Sexbots and Terminators: Exploring Gender in AI

Article written with Victoria Scrubb and originally appeared in MISC magazine.

We’re playing God again. Every day it seems that videos, articles, or images emerge of humanity’s latest triumph in the robotics world and, with each subsequent release, we inch closer and closer to looking at ourselves through a digital mirror. Our ability to push beyond the boundaries of what was thought possible has always been our greatest capacity as humans, however, robotic and AI advancements have a unique place within this capacity for the eerie implications they afford. The future of humanoids in particular is a strange space, where we see the best and worst of humanity quite literally reflected back at us as fabricated versions of ourselves. We see some of society’s most poignant topics and issues exaggerated or toyed with in an artificial sphere, and perhaps no topic more widely leveraged or relevant than that of gender.

Like technology, gender permeates and penetrates the intangible and tangible spaces of our everyday lives from the moment we are born. Yet, this omnipresent aspect of our being is constructed – a fallacy and a fiction of social expectations, norms, and beliefs. Constructed, but made very real through its intertwining with the biological categories of male and female. Unlike the social aspect of gender, which focuses on personality or behavioral traits, the physiological aspect of gender, or sex, is rooted in physical traits – chromosomes, hormones, and reproductive organs. In the human world, sex is the starting point from which we are socialized into a gender; but in the world of technology, the starting point is gender, from which a representation of a man or woman is built.

Thus, as we find technology appropriating gender, we must first ask what we mean by gender within the realm of technology. Second, we must carefully explore how gendered roles are being used in the design and intentionality of the technologies we create. And last, we must deeply ponder the role of gender in AI and the world to come.

Gender as the Machine

Our DNA sets us apart from all other species, and our flesh and blood will distinguish us from our humanoid counterparts. Thus, our humanness is deeply connected to our biology, and it is within this biology that we begin to unravel and deconstruct gender. Through chromosomes, hormones, and reproductive organs, we are able to perpetuate the human species. It is a trait that we share with all living things – the capacity to reproduce. In this sense, our gender becomes a defining characteristic, as, in the barest forms of reproduction, it is the mechanism through which we as a species can procreate.

However, the role we play in this perpetual game also has broader implications through our gender. The obvious and non-obvious physiological differences between men and women – reproductive organs, body shapes and sizes, chemical and endocrine levels – both force and implicate differences in our minds, personalities, and behaviors. This divide is where culture starts to curate expectations around appropriate behaviors of men and women, or the creation of masculinity and femininity. It is in this divide where we also see the distinction between gender as it relates to our physiological differences (sex) versus gender as the socially indoctrinated (culture). Onto sex, each society normalizes its own beliefs, rules, and assertions about how men and women should behave, blurring the line between nature and nurture. Over time, what it means to be male or female becomes synonymous with what it means to be masculine and feminine, and is encompassed as a singularity under the term “gender.”

Throughout human history, sex, sexuality, and sexual expression have been the driving force behind the creation of gendered roles and the boxes we draw around them. But as we understand more clearly the distinction between sex and our reproductive role, and gender and our prescriptive role, we start to see how what is biological and what is social have become deeply intertwined. We see that while some characteristics and personality traits have a foundation in biological differences, most of what we deem masculine or feminine is culturally determined.

The Machine as Gender

Anthropomorphizing technology is fantastical, but gendering them is an experiment fraught with complication and countless pitfalls. The humanoid form is designed to be human, but whether it looks like it is or isn’t human is a very different question from whether it acts and behaves like one. So far, we have solved this by programming humanoids with the prescriptive performative behaviors associated with masculinity and femininity.

Since there is no biological foundation with robotics, we can only ever assign gender as it is socially defined – with all the nurture and none of the nature. As a result, we are forced to think about humanoids as a set of characteristics, abilities, and personality traits around an intention. We have to ask how we want it to look and how we want to it to function, and then decide if that profile leans towards our idea of masculinity or femininity. This ability for non-humans to be programmed with a gendered identity even without having a biological sex reveals that the two sides of gender, though related, are not the same. In fact, we are not making male and female humanoids at all, but rather machines that resemble the male and female form and are programmed to express desired characteristics of masculinity or femininity.

