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Fembots vs. HAL – Gender, Bias, and the People of AI

By Steve Wells, Rohit Talwar, Alexandra Whittington, and Helena Calle
From Watson to Sophia, who are the artificially intelligent robot personas of today, and what can they tell us about the future of gendered technology?
Gendered Technology—Humanizing or Stereotyping?

The potential loss of our humanity to soulless machines is one of the biggest concerns around the exponentially advancing technologies that are entering every aspect of human activity. The technology sector has tried to sweeten the pill with attempts to humanize the applications, chatbots, and devices they want us to embed into our daily lives. The issue here is that we may be seeing the replication of gender stereotypes and unconscious biases in the design of these systems, which could have massively damaging consequences for society if the process continues unchecked. A review of the current range of developments reveals the scale of the challenge ahead.

Siri. Alexa. Cortana. These familiar names are the modern-day Girl Fridays making everyone’s life easier. These virtual assistants powered by artificial intelligence (AI) bring to life the digital tools of the information age. One of the subtle strategies designers use to make it easier for us to integrate AI into our lives is “anthropomorphism”—the attribution of human-like traits to non-human objects. However, the rise of AI with distinct personalities, voices, and physical forms is not as benign as it might seem. As futurists who are interested in the impacts of technology on society, we wonder what role human-like technologies play in achieving human-centered futures.

For example, do anthropomorphized machines enable a future wherein humanity can thrive? Or, do human-like AIs foreshadow a darker prognosis, particularly in relation to gender roles and work? This article looks at a continuum of human-like personas that give a face to AI technology. As you read the examples below, we ask you to consider two questions: What could it mean for our collective future if technology is increasingly human-like and gendered? And, what does it tell us about our capacity to create a very equal, inclusive, and gender-balanced human future?

The Women of AI

One of the most important observations we want to convey is that the typical consumer-facing AI persona is highly feminine and feminized. There are several robots and AIs that take a female form. The examples below show the sheer breadth of applications where a feminine persona and voice are deliberately used to help us feel comfortable with increasingly invasive technology:

Emma: Brain Corp’s autonomous floor cleaner Emma (Enabling Mobile Machine Automation) is no chatty fembot. She is designed to clean large spaces like schools and hospitals. Currently, Emma is being piloted at various Wal-Mart locations, where the human cleaning crew is being asked to embrace a robot-supporting role—even though it may ultimately replace some of them. Emma washes floors independently using a combination of AI, the lidar light-based remote sensing method, and smart sensors.

Alexa: Amazon’s Alexa is the disembodied feminine AI that lives inside a smart device. As a personal assistant, Alexa does it all. There are versions of Alexa for hotels, some that act as your DJ, and those that provide medical advice. There is another side to Alexa, however; one that secretly records your private conversations. This is a great example of how companion AIs embody the surveillance of Big Brother with the compassion of Big Mother rolled into one.

Siri: Like Alexa, Apple’s Siri is an AI-powered woman’s voice. The iPhone assistant is helpful and direct. You can find information, get where you need to go, and organize your schedule. Lately, Siri is attempting to learn jokes and develop more of a natural rapport with users. Can brushing up on social skills help virtual assistant AIs shed their reputation for being both nosy and dull?

Cara: In the legal industry, Casetext’s Cara (Case Analysis Research Assistant) is an algorithmic legal assistant that uses machine learning to conduct research. Cara is widely available to attorneys and judges, a great example of AI replacing professional jobs with a powerfully smart feminine figure. With Cara, we have to wonder if there are too many outdated assumptions about gender involved—why is Cara a legal assistant, and not an attorney like Ross, the world’s first robot lawyer?

Kate: This specialized travel robot from SITA, is an AI mobile passenger check-in kiosk. Kate uses big data related to airport passenger flows to move autonomously about the airport, going where she is most needed to reduce lines and wait times. Kate, like many AI programs, uses big data predictively, perhaps displaying something similar to women’s intuition.

