Saturday, April 09, 2016

Robots should not be gendered

Should robots be gendered? I have serious doubts about the morality of designing and building robots to resemble men or women, boys or girls. Let me explain why.

The first worry I have follows from one of the five principles of robotics, which states: robots should not be designed in a deceptive way to exploit vulnerable users; instead their machine nature should be transparent.

To design a gendered robot is a deception. Robots cannot have a gender in any meaningful sense. To impose a gender on a robot, either by design of its outward appearance, or programming some gender stereotypical behaviour, cannot be for reasons other than deception - to make humans believe that the robot has gender, or gender specific characteristics.

When we drafted our 4th ethical principle the vulnerable people we had in mind were children, the elderly or disabled. We were concerned that naive robot users may come to believe that the robot interacting with them (caring for them perhaps) is a real person, and that the care the robot is expressing for them is real. Or that an unscrupulous robot manufacture exploits that belief. But when it comes to gender we are all vulnerable. Whether we like it or not we all react to gender cues. So whether deliberately designed to do so or not, a gendered robot will trigger reactions that a non-gendered robot will not.

Our 4th principle states that a robot's machine nature should be transparent. But for gendered robots that principle doesn't go far enough. Gender cues are so powerful that even very transparently machine-like robots with a female body shape, for instance, will provoke a gender-cued response.

My second concern leads from an ethical problem that I've written and talked about before: the brain-body mismatch problem. I've argued that we shouldn't be building android robots at all until we can embed an AI into those robots that matches their appearance. Why? Because our reactions to a robot are strongly influenced by its appearance. If it looks human then we, not unreasonably, expect it to behave like a human. But a robot not much smarter than a washing machine cannot behave like a human. Ok, you might say, if and when we can build robots with human-equivalent intelligence, would I be ok with that? Yes, provided they are androgynous.

My third - and perhaps most serious concern - is about sexism. By building gendered robots there is a huge danger of transferring one of the evils of human culture: sexism, into the artificial realm. By gendering and especially sexualising robots we surely objectify. But how can you objectify an object, you might say? The problem is that a sexualised robot is no longer just an object, because of what it represents. The routine objectification of women (or men) because of ubiquitous sexualised robots will surely only deepen the already acute problem of the objectification of real women and girls. (Of course if humanity were to grow up and cure itself of the cancer of sexism, then this concern would disappear.)

What of the far future? Given that gender is a social construct then a society of robots existing alongside humans might invent gender for themselves. Perhaps nothing like male and female at all. Now that would be interesting.


  1. This sounds plausible and you clearly have thought about it. However on a practical level, if you want a speaking robot, what do you do with the voice? And if the outward appearance can be female, so it can also be male. It is too easy to say 'no gendered robots' because they wil inevitably be seen as gendered: omitting female characteristics will make people think they are male. Especially as the implicit 'male as normal' bias will be part of the design process, as it always is. And making it even more complex: as psychologists know the same behavior will be seen as, and valued as very different when shown by a man or a woman. The idea of gendered robots does pose problems, but I think this problem and the propoaed solution need more study by psychologists and philosophers who understand gender issues. A final observation : I don't think anybody can read the term 'principles of robotics' and not think of Isaac Asimov. He had strong but simpler views on gender than we can have in this day and age. There is one short stiry where a male robot is destroyed because the female owner is falling in love with him. There was no implication that gendered robots were to be avoided per se. So may be we should specify if and when gendered robots can be useful and when they are to be avoided.

    1. Many thanks for your comment and the excellent points you raise.

      Re speaking robots. Several robot manufacturers manage to give their robots genderless voices - a good example is the NAO robot (check YouTube for examples of the NAO speaking).

      By genderless I mean neither female or male. I agree that we humans have a strong tendency to confer gender on machines ("all who sail in her", etc), which is one of the reasons we need to be especially cautious with humanoid and especially android robots.

      I'm glad you agree that gendered robots pose problems - and I 100% agree with you this is something that needs deeper study.

      And re your final point, the principles of robotics were indeed inspired by Asimov's 3 laws of robotics. I don't recall the story you refer to - will check it out.

  2. From a modern perspective, the tendency to refer to anything with an engine in as a "her" begins to feel like an odd mix of mastery and intimacy - I grew up with that use of the words, but I don't know any more about anything. Perhaps we all need to make ourselves feel a little more uncomfortable with what we've always taken for granted.

    Then again, places, populations and institutions are often regarded as having an identifiable character - sleepy villages, warlike countries, dishonest governments (naming no names!) - but without any gender.

    What about businesses...? A multinational may sometimes be referred to as a giant, but not particularly as masculine nor feminine. Are Apple or Volkswagen girls or boys? Maybe an old VW Beetle could still be called a girl but the company itself is a collective enterprise - neuter... or a family?

    The reason I say all this is that we shouldn't think we have a personal relationship with a company, unless we know the people there well, and they us - and yet through advertising and loyalty schemes, the controlling influences in a business system may try to encourage the idea that some unidentified group of people at the company really does care about you in particular - when in reality you're just a postcode and a buying pattern in their database which they may run algorithms on.

    To confuse things further, corporations can sometimes be regarded by the law as having rights and opinions - see this strange case about a company with a religious view on contraception:

    I know I've strayed far, but coming back to those ethical principles, we should not be misled into believing that any machine or system has or could have a personal relationship with us.

    To add gender or any other confusingly human aspect - whether to a heap of machinery or any other wealth-generating operation - and bring into play all humanity's historical and instinctive biases and prejudices, is deeply suspect.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

    1. Thanks Paul for your comment. Your point about corporations is well made. Companies very much want us to (think we) have a relationship with them - and spend a fortune trying to persuade us that we do.

  3. You are entitled to your opinion, I am entitled to disagree. This is nonsense.
    First you say "Robots cannot have a gender in any meaningful sense", and then you come up with the old chestnut "gender is a social construct".
    Surely this is contradicting yourself. If gender is merely a social construct and not a biological one, then why can it not be applied in a meaningful way to an object?
    More importantly, treating objects (robots) like people will not result in treating people like objects, you've got it back to front.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I'm sorry you think this nonsense. I don't think I am contradicting myself since, in my final para., I speculate about (far future) robots inventing something equivalent to gender *for themselves*.

      As for your point about treating objects like people, what I had in mind here was the Kantian moral principle, i.e. "If he is not to stifle his human feelings, he must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men." For exactly the same reason I think we should practice kindness toward robots; something that would not be consistent with the kind of abuse implied by the relationship between humans and sex robots.

      I should have made this clearer.