Are gender stereotypes being reinforced in AI?

gender-equality

Virtual assistants such as Siri, Alexa, and Cortana are making our lives easier. A subtle strategies designers use to help us 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 we are interested in the impacts of technology on society. For example, do anthropomorphized machines enable a future in which humanity can thrive?  Or, do human-like AIs foreshadow a darker picture, particularly in relation to gender roles and work?  Let’s look at the human-like personas that give a face to AI technology and what it means for our collective 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.  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. 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.

 

  • 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; one that secretly records your private conversations.  This is a great example of how companion AIs embody Big Brother surveillance and Big Mother compassion rolled into one.

 

  • Siri: Like Amazon’s 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 using 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.  Are 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?

 

  • Sophia: This humanoid robot from Hanson Robotics, is a recognized citizen 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, we would categorize Sophia as an example of AI as hype over substance.

 

And finally Ava:  Autodesk’s Ava is 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 which put her in an entirely new league of female virtual assistants, as do her stunning looks.

 

The Men of AI

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 gameshow 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 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 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?

 

  • Leo: 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.  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. 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.

 

These examples raise the question of how much does technology shape society and changed everything from work and healthcare to politics and education?  Think about: texting and driving, selfies, online dating, Uber and Twitter, these are just some examples 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.

Particularly relevant for HR are questions such as: 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 can we avoid reinforcing unhealthy gender stereotypes through technology?  We hope you will join us in meaningful conversations around such questions and how to construct a very human future.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells, Alexandra Whittington and Helena Calle are futurists from Fast Future, a professional foresight firm specializing in delivering keynote speeches, executive education, research, and consulting on the emerging future. The latest books from Fast Future are: ‘Beyond Genuine Stupidity – Ensuring AI Serves Humanity’, and ‘The Future – Reinvented: Reimagining Life, Society, and Business’. And their forthcoming book is ‘500 Futures’. See: www.fastfuture.com


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