This week’s blog post is a response to a comment left on my blogpost from last week; Fear of the Machines. Which mentioned another way in which Hollywood tends to depict A.I, namely as caring and nurturing, pointing to the movie Her (2013). coincidently, this also came up in some of the articles I read after making the blog post from two weeks ago, thus I am dedicating this 9th blogpost to discussing this different portrayal of A.I in Hollywood! I look forward to your response.
In my previous blog post I discussed how the fear of the machine was a result of the Cold war tensions, and the arms race related to it, as well as a Hollywood tradition of “Christian apocalyptic tradition” (Geraci 2008), but also that the apocalyptic A.I., is a projection of a negative, destructive believe about human nature (Szollosy 2014). The rise of caring, female A.I. indicates a shift away from this perspective. At least that is what Ioanna Mavridou argues in her dissertation on gender and the image of A.I.. Mavridou argues that after the end of the Cold War, and at the turn of the century, people get a more positive attitude towards technology and machines, thus they end up being portrayed as more supportive, caring and emotional (Mavridou 2016).
As mentioned above, Her is an example of such a Hollywood movie that portrays a kinder, more caring ideal of A.I., however it comes up more often as well, such as in the movie Ex Machina, as well as the character Somni-451 in the movie Cloud Atlas., Even the A.I. in I-Robot (also mentioned in my previous blog post) seems to be motivated by care, although ina more destructive manner than the others mentioned here. What you might note here, is that all these caring A.I. seem to be, or at least are modelled as women. Of course there might be some exceptions to this trend, however it is notable how the majority of the caring A.I seem to fall in line with this rule of being portrayed as female.
Micol Marchetti-Bowick, a scholar on gender and robotics, argues that the way we give shape to robots and which atributes are projected upon them, often reflect gendered stereotypes if the robots have been given the shape of humans ( Marchetti-Bowick 2009). Thus because society tends
to see caring for people and soft emotions as a trait that is inherently
female, it is not suprising that Hollywood and mainstream cinematics often uncritically perpetrates these dynamics. An essay in the Guardian about female A.I.’s too emphasises how robots involving caring are
often coded female, discussing the movie Ex-Machina, where the robot became curious tried to mimic human emotions. According to the director of the movie, it was supposed to be a critique on the exact issue this blog was about; the stereotype of female robots by male designers, however there has been much critique, that while trying to subvert stereotypes, the director fell into others, where Ava (the name of the A.I) fits gender stereotypes, by having a hight EQ in many ways, such as expressing love and romantic interest. While when A.Is that are coded as male get shown, the focus tends to lie on IQ to prove their intelligence.
However, it’s not just movies in which gendered stereotypes get imposed on technology. Take for example voice assistants in our phones, such as Apple’s Siri or Android’s Bixby, as well as Google’s assistent and the translate voice, which are almost entirely female voices. Why do we assume that an assistent would have to have a female voice? Looking back to cinamatics we again see this too, where the A.I that control space ships in so many science fiction/space opera tv shows are female, from classics such as Firefly, but also Dark Matter and Killjoy. These gender stereotypes show up regularly, but what is their impact on how we interact with the machines, and how do the machines impact how we understand gender.
Geraci, Robert M. “Apocalyptic AI: Religion and the Promise of Artificial Intelligence.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 76, no. 1 (2008): 138-66.
Marchetti-Bowick, Micol. “Is Your Roomba Male or Female? The Role of Gender Stereotypes and Cultural Norms in Robot Design.” Intersect 2.1 (2009): 1-14.
Mavridou, Ioanna. “Gender,(Dis) Embodiment, and the Image of AI and Robot in Spike Jonze’s Her and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina.” PhD diss., Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, 2016.
Szollosy, Michael. “Freud, Frankenstein and Our Fear of Robots: Projection in Our Cultural Perception of Technology.” AI & SOCIETY 32, no. 3 (2017): 433-39.
I love how cyborgs and androids could be near androgynous,,, and yet people feel the need to give them breasts
Yeah, its such a weird situation, we really love gendering things
It is really true, AI programmers tend to give characteristics that are socially understood as female to support AI, and they also do that with robotics. Maybe it has to do with how female figures are viewed in many societies, and especially the idea of a ‘mother figure’. This latter concept has many interpretations around the globe, but one of its defining characteristics is of being nurturing and supportive. Nevertheless, as we go further in the 21st century, it becomes increasingly obvious that this of the female gender is quite reductive and exclusive. It is possible to see that in the fact that in single-parent households, where the only parent happens to be a male, he has to provide the same support and assistance that a female parent would, in order to help the child (or children) flourish into functioning adults. The characteristic communicative and emotional intelligence abilities that developers assign to ‘female AI’, in the real world are also a characteristic of male individuals. The divide is not as clear as society wants us to think, in daily life it is highly likely to find male individuals with female characteristics and vice versa.
Therefore, I agree, the portrayal of supportive/assistant AI as female is reductive and their developers should acknowledge that and also provide male supportive/assistant AI, or even gender-neutral.