During last November’s Cyber Monday, I bought a new home companion. She had a coral shell, an Australian accent, and answered to “Hey Google.” The more we spoke, the more I thought about her consciousness. How was her personality programmed? What were her defining characteristics? And as I pondered these questions, I couldn’t get past the obvious fact that she was, first and foremost, a she. The growing number of personal digital assistants such as Siri (Apple), Cortana (Microsoft), and Alexa (Amazon) illustrate that, even in our attempts to create a posthuman world, we still use the architecture of gender to imagine the future.

The feminization of artificial intelligence (AI) isn’t a culturally novel phenomenon. The latest embodiment of AI—personal digital assistants—stands rank with other popularized cyborgs and bots also considered she. The most literal is the disembodied heroine of Spike Jonze’s 2013 rom-sci-fi Her, in which lonely human Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls for his personalized operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). More recent is Alex Garland’s 2015 sci-thriller Ex Machina, in which the AI, Ava (Alicia Vikander), takes form in a humanoid robot. And let’s not forget the twin-barrel−blazing fembots of Austin Powers, the programmed-to-not-be-desperate Stepford Wives, and the teen-fantasy bombshell of John Hughes’s cult classic Weird Science. For decades, shebots and sheborgs have been computed into pop culture, and it’s clear what they all have in common: sexy subservience.

Dr. Miriam Sweeney, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama and digital-media scholar, researches how the feminization of AI plays proxy to society’s embedded patriarchal attitudes about women’s “natural” workService and caregiver jobs, which rely heavily on emotional labor and the maintenance of social relationships, are disproportionately held by women as a hangover from women’s historical bondage to the domestic sphere: the home. The feminization of AI becomes the natural next step in hardwiring a connection between domestic labor and “women’s work.” It also depicts our understanding of what the perfect model of service should look like: docile, passive, obedient, feminine. This depiction, Sweeney maintains, tacitly approves men’s fantasies of sexual domination and aggression. While slapping a waitress’s butt might be met with conflict or punishment, asking Siri about her bra size won’t have any real-life consequences.

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Can we change the direction of gendered AI? by Dejan Jotanovic

April 25th, 2019