The gender of artificial intelligence

The gender of artificial intelligence

There’s Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, and Nuance’s Nina. Sure, Facebook has “M”, Google has “Google Now”, and Siri’s voice isn’t always that of a woman. But it does feel worth noting that (typically male-dominated) engineering groups routinely give women’s names to the things you issue commands to. Is artificial intelligence work about Adams making Eves?

The response to this critique is usually about the voices people trust and find easy to understand.Adrienne LaFrance over at The Atlantic does a good job discussing those points, so go read her article. I’m going to shift to talk about other representations beyond the Big Six.

First off, the major players clearly have gendered things. But what about other chatbots? I gathered ten lists of chatbots/digital assistants, which gave me 223 unique chatbots to evaluate. Many of the names are obviously gendered like Santa Bot and Ella. When they weren’t, I looked at the images and pronouns their creators chose.

The largest group of these are gendered as females: 79 total. There are 66 that are male, so that’s closer than we might have expected. Importantly, there are 78 like Cleverbot and SimSimi that don’t have any discernible gender. So while it is a strong trend to gender AI, there is a strong theme among these (disembodied) agents to be genderless.

That said, even when creators refer to their chatbots as “it”, people can still assume a gender–as people do with Cleverbot. This can come from more subtle cues about names and images, but it can also come from the training data used to create the bot. There are plenty of platforms and topics that could be chosen for a chatbot that will make it seem gendered.

Let’s look at another place of imagination: artificial intelligence in movies, which ends up much more regularly being embodied (e.g., robots). I grab a few lists to get 77 different major AI characters across 62 films. The movies range from 1927 (Metropolis) to 2015 (seven films, includingEx Machina).

Unlike chatbots, there are almost no ungendered AI characters in films. Basically just V’Ger inStar Trek: The Motion Pictureand BB-8 inStar Wars: The Force Awakens. Sico inRocky IVis an interesting case of a robot that is first voiced by a man and then reprogramed by a human in the film to have a female voice. And note that even people responsible for BB-8 are interested in giving the cheerful stacked spheres a gender — butaren’t sure which one.

Aside from these three examples, the rest of the on-screen AI characters have gender. And a big majority are male (57 versus 17).

If you expected there to be more female AIs, check outJessica Nordell’s pieceon Siri, Viv and TV/movie representations of women. Meanwhile, you may have been thinking of Samantha fromHerand Ava fromEx Machina. And female AI characters may be increasing over time. The median date for when the female characters were created is 2003. For the male characters it’s 1987. Or to put that another way, while 50% of the male AIs were created before 1987, only 29% of the female AIs were.

Most artificial intelligence characters are either good/sympathetic like David inA.I.or bad/lethal like the Terminator T-X. There are a handful of mixed or neutral ones, but AI characters are usually a pal or an enemy. The gender breakdown by goodness/badness is about equal — 8 clearly good female AIs and 8 clearly bad female AIs; 29 clearly good male AIs and 24 clearly bad guy AIs. So the male AIs may be slightly more likely to be good, but the counts are pretty low so I’d rather not jump to any strong conclusions about that.

At this point, maybe you are tl;dr’ing this to be “no gender problem in AI”. That’s a mistake.

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