The fantasy of an obedient female robot is disturbingby Kathleen Richardson / February 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
At a robotics conference in 2015, I was surprised to hear a presenter argue that the sci-fi film Ex Machina was a “love story.” Ex Machina is about a wealthy programmer who builds a robot woman and invites his employee to take the Turing Test—which tests whether he can tell the difference between a human and a machine. The robot woman is locked in a room and cannot leave voluntarily. Her “rescuer” only wants to help her because he is sexually attracted to her. Rather than being a “love story,” Ex Machina is really about domestic violence and sexual objectification, though evidently not all people think that.
There is a huge problem in the robotics and AI fields regarding its representation of women. Outside the lab, men are routinely encouraged through pornography, prostitution and popular culture to view women as sexual objects. In turn male technologists do not produce neutral technologies, but ones that are shaped by their privileges and preferences. At the same conference, another male presenter used the image of a 1972 Playboy centerfold to illustrate vision processing.
Enter the sex robots—a further extension of this dehumanised idea of women. With sex dolls, women are reduced to their sexual attractiveness. Just as in Playboy, a woman is presented as a tool for narcissistic gratification. That’s why I founded the Campaign Against Sex Robots to draw attention to the sexual objectification of women in AI and robotics.
In Japan, a new product by Gatebox (a virtual home robot) is aimed at lonely adult men. It is a blue-haired cartoonish pixie in a bottle, presenting herself as a “slave” who is looking for a “master” (believe it or not). In the US, Realdoll manufactures silicon artificial women; the bodies are made to order depending on the buyer’s preferences. Such dolls are not merely masturbatory tools—buyers are given the impression that they can have a relationship with these dolls; that these dolls are their girlfriends or can become their wives.
That’s not too dissimilar from what roboticists in universities across Europe, Japan and North America are claiming, if not for sex, then for companionship or friendship with machines. How did we get to a situation where dolls, robots and AI bots are now actively promoted as substitutes for human relationships? The answer to this lies in the model of relationship that is profoundly instrumental: if a woman is simply someone to be used for your own pleasure, then why not replace her with a robot?
One of the horrors of 21st century is the decriminalised and growing commercial sex trade—in which 99 per cent of buyers of humans bodies for sex are men, and over 80 per cent of bodies bought are women and girls. Prostitution and even rape are involved in the marketing strategies of sex dolls and robots. Pay for a woman-like robot and you can fulfil your sexual desires—and of course a robot can be programmed never to say “no.” The two worlds are feeding each other and we don’t seem to be paying attention.
I base my ethics in narratives of antislavery and anti-violence. We need to set out our stall for what it means to be human, people have to resist being categorised as forms of propery. I want to interrupt those robotic narratives that instrumentalise human bodies and relationships, to turn us into forms of property.
The flipside of this is to accredit property with personhood. The European Union will vote on reclassifying robots as “electronic persons” and some philosophers are keen to advocate “robot rights” by appropriating the narratives of women’s liberation. The rise of robot and AI relationships tells us a depressing story about the ascendancy of a degraded view of humanity.