How Women Working in AI Really Feel About Sexy Robot Tropes

"It doesn't add any value to the AI product, and it really undermines the idea that women can be scientists."

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Jun 7 2017, 2:42pm

Photo by Katarina Radovic via Stocksy

For many, the concept of artificial intelligence is wrapped up in cinematic tropes of the sentient Skynet in Terminator coming to imminently destroy humankind through the sheer force of Arnold Schwarzenegger's guns (and very serious sunglasses). When our cultural imagination isn't pigeon-holing AI technology as the eventual demise of humanity, we often envision the other prevalent AI trope: the supremely feminine intelligence. Whether it's the vulnerable and passively sexual Eva from Ex Machina, or Scarlett Johansson's hovering and connective voice in Her, the presence of the emotionally curious and erotic AI is far easier to find in pop culture than say, depictions of the actual technology at work.

To peel back the layer of smoke that separates trope from reality, Broadly spoke with living, breathing female AI developers about this paradox. Marie DesJardins is a professor of computer science at University of Maryland who also runs the MAPLE lab at UMBC, which is currently focused on robot learning in complex domains.

DesJardins made it clear that the tendency to sexualize AI is a symptom of a larger issue of overarching sexism. "We objectify women so much, that people have become immune to it and it's a baseline. I don't think it does us any good as a society to extend that baseline to sexualize our robotic assistants," DesJardins explained. "It doesn't add any value to the AI product, and it really undermines the idea that women can be scientists."

DesJardins (far lest) with her MAPLE Lab students. Photo courtesy of DesJardins

On the flip side of patterns of objectification in AI, it was the philosophical link between human psychology and AI that drew DesJardins to the field in the first place. "When I was in college I took an introductory psychology course and I was fascinated with how we learn in these incredibly complex ways," she said. "Trying to replicate some of that reasoning in a computer is what drove me into AI, and I think it goes in both directions, we can introspect about what drives people to inform our AI research." Now, DesJardins is teaching her MAPLE lab students how to program robots to complete basic tasks humans take for granted.

Read more: How Women Really Feel About Sex Robots

"It's everything from motor skills, like how does a one-year-old learn how to walk up and down stairs without falling over, up to really complex planning tasks like, 'how are we able to plan a trip to Paris, buy our tickets, and get to the flight on time?'" DesJardin explained. "Human beings can do all of those things at the same time, we can keep our body sitting up while thinking about curing cancer. Intelligence agents aren't very good at that yet, they largely don't have the intellectual architecture to multi-task complex tasks."

Even when we move away from fiction and look at the ways AI technology functions in everyday life, we find ourselves leaning on the feminine voices of Siri, Alexa, and Cortana. Of course, these machine assistants don't express or seek out gender-identities on their own (yet), but the names and voices of these systems have cued a distinctly gendered relationship. Whether we're mapping the quickest driving route or asking Siri to recite Eminem's Rap God, there is an imbued hint of the artificial feminine.

Jana Eggers is the CEO of Naralogics, a company focused on developing synaptic intelligence systems, which combine computer science and neuroscience for intelligent decision-making systems. For Eggers, her issues with Siri an Cortana don't lie in their gendering, but in the misguided fear that AI technology is further along that is really is.

Photo by Evan Eggars

"People think that it's magic and that it's taking over. I look at them, and I'm' like, 'Have you tried Siri or Alexa or Cortana?' I have them all and I love them, I do. But, Alexa has 34000 commands, but when you look at it, the most common ones are 'read me the news' and 'what is the temperature.' She's not taking over," Eggers explained, "I want people to be high on this technology, but don't believe that it's magic. The iPhone was amazing, but there was a lot of groundwork that was laid before that. We're still at beeper-phone stage with AI."

A recent study from the National Center for Women and Information Technology revealed that only 26% of professional computing positions in the US workforce were held by women in 2016. Sara Siritaratiwat, who works on the Cortana team at Microsoft, says it's crucial to remain intentional about carving space for women in tech.

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"Melinda Gates is spearheading a program to encourage more women to enter computer science so there's more diversity in technology. I also hope that more women in the design industry join technical areas of design (like engineering) so there's diversity across all disciplines," Siritaratiwat explained. "As a female working in AI, we have the unique opportunity to influence what the world sees and how the world thinks. If women prefer to work in groups with other women, as Gates mentioned, we need to support more women in the field so we can collectively alter how AI is portrayed."

The hope is, that rather than limit discussion to the feminized robots themselves, or crucial but tiresome discussions of sexism in tech, we can steadily tilt the mic toward the voices of the women working tirelessly behind the scenes to develop the technology of the future.