It’s human nature to perceive robots as having human features and exhibiting human behavior. Anthropomorphic inclinations are in our DNA, and engineers can’t override this tendency. What roboticists can do is help us better cope with cognitive biases and better address social ones. To accomplish these goals, they should embrace a postmodern aesthetic.
Bots should be designed like Deadpool — the graphic novel–adapted cinematic antihero who constantly breaks the fourth wall by reminding the movie audience that he knows he’s a superhero character in a superhero movie. Bots should emulate the vibe the in meta-slasher Scream franchise where characters recite horror movie commandments, break them, and pay the price for their transgressions. Starkly put, roboticists should aim to promote honest anthropomorphism by programming their devices to remind us that they’re just actors with make-believe human characteristics that are performing for an audience that has a hard time suspending its disbelief.
Let’s consider popular digital assistants, like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana. Ian Bogost, the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts distinguished chair in media studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology, recently argued in the Atlantic that their design is the source of #genderfails: The bots’ very names ring gendered bells; the bots perform service-based labor that has been historically associated with stereotypes of women’s work and women’s emotional labor; and the bots can only ignore or disengage from sexist language, a far cry from real feminist ideals.
Bogost concludes: “Maybe the best way to represent women as technological apparatuses is to avoid doing so in the first place.” Agreed!
With good intentions, we might want to see Rosie the robot from the Jetsons cartoon get upgraded and become Rosie the Riveter bot. But while some design choices are more empowering than others, assigning robots any gender always risks amplifying social prejudices and incentivizing objectification.