Sophia: This humanoid robot from Hanson Robotics gained notoriety as the first robot to claim a form of citizenship. Debuted in 2017, Sophia is a recognized citizen of the nation of Saudi Arabia, and the first robot with legal personhood. Sophia can carry on conversations and answer interesting questions. But with her quirky personality and exaggerated female features, some might categorize Sophia as a great example of AI as hype over substance.

Ava: As one of the newest female AIs, Autodesk’s Ava seems to take extreme feminization a step further. A “digital human,” Ava is a beautiful and helpful AI chatbot avatar that can read people’s body language. Ava is programmed to be emotionally expressive. Her customer service job is to support engineering and architectural software product users in real time. Being able to detect emotions puts Ava in an entirely new league of female virtual assistants. So do her looks: Ava’s appearance is literally based on a stunning actress from New Zealand.

The Men of AI

What about the male personas? Probably the most well-known AI is Watson, the IBM machine that’s matched its immense wits against human opponents at chess and the trivia game show Jeopardy. Watson has also been used in cancer diagnosis and has a regular role in many more industries, including transportation, financial services, and education. When it comes to the masculine, it seems both brain and brawn are required. In many cases, male robots do the literal heavy lifting. Here are some examples of the jobs male-personified AIs currently do:

  • Botler: A chatbot called Botler seems enlightened. He provides legal information and services for immigrants and victims of sexual harassment. Botler wears a smile and tuxedo with bowtie, appearing to be a helpful proto-butler-like gentleman.
  • Stan: Stanley Robotics’ robotic valet Stan parks your car. An autonomous forklift, Stan is able to strategically fill parking garages to capacity. Does Stan reinforce gender-based stereotypes about cars and driving?
  • FRAnky: At Frankfurt Airport you can meet FRAnky, a Facebook Messenger-based chatbot that can search for flights and give information about restaurants, shops, and the airport Wi-Fi service.
  • Leo: Another travel pro, SITA’s Leo is a luggage-drop robot who prints a bag tag, checks your suitcase, then prints a baggage receipt. The curbside helper is strong and smart.
  • Ross: The world’s first robo-lawyer. The phenomenal computational power Ross uses for legal research saves attorneys time, effort, and mistakes. The proliferation of data is the main rationale for the rise of the robo-lawyer. Human attorneys are expensive and time-consuming when it comes to the drudge work of digging up information; proponents of Ross say the AI saves 20-30 hours research time per case.
  • DaVinci: Intuitive Surgical’s DaVinci surgical assistant is one of the most established names in the robotics field. Named after the artist Leonardo DaVinci, this robot is reported to be cutting hospital stay times, improving patient outcomes, and reducing medical mistakes. Like Ross, DaVinci suggests a future where even highly skilled professional roles could be at risk from robots, which could impact the large proportion of men in these jobs.
Technology’s Transformative Potential

These examples raise the question of how much does technology shape reality. The personal computer and the mobile phone, for instance, have had immeasurable impacts across society and changed everything from work and healthcare to politics and education. Think about all the things that didn’t exist before the rise of the iPhone: texting and driving, selfies, online dating, Uber and Twitter, these are just some of the new normal. The way we work, live, and play have all been transformed by the rise of the information age. Hence, as we scan the next horizon, there is a strong sense that AI will form the basis of the near-future evolution of society.

Overall, we find it interesting to ponder the human-like manifestations among AI companions. A close look at the people of AI raises many questions: What is the role of human intelligence in an AI world? What will the relationship between robots and people be like in the workplace and in the home? How might humanity be redefined as more AI computers gain citizenship, emotional intelligence, and possibly even legal rights? How can we avoid reinforcing unhealthy gender stereotypes through technology?

We don’t expect to get straight to the answers. Rather, we use these questions to start meaningful conversations about how to construct a very human future.


  • What are the possible societal implications of AI personas reinforcing gender stereotypes?
  • What are the characteristics of the AI incarnations you choose to interact with or avoid?
  • Can organizations embrace the technology and at the same time question the underlying gender-based design assumptions in off-the-shelf AI tools?

This article is excerpted from A Very Human Future – Enriching Humanity in a Digitized World. You can order the book here.

A version of this chapter was originally published in Relocate Global.


Image: by geralt


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