Will Robots Have Gender?

Should an intelligent machine be a he or she?  Or an it?  We homo sapiens tend to anthropomorphize our machinery, like naming our cars and military aircraft after women.  And like God, we want to make our cybernetic creations in our own image.  All too often in the history of robots we have made them women or men machines, even if they don’t have functioning genitals or reproductive organs.  It’s a little weird, if you think about it.

Lets assume we build an intelligent machine, made of metal, with two arms and two legs and one head.  Let’s further assume it’s self aware and is actively interested in the world and even has a personality.  Will there be any reason for it to think of itself as a he or a she?  And is it fair to think of it as an it, what we’ve always designated as an inanimate object?

I suppose we could ask it, “Do you feel you are a girl or a boy?”

We also assume it will speak English, but what if machines develop their own language we can’t understand, and English is their second language they use with us?  Their language could be without gender.

Imagine we have a machine, and it doesn’t have to be a human form robot, but even just a mainframe box with a pair of eyes and ears and a neo-cortex CPU that can process patterns coming from its two senses.  Furthermore, imagine while processing its visual and auditory data it becomes aware of itself.  I assume it will be like us and have to spend years processing data from reality before it becomes an individual.  Can you remember being 6 months old, or even two years old?

But at some point it says to us, “Hey there, who am I, and what the hell are you?”  If it grows up with people it should notice that we come in males and females.  I suppose it could identify with us in that way.  I’m sure it will observe gender pronouns.  But can an artificial intelligence see the world, and divide it up into objects with names and understand that animals often come in two kinds, male and female?

Are maleness and femaleness qualities that can exist outside of biological reproductive mechanisms?  Maybe our growing machine will distinguish personality traits it labels as male or female.  Could it identify with one or the other?  And then again, it could have multiple personalities of various genders.

Our tyke consciousness might see people as totally alien from their sense of self.  What if they think of people as cute as kittens, with limited awareness (i.e. stupid).  It’s possible they could see our gender polarization as a handicap.  And even see our sexuality as some kind of distortion field that keeps us from seeing reality clearly.

I am reminded of a psychological experiment I read about decades ago.  Kittens were raised in controlled visual environments.  Some were raised with no horizontal lines, and others without any vertical lines.  After six months the kittens were let out into the real world.  Those kittens that had never seen a vertical line would walk into chair legs as if they were invisible, and kittens that never saw horizontal lines would refuse to jump onto chairs or shelves.

What if robots see things we don’t.  What if they see our preoccupation with gender as a kind of blindness.  There have been many a saint that has taught that the spiritual world can’t be seen unless we overcome our sexual desires.  Doesn’t it say something that many people expect us to build robots that are sexual attractive to men and women.  Remember Data bragging to Lieutenant Yar that he was fully functional.  Think of the sexbots in the film AI, or the charming romance in WALL-E, where we think of the two cute robots as boy and girl.  We didn’t think of them as it and it.

Can we ever get beyond gender when it comes to robots?  It might be possible to build robots that look like humans, like the androids in Blade Runner.  But can you also imagine such machines waking up and pointing to their sexual parts and asking, “WTF?”


We have no idea what artificial intelligence will think about.  They might want to count all the leaves on the trees, or paint super realistic paintings of potholes in asphalt.  Maybe they’ll like mathematics, or maybe they’ll consider math as too obvious for comment.  Or maybe they’ll tell us their eyes aren’t good enough and start redesigning their bodies.

I think science fiction writers need to explore robots that aren’t imitation people.

I always imagine the first artificial mind becoming aware and talking to people, and what they might say to us.  Until just now, I never imagined two machines becoming aware together and talking to each other.  I wonder what they would say?  I don’t think one will say to the other, “I’ll be the male, and you be the female.”

JWH – 3/29/10

2 thoughts on “Will Robots Have Gender?”

  1. The master at imagining what robots may think about is Stanislaw Lem: Cyberiad and Imaginary Magnitde are awesome books about this.

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