machines, will men still matter? In fiction, as in life, one way for oppressed people to free themselves is to use technology to master the machines that made them. “The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism,” writes Haraway. “But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.”

The rueful paranoia at the heart of these visions of the future is that one day, AIs will be able to reproduce without us, and will summarily decide that we are irrelevant. From Metropolis to The Matrix, the nightmare is the same: if androids ever get access to the means of reproduction, nothing’s going to stop them. This is, coincidentally, the basic fear that men have harboured about women since the dawn of feminism, and particularly since the advent of contraception and reproductive technology. That fear is the anxious root of much of women’s oppression today.

Alan Turing, the father of robotics, was concerned that “thinking machines” could be exploited because they were not sentient in the way that “real human beings” are sentient. We still have not decided, as a species, that women are sentient – and as more and more fembots appear on our screens and in our stories, we should consider how our technology reflects our expectations of gender. Who are the users, and who gets used? Unless we can recalibrate our tendency to exploit each other, the question may not be whether the human race can survive the machine age – but whether it deserves to.

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This article appears in the 20 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater