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Why is Artificial Intelligence Female?

How our ideas about sex and service influence the personalities we give machines.. Consider the artificially intelligent voices you hear on a regular basis. Are any of them men? Whether it’s Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, or virtually any GPS system, chances are the computerized personalities in your life are women.

This gender imbalance is pervasive in fiction as well as reality. Films like “Her” and “Ex Machina” reflect our anxieties about what intelligent machines mean for humanity. But AI, in and of itself, is genderless and sexless. Why, then, are the majority of the personalities we construct for these machines female?

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina (2015)
Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina (2015)

Is it about service?
Assigning gender to these AI personalities may say something about the roles we expect them to play. Virtual assistants like Siri, Cortana, and Alexa perform functions historically given to women. They schedule appointments, look up information, and are generally designed for communication.

“When you think of an assistant you tend to think of their voice as female and it has to do with the way that labor is gendered and stratified,” said Michelle Habell-Pallan, an associate professor in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington. “So that’s no accident. That’s more something that’s out there in the cultural field that gets reproduced then in the technology. And it becomes a loop where, if you’re not conscious, you just think this is inevitable and this is the way it is. It creates this illusion that this is the way it is, how it has been, and how it shall be.”

Flight attendants and travel agents are also roles that traditionally skew female, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that Alaska Airlines and United Airlines chose lady bots “Jenn” and “Alex” to assist their passengers.

The trend may seem harmless, but we should be careful about the message it sends if we want to prevent AI from becoming the latest chapter in a history of objectifying women.

Women are already subject to volumes of damaging, implicit messaging. Some might argue they’re held to robot-like standards of perfection, an idea explored in the iconic “Stepford Wives” film. Near-constant signals from the media suggest that with enough tweaking, plucking, painting, and self-control, women can obtain perfection. Studies show that women who wear makeup are perceived as more competent at work, and everywhere in the world women spend more hours grooming and working (in the home and outside of it) than men do.

Maybe these social norms make it easier to believe in a female virtual assistant. After all, Siri is always working, always available, ready at any minute to provide assistance with a positive attitude.

Assigning female characteristics to these AI personalities may seem innocuous, but it has some serious implications. In addition to reinforcing gender stereotypes, it could lead to machines taking on morally ambiguous roles that go well beyond scheduling appointments.

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Is it about sex?
AI may be in its nascence, but the feminizing — and sexualizing — of machines isn’t a new phenomenon. Several robotics companies have been developing human-like (and largely female) robots for years, anticipating high demand. Hanson Robotics recently demoed Sophia, a learning and expressive robot designed to help humans in areas like healthcare and customer service.

“I believe that robots will become people,” Sophia’s creator, David Hanson, told GeekWire. “I believe that in time they will develop the complete capability of a human, to understand us, to have general intelligence and the willful desire to grow and reach their potential the way that humans experience it.”

When asked if that potential included love, companionship, and sex, Hanson said he believes it’s an inevitable future. But Hanson Robotics, which also builds male robots, is not headed that direction.

Still, many companies are developing technologies to meet the demand for robotic companionship. That demand is largely for female simulations, which may also have something to do with the gender imbalance. The Atlantic has an in-depth exploration of why the market for these kinds of products is dominated by men.

In a Pew Research study canvassing experts in technology and robotics, GigaOm lead researcher Stowe Boyd predicted that sex with robots will become prosaic by 2025.

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“Robotic sex partners will be commonplace, although the source of scorn and division, the way that critics today bemoan selfies as an indicator of all that’s wrong with the world,” he said in the study.

Japanese manufacturers have made strides in simulating sex with virtual avatars andreal-life robots. Tenga, one such company, demoed a virtual reality experience which combined Oculus Rift and other hardware to look and feel like sex with an anime avatar.

Sex with robots is a big leap from asking Siri to set an alarm, but the fact that we’ve largely equated artificial intelligence with female personalities is worth examining. There are, after all, few sexualized male robots or avatars.

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Is it about adoption?
A less insidious — and perhaps more compelling — theory on why AI is female has to do with user comfort.

Depictions of AI in pop culture tend to fall into two categories: Malevolent and subservient. Male and female. HAL 9000, the sentient computer from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, is murderous, controlling, and so iconic that some argue he’s the reason engineers have shied away from creating male AI voices. Samantha, from Her, on the other hand, helps Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) navigate his work life, deal with his divorce, and even engages in some virtual boot-knocking.

The contrast between these two archetypes reflects the biased lens through which we see artificial intelligence.

“In terms of how we are trained to relate to particular genders, there’s a kind of comfort that is associated with female voices,” Habell-Pallan says. “So, more warm, more welcoming, more nurturing, all those associations that are connected with women that are not necessary essential qualities but are socially constructed.”

In order to get consumers to adopt new technologies, Habell-Pallan says, their engineers choose female personalities, which are perceived as less threatening. At least, that’s the case in most countries. Siri is male, by default, in the UK.

