Thursday, March 26, 2015

First World Problems : Should Robots Have Gender?

Even with all the clamor around the documentary India's daughters, the aftermath of rape in India and women's rights in Muslim countries, I did not write anything it. Primarily because there is a surfeit of smart women who can and did talk about the issue themselves, they don't need a middle class, Tambrahm dude preaching about what he imagines its like to be oppressed by the hypocritical patriarchy. I think I contributed more by liking their posts than by writing one myself.
It would have been funny if it were not true.
Having said that I do consider myself quite an expert in philosophical first world problems and their hypothetical impact on society. So when Slate ran an article exploring the motivations, nuances and consequences of assigning gender to robots, I am jumping on the chance to talk about gender in a totally noncommittal, never-been-affected-by-it, you-go-gals-I'l-wait-here context.

The key point of the article is this : whether we want to or not, we unconsciously assign humanity, and gender to our environment,usually based on prevailing societal stereotypes.

For example : robots with angular construction, darker colors seem more masculine to people, as do one that are used in strength-intensive functions such as lifting or construction.
Robots with lighter colors, curvy designs and intended for calmer functions such as those involved in healthcare and teaching are usually identified by people as female.
Guess which one is male and which one female. And go watch Wall-E.
This obvious stereotyping occurs even if the robots do not have an interactive voice, or even a "face".

The article goes to on to describe NASA's answer to the DARPA Robotics Challenge- The Valkyrie DRC Robonaut. Built with the intention of replacing humans for tasks that are too dangerous, the robot has been given a female name and characteristics. The article praises NASA for doing this. However when NASA was asked specifically if the Valkyrie was intended to be female, NASA chose not to assign its robots gender.

In an ideal world, I think what NASA did was correct. Robots do not have gender. It is a slippery slope if you start assigning them one. If certain characteristics strike as masculine or feminine, it can be in the eye of the beholder. There need not be any explicit delineation of robot gender from their creator, just like buildings and cars are not required to be male or female, despite people's individual preferences.

Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world.

Emotions and symbolism exert more power over our actions and beliefs than we would like to admit. As the Slate article says, "if robots are given female form only for designing sexbots and maids, and all the heavy lifting is done by male robots, what will it say about the humans who use these bots"?

Is it possible to prevent this from happening? I don't think so. A private robot manufacturer will be free to design and label his product. I think sexbots and cleaningbots will be given the female form, simply because they might sell more. Even if we could legislate that all robots should be sexless, is it the right thing to do? It can be argued that a feminine design for a healthcare bot could actually be beneficial for a patient's emotional and psychological recovery. 

Given such grey areas, it might be more practical to admit that whether we like it or not, many robots will be assigned genders, be it to augment their function, or just to augment their sales.

And in this imperfect world I have to agree with the article, we might need (and I can't believe I am saying this) "strong female robot role models" for the same reason we have had to 'promote' women in science; to prevent prejudices and stereotypes from denying rights and opportunities from those who deserve it.


  1. So much stereotyping everywhere.
    Robots will also fall into the same trap as they are designed by humans....

    Nice points. Hope for the best.

  2. Thanks Nuranjan for providing stimulation to reflect on yet another area, the gender stereotyping of robots! I think that as humans we use stereotypes because they are an efficient way of living in the world - in this context, stereotypes mean "the most common range of behaviour or actions". When we say "women are like this" or "men behave like that", we are essentially saying that. In my opinion, stereotypes are fine, if they are seen in this sense - (1) they are a range and not one specific way (2) they are the most common ways but not the only ways. Stereotypes are also culturally, socially and temporily defined, and are dynamic, they change. Problems start when we insist that our ideas of stereotypes are the only acceptable ways.

    1. Completely agree, stereotypes exist for a reason.

  3. it's a robotic review

  4. thanks anita paresh kirti

  5. Nice post, things explained in details. Thank You.

  6. It was very useful for me. Keep sharing such ideas in the future as well. This was actually what I was looking for, and I am glad to came here! Thanks for sharing the such information with us.