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

Skills for Kens and Barbies

When little girls play with their Barbie and Ken dolls and have the couple drive around in their sports car, if they get a flat, which doll do the little girls expect to fix the tire?  This week was Barbie’s 50th birthday.  It was also the week I ran across “Should you be reading that magazine?” which is about an article in Popular Mechanics, “100 Skills Every Man Should Know.”  By the authority of Popular Mechanics, Ken should be the doll that knows how to change a tire.  The editors believe Barbie should acquire  her life  skills by reading their sister magazine, Good Housekeeping, but I bet Barbie studies Cosmo.

During the same week President Obama created the new White House Council on Women and Girls.  The council is charged with making sure each federal agency works to improve the economic status of women, develop policies that establish a balance between work and family, prevent violence against women, build healthy families and promote women’s health care.  It doesn’t sound like the White House is trying to rekindle feminism, but rather make paternal laws to protect women.

This week President Obama also made moves to change the Bush’s policies that were anti-science by signing a memorandum “directing the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making.”  Obama wants to make vast changes in education, including a renewed emphasis on science and mathematics.

Now all of these diverse topics might sound unconnected, but I see a thread.  Fifty years ago Barbie caused a controversy because parents wanted their little girls to play with dolls that looked like little babies, expecting their daughters to grow up to be mothers.  Little girls wanted to play with Barbie because they wanted to grow up to be big girls like Barbie.  They wanted long legs, a nice rack and lots of fashionable clothes, and of course a boyfriend that can change a tire on her sports car.  Was there ever Nobel Prize winning Barbie, or even aerospace engineer Barbie?  There was an astronaut Barbie, but I get the feeling little girls didn’t imagine her being a shuttle payload specialist, but instead just pictured her as a cute space girl like Barbarella.

If President Obama wants to empower little girls, should he encourage them to play with Hilary Clinton dolls?  Should his White House Commission come down hard on the editors of Popular Mechanics?  Should girls take shop class with the boys in school?  When I took shop in the 8th and 9th grade there were no girls in our class.  And us boys never saw the inside of a home economics class.  Is that still true today?

According to Natalie Angier’s The Canon we’re having a damn hard time getting boys or girls to stick with math and science.  Understanding science means understanding reality.  Science can explain why little girls play with Barbies and why the writers and readers of Popular Mechanics expect men to know their 100 specialized skills while women should study Good Housekeeping for important skills that all females should know.

If girls and women must fulfill their biological programming as well as the meet the biological expectations of men, while following guidelines for living set down by ancient patriarchal religions will they ever be free?  And fifty years ago, did Barbie reveal a shift in girl’s behavior?  Was Barbie a step forward in feminism?  Barbie throws off the burka of playing the mommy role to play the part of the hot babe, which is astoundingly documented in the history of the cinema and television since then.

President Obama campaigned on the promise of change, but our society is changing all the time.  The question is how much can we change.  Are there limits?  Will there one day be a new fad doll on the market that little girls take to like Barbie?  A doll that reflects a new generation of women?  Are the sexy outfits Western women wear the burkas imposed on them the males of our society, or do they reflect what women actually want to wear?  (In other words, does Barbie reveal that girls want to grow up to be the Sex in the City girls?)  Does the political shift in the White House towards women represent a new deal for women?  Is it a liberal step forward or does it merely add more protection and care of females?  Is that the role women want?  The majority of women pulled up on the reigns on feminism well before Bush.

Now that Obama is in the White House we can go back and pick up where liberal progress left off, but will we?  If you analyze the undercurrent of change, we only want progress in certain areas and not others.  Even in liberal times there are conservative genes in us that never get turned off.

JWH – 3/13/9 (revised 3/18/9)