Can robots help solve our gender woes?

Joaquin Phoenix and operating system Samantha in <i>Her</i>.

Joaquin Phoenix and operating system Samantha in Her.

"I'm sorry, you're dating your computer?!" sputters Rooney Mara's Catherine halfway through Spike Jonze's 2013 romance Her. The fact that Catherine - who's learned that her ex-husband Theodore has taken up with Samantha, a honey-voiced Operating System who screens his emails, entertains his fantasies and sends his writing off to publishers - comes off as judgmental is testament to Jonze's filmmaking skills. But it's also proof of how deeply we've internalised the notion that artificial intelligence is an extension of male desires and that, really, few things may be hotter than the hard-to-nail promise of female servitude.

As Laurie Penny writes in an April 2016 article in The New Statesman, the issue of whether or not robots are slaves designed to serve their masters or sentient beings with inner lives and autonomous instincts has long paralleled the questions we ask of women in the world. From Metropolis, the 1927 Fritz Lang classic in which Maria, a cyborg whose sultry ways plunge the city and its workers into chaos (she's later burned at a stake) to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, the hit 1997 spy film whose comely fembots are programmed to ensnare the bumbling Powers with his own libido, female robots are often cast as temptresses or destroyers, coincidentally enough, the same roles reserved for flesh-and-blood women.

And from Apple's Siri, the chirpy virtual assistant who can help you schedule meetings and find directions to Amazon's Alexa, who can plan dinner and organise date night like a dutiful secretary, we're inundated with AIs with female voices and female names. It's a reflection of a world that sees women as servile, domestic creatures whose feelings are overlooked and whose labour goes widely uncompensated. "Our machines are projections of us. They're dreams or metaphors for our own anxieties," says Sophie Mayer, a film studies lecturer at London's Queen Mary University in a January 2015 article in The Guardian.

Robots may take on domestic tasks and give working mothers more time.

Robots may take on domestic tasks and give working mothers more time. Photo:

But if our machines are simply a projection of us, can we design them to rewrite these sexist scripts? In a December 2015 article for The World Economic Forum, Dr Pascale Fung, Professor of Electronic and Computer Engineering at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology - who cites July 2015 Carnegie Melon research which found that Google's algorithm was more likely to serve up high-paying, prestige jobs to men than to women - argues that it's possible to program AI to avoid gender bias completely.

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"We can design AI algorithms to avoid 'unconscious bias' common in human recruiters," Fung tells me over email. "AI can be designed to provide an analysis of candidate profile in a more comprehensive way than human screening, as it can analyse past data that correlates candidates of a certain profile with job performances. Studies have shown that the more comprehensive analysis of a candidate, the more the genders become equal in the hiring process."

This would be useful given that just 26 per cent of management personnel, 24 per cent of board directors and 17 per cent of CEOs are women, according to 2015 research by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. (An October 2015 Catalyst report, which found that women accounted for 95.3 per cent of secretaries and administrative assistants in the US, suggests that our reliance on female virtual assistants is inevitable, if depressing).

The "social robot for the home", Jibo.

The "social robot for the home", Jibo. Photo: MyJibo

And the rise of social robots such as Pepper, an android that's programmed to read and respond to emotions (it's already relieving Japan of some of its childcare burden) and Jibo, a miniature critter that can read children bedtime stories and help them with their homework - duties often shouldered by women - may be able to ease domestic pressures and free up working mothers' time.

But Professor Jon McCormack, the director of Monash University's SensiLab, a space that specialises in robotics research, believes that we still have a long way to go before robots can take on human responsibilities.

"Robots can be used to keep children active through physical games, copying exercises that the robot does, somewhat like the way a personal trainer motivates you," he explains. "Another emerging area is in remote telepresence, where the robot becomes a physical avatar of the parent or carer. While humanoid robots aren't yet capable of performing childcare duties unattended, if they are controlled by a human remotely they can undertake some basic care duties, like an extension of the baby monitor. But at the moment, it's better to think of them at the level of cute or recalcitrant pets, rather than at the level of human intelligence."

The more interesting question may not be whether or not AI can bring us one step closer to gender equality, but how we can program a fairer vision of the future when our own programming is so deeply flawed. As long as we see technology as an extension of male desires, robots won't help us move forward - they'll just reflect all the things we get wrong.