Kamis, 26 Maret 2015

First World Problems : Should Robots Have Gender?

Even with all the clamor around the documentary India's daughters, the aftermath of rape in India and women's rights in Muslim countries, I did not write anything it. Primarily because there is a surfeit of smart women who can and did talk about the issue themselves, they don't need a middle class, Tambrahm dude preaching about what he imagines its like to be oppressed by the hypocritical patriarchy. I think I contributed more by liking their posts than by writing one myself.
It would have been funny if it were not true.
Having said that I do consider myself quite an expert in philosophical first world problems and their hypothetical impact on society. So when Slate ran an article exploring the motivations, nuances and consequences of assigning gender to robots, I am jumping on the chance to talk about gender in a totally noncommittal, never-been-affected-by-it, you-go-gals-I'l-wait-here context.

The key point of the article is this : whether we want to or not, we unconsciously assign humanity, and gender to our environment,usually based on prevailing societal stereotypes.

For example : robots with angular construction, darker colors seem more masculine to people, as do one that are used in strength-intensive functions such as lifting or construction.
Robots with lighter colors, curvy designs and intended for calmer functions such as those involved in healthcare and teaching are usually identified by people as female.
Guess which one is male and which one female. And go watch Wall-E.
This obvious stereotyping occurs even if the robots do not have an interactive voice, or even a "face".

The article goes to on to describe NASA's answer to the DARPA Robotics Challenge- The Valkyrie DRC Robonaut. Built with the intention of replacing humans for tasks that are too dangerous, the robot has been given a female name and characteristics. The article praises NASA for doing this. However when NASA was asked specifically if the Valkyrie was intended to be female, NASA chose not to assign its robots gender.

In an ideal world, I think what NASA did was correct. Robots do not have gender. It is a slippery slope if you start assigning them one. If certain characteristics strike as masculine or feminine, it can be in the eye of the beholder. There need not be any explicit delineation of robot gender from their creator, just like buildings and cars are not required to be male or female, despite people's individual preferences.

Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world.

Emotions and symbolism exert more power over our actions and beliefs than we would like to admit. As the Slate article says, "if robots are given female form only for designing sexbots and maids, and all the heavy lifting is done by male robots, what will it say about the humans who use these bots"?

Is it possible to prevent this from happening? I don't think so. A private robot manufacturer will be free to design and label his product. I think sexbots and cleaningbots will be given the female form, simply because they might sell more. Even if we could legislate that all robots should be sexless, is it the right thing to do? It can be argued that a feminine design for a healthcare bot could actually be beneficial for a patient's emotional and psychological recovery. 

Given such grey areas, it might be more practical to admit that whether we like it or not, many robots will be assigned genders, be it to augment their function, or just to augment their sales.

And in this imperfect world I have to agree with the article, we might need (and I can't believe I am saying this) "strong female robot role models" for the same reason we have had to 'promote' women in science; to prevent prejudices and stereotypes from denying rights and opportunities from those who deserve it.

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