By Sarah Keeshan
Before the 1990s, many of the defining representations of AI in popular culture were male, whether embodying a broad societal threat such as Gort of The Day the Earth Stood Still, the cylons of the original Battlestar Galactica, the eponymous machine in The Terminator, Ash in Alien or warmer and friendlier individuals, such as C-3PO in Star Wars, and Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Notable exceptions to this pattern include the robot maid Rosie on The Jetsons, and the disembodied voices of ships’ computers, most notably in Alien (“Mother”) and Star Trek (“Computer”). The gender implications of those is worthy of a blog post all of its own. The last few decades have seen a shift in popular culture toward female representations of AI that has mirrored the real-life development of AI such as Sophia, and personified virtual assistants such as Alexa, Siri, and Cortana: the recovering human-borg Seven of Nine in Star Trek Voyager, Number Six (the most recognizeable cylon form in the Battlestar Galactica reboot), Kyoko and Ava in Ex Machina, and Dolores Abernathy in West World.
The creative ways in which culture attempts to grapple with issues surrounding technological advances, and AI in particular, have turned more and more toward characterizations of the threat as intimate and female. Similarly concerned with the increasingly intimate place of AI in daily life, developers claim to have turned to increasingly female representations as a way to make their technologies more comfortable and palatable to an uneasy public. A 2013 CNN article suggests that humans find women’s voices more soothing and friendlier, and that we are biologically programmed to prefer female voices. The exception to this is, of course, women who use their voices to speak as leaders in the public arena, where they are often criticized as “shrill,” “hysterical,” and “unappealing.” Many critics have pointed out the ways in which this gendering of digital servants reinforces notions of women’s subservience and distinctly lower place on the hierarchy of labour: notions that saw their heyday in the Victorian era’s idealized “separate spheres,” and the twentieth century’s conceptualization of “women’s work.” Certainly, these critiques are warranted and important to heed. What does it say about us as a society that we expect our secretary/assistant to speak to us in a female-coded voice? Likewise, uncritically raising a generation to order a gendered-female family of AI around like a new species of servants says a great deal about the real-life views about women that it replicates.
A 2016 article in The Atlantic discusses a number of scientific studies that found that people generally “prefer” women’s voices (some because they standout in typically male spaces, such as airplane cockpits, and others because people accepted women’s voices as more “trustworthy” as opposed to commanding), as well as the biases embedded within these studies. Regardless of the problems inherent in this reasoning (and there are many) – or at the very least, their unreflexive application by technology corporations – developers certainly seem to think the gendering of virtual assistants appropriate and marketable. And as corporations continue to insinuate these female-coded technologies into the most private arenas of our lives – and attempt to make for them an indispensible home there – our deepest cultural fears about their power and place is also acted out in embodied female-like creations, such as Ex Machina’s Ava and the androids of Westworld who, when used and belittled by men, seek the ultimate revenge.
In the context of a generation of female virtual servants, it is not surprising that misogyny and consumerism are so deeply embedded in the cultural discussions about our developing relationships with AI. It is certainly time for these conversations to happen not only in our films and novels, but in the offices of tech companies and policy-making bodies alike. How we articulate our comfort and fear of AI says a lot about the ambiguity with which we as a society are simultaneously comforted by the subservient woman and afraid of her potential power to destroy us. Indeed, there are many of us who sympathize when Amazon’s Alexa develops a new habit such as creepily laughing or screaming at random intervals. Preach it, sister.