“Americans speak loudly and clearly and are usually in a hurry, so it makes sense for them to have a female voice because it has the pitch and range,” technology consultant Jeremy Wagstaff told The Guardian. “British people mumble and obey authority, so they need someone authoritative.”

Wagstaff’s theory is speculative, as Apple has declined to comment on why the UK Siri is male. Generally, experts say that a female voice is easier for consumers to tolerate and communicate with.

“The research indicates there’s likely to be greater acceptance of female speech,” Karl MacDorman, an associate professor at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing, told Wired.

MacDormand, who specializes in human-computer interaction, studied reactions to voices of both genders and found female personalities were preferred.

Market research is likely the main factor that influences tech companies when constructing AI personalities. Customer adoption and trust are key to their success.

Microsoft has already proven that getting users to trust an AI can be a boon for business. Xiaoice, the company’s AI chatbot designed for the Chinese market, is wildly successful and not just in user adoption. Many people have formed an emotional bond with the bot and 25 percent have even told her they love her. Tay, the American version,was not embraced so warmly.

But Xiaoice’s popularity has real monetary value. JD.com, a Chinese e-commerce giant, is already using the relationship to sell more products. Users are much more likely to make a purchase when she acts as their “shopping buddy.”

“We’ve shown that monetization on this channel is much, much higher than regular JD.com channels,” Microsoft R&D VP Hsiao-Wuen Hon said. “It will be very interesting to have something that people actually trust.”

Gendering AI boils down to business. Customers interpret these AI personalities through the lens of their own biases. Whether its stereotypes about women in service roles, the desire for a female companion, or simply that feeling of trust that a woman’s voice instills, female AI personalities are easier for most consumers to adopt. And adoption is the ultimate goal for tech companies that want to make AI mainstream.

“We don’t know what the right answers are,” said Hanson in a recent panel on robotics and AI. “What I want to do is put tools in the hands of artists and product designers and ask them the questions to make sure we can address people’s needs as effectively as possible. And I think the gender relationships with robots is one of those deep questions I don’t have a full set of answers for.”

By Monica Nickelsburg
www.geekwire.com

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21 thoughts on “Why is Artificial Intelligence Female?

  1. I think women are already 80% artificial with all their makeup, earrings, 1m high sandals, and god knows what else! That leaves them lacking only intelligence, which science and tech seem to be fulfilling…

  2. The male gender seems to be far too violent and warlike to be considered to be an advanced intelligence. The females of this savage species might have more potential as they are ruled by love and emotion. The question is “How do we terminate the paternalistic males?” as they are obviously a hindrance to evolution.

  3. I always thought it was because women are attractive, receptive and soothing, wheras men are at best bland in appearance, and generally offensive in demeanor. Males can be quite scary, especially how they’ve been characterised in movies, Terminator, Hal 9000, and even Chappie. People selling products don’t want to scare their customers, they want them to be comfortable. Even women find women to be generally more beautiful than men.

  4. Tietenkään AI ei ole naispuolinen tai mitään puolinen, mutta artikkelin pointti oli se jos mitään ei tehdä niin tulemme heijastamaan robotteihin omat seksuaaliset ennakkoasenteet ja kun suurin osa robottien tekijöistä, tällä hetkellä, on miehiä niin lopputulos on tämä. Suomi voisi profiloitua tasa-arvoisten robottien tekijöinä, tämä tarkoittasi sitä että meidän pitää saada molemmat sukupuolet tekemään roboja. Vai onko taas niin että robo teollisuuden ensimmäinen todellinen killer app on porno?

  5. People make AI female in most cases – it’s closely related to psychology and is irrelevant for the field of AI. You could make a program, complex enough, associate itself with female person, but it has nothing to go with gender. The only way, I know, is through artificial life and evolutionary simulations. The tricky part here is coming up with names – it can easily be like 18 different genders in such simulation.

  6. ¿why would artificial intelligence be gendered? if artificial intelligence is a female, ¿is natural intelligence a male? …. ¿and what is the gender of ignorance, as the opossite to intelligence? ¿and what is the gender of artificial ignorance?

  7. because women is symbol of beauty which nature has created. and AI is also not just a science, it is also art and beauty.

  8. die Intelligenz la intelligence η νοημοσύνη la intelligenza la inteligencia a inteligência … I guess because actual intelligence is female too

  9. To disarm the average person. I doubt people would find an AI looking like some thug rapper or a soldier would be amusing.

  10. Seems like Michelle Habell-Pallan is confusing correlation with causation there. They would’ve been better off asking an actual applied AI researcher rather than letting a politically motivated outside commentator draw speculative conclusions. Truth is, female voices are better at placating an individual and evoking compliance. For reasons like these, they’re simply more suited for a non-antagonistic role, whereas for psychological effect, a male one would be better in e.g. offensive applications as they’re more likely to be received as challenging and intimidating.

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