We could therefore have a female-looking humanoid with very masculine traits, or vice versa, or a humanoid with any combination of masculine and feminine traits. And if we hypothesize that we can create, for example, “femininity” without the biological traits of a female, then we must also push ourselves to reconcile the potential for the biology of the female to exist without the rigid social expectations of “femininity.” Furthermore, when we break the limitations of the biological determinism of gender, we see that sociologically, it can be a very complex and ambiguous topic – one that forces our definitions to push beyond even the binary bounds of masculinity and femininity. In doing so, we draw a crucial distinction between female versus femininity and male versus masculinity.

Thought Experiment: Putting the Androgyny Back in Androids

A fun game to play at home is to work through the mental exercise of trying to design a truly genderless robot. If, as we describe above, social gender can be an open and complex topic, and if we’re playing God anyway, why don’t we simply remove gender altogether? While we’re at it, why not just create additional genders? Like any good mind-bender, this experiment has at least three outcomes.

In a Puritan’s world and working directly, the answer is simply put: no, we cannot design something truly genderless, because we cannot remove our minds from the social constructs of gender. We build masculinized or feminized versions of robots not simply to satisfy our own vanity or sexual desires, but because we have no other frame of reference for human intelligence. We can speculate on what these may look like, however, even our speculations will likely be rooted in the known and we do not have a model to work from for the absence of gender.

This isn’t for a lack of trying to explore these questions, but the nature-nurture conundrum always gets in the way. It is at this point that we meet face to face with the reality that the intertwining between nature and nurture is so complex that we don’t really know where one begins and the other ends. We don’t actually know what aspects of our minds are “male,” “female,” “masculine,” “feminine,” or simply “human.” Short of massively violating the rights of countless individuals for years – from birth until the time that their minds have fully grown to help isolate learned roles from natural differences between men and women – it is exceptionally difficult to filter out thousands of years of social indoctrination.

And what of those other cat-skinning methods alluded to earlier? Indirectly, there are two obvious possibilities to explore. We couldcreate a sentient being that is additive, an equal combination of both male and female design. However, in doing this, have we not simply stuffed two minds into one box? A combination of genders is not a lack thereof, but an excess of genderization. Playing on our title – which highlights the extremes of gender misinterpretation – all we have accomplished in this scenario is creating a hypersexualized, overly aggressive and violent robot with a gender identity crisis.

On the flip side, we could go the subtractive route, creating an entity that exists at the overlap between female and male and keeping only those parts that are common. However, in doing so, do we remove so much that what’s remaining cannot even qualify as human? Here, the challenge becomes finding the difference between female and femininity. Even if we can, it begs the question whether our gender, male or female, is integral to our intelligence and humanity.

The reality of a perfect, genderless design likely exists somewhere between the additive and subtractive cases. The right answer probably lies along a spectrum between the two – combining some parts and taking out others – somewhere along that female-femininity line. However, this realization leads us back to the same issue originally established in this thought exercise. It is our lack of understanding of our own minds and gender – be it native or learned – that limits our ability to truly understand, and therefore replicate, human intelligence.

So What?

Regardless of whether or not we crack the gender riddle and how extremely and incorrectly we assign gender traits to our artificial beings, one thing we need to realize is that we are at a pivotal moment in time. While algorithms will undoubtedly be created to allow AI to evolve and adapt along with human beings, it is in the recent past and near future that some of the foundational components of artificial intelligence will be written into code. And while the window dressings may change with time, we are currently hard-coding our limited, 21st century views of gender into the long-term fabric of robotics and, by extension, society.

Today, even in our own society, it is possible within the timeframe of pregnancy to experience true gender neutrality. For a brief moment, we are neither male nor female, masculine nor feminine: we are simply human. Perhaps one day it will be possible through humanoids to expand the understanding what it means to be genderless; to create a humanoid without the physical characteristics or social constructs of a gender. What would the implications of genderless bodies be on our society and on our understanding of gender? Moreover, is it even possible to think of humanoids outside of our own constructs of form and function – or will they be too “human-like” to escape?

The physiological differences of males and females is often the starting point from which social and cultural expectations are mapped, but as we’ve explored here, certain understandings of the definition of gender can be hugely simplistic and limiting, to the point of being dangerous. Gender traits written into seemingly innocuous lines of code to create a sexbot here or a terminator there could have ripple effects that echo and expand into the future, resulting in us ultimately looking in a mirror, hundreds of years from now, and seeing a reflection that looks a lot like today. Perhaps being gendered is an inescapable part of the human experience, but perhaps it need not be the same for humanoids; in the AI world, gender could be obsolete, so long as we program it that way.

Shane Saunderson is the VP of IC/things at Idea Couture.

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