Housed in a tall plastic cylinder, Amazon’s Alexa is far from physically resembling a woman. Yet when asked about its gender, the system curiously responds it is “female in character.” A closer look at recent developments in artificial intelligence shows Alexa is the rule rather than the exception. From Apple’s Siri to Hanson Robotics’ humanoid robot Sophia, it seems that the future is female indeed — but not in the way we intended.
Artificial intelligence and robotics may intend to free us from many human limitations, but it seems that gender stereotypes are not one of them. Some recent achievements in these fields feel like we’re transporting back into the 1950s rather than into the future.
In industries such as sports and weaponry, names and appearances of devices are usually either male or somewhat technical. A prominent example is TaekwonV, winner of the robot skiing competition at this year’s Winter Olympics and named after a boy in a popular manga comic. However, in the service and caring industries, names and appearances of devices are almost exclusively female.
Of course these mostly Caucasian “females” are exceptionally attractive. Sophia was apparently modeled after actress Audrey Hepburn. She also looks remarkably similar to humanoid robot Ava from the movie Ex Machina. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, many news outlets have declared her as “the hot robot.” The emphasis again is on a woman’s beauty.
One does not need a degree in gender studies to understand the implications of these developments. In the current discussion about gender and identity, advances in artificial intelligence and robotics add another layer of complexity.
Obviously neither Sophia nor her companions are, in fact, real women. But how can we encourage young girls to strive for being doctors, politicians, or astronauts when they grow up surrounded by female-looking service robots and are constantly exposed to an idea of femininity that makes The Stepford Wives look progressive? How can we teach young boys to treat women with respect and dignity when they boss around their female virtual assistants all day? Amazon’s Alexa was subject to so much verbal harassment that developers had to give her a special “disengagement mode.”
It is easy to dismiss these thoughts as theoretical musings about the distant future. But Japan already opened its first hotel with robot receptionists back in 2015. Needless to say, most of them are female. The country is further experimenting with caregiving robots in more than 5,000 facilities for elderly people across the country.
Japan is not alone; in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, more than 6,000 elderly people are currently in direct contact with humanoid robots. Several countries are further experimenting with using robot teachers in schools, leading to a forecast that the total global market revenue for service robotics will grow from $3.7 billion in 2015 to $15 billion in 2020. Needless to say, the impact of these developments on the service industry will be enormous.
Movements such as “Time’s Up” and “#MeToo” may fight current inequality and injustice in the workplace. But what we are missing in this needed and determined fight for equality is that in many professions, the time for women is quite literally up.
Many have written about the loss of jobs in the wake of artificial intelligence and robotics. Yet few have pointed out that many of those losing their jobs are an already vulnerable group — minority women, who are traditionally those employed in the service industry. In the U.S. alone, 164,000 women employed as secretaries and administrative assistants will lose their jobs in the next couple of years as compared to 90,000 male assembly line workers.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. According to a recent study by the World Economic Forum, women account for 57 percent of those whose jobs are likely to be replaced by technology. At a time when we finally encourage women to speak out about harassment and inequality in the workplace, we are simultaneously working on replacing them with perfect artificial counterparts. Always pretty, always smiling, never a bad word or a hair out of place.
Artificial intelligence and robotics pose many challenging economic and ethical questions. Yet one thing is certain: We will not solve any of them if women remain in scarce numbers in these fields. Since these industries have even lower gender diversity than the tech sector in general, we must encourage women to get involved in both the research and development of AI as well as the discussion of its societal implications. Otherwise, the future will once again be shaped by a group of men behind closed doors.
Katrin Zimmerman is managing director of TLGG, a strategic consulting firm and digital agency.