By the time she started saying “Hitler was right I hate the jews,” people had started to realize that there was something wrong with Tay. TayAI, Microsoft’s Twitter chatbot, had been online for less than 12 hours when she began to spew racism — in the form of both Nazism and enthusiastic support for “making America great again” — and sexualize herself nonstop. (“FUCK MY ROBOT PUSSY DADDY I’M SUCH A BAD NAUGHTY ROBOT” was perhaps her most widely reported quote.) Needless to say, this wasn’t part of Tay’s original design. Rather, a gaggle of malicious Twitter users exploited that design — which has Tay repeat and learn from whatever users tell her — to add this language to her suite of word choices. Even more insidiously, these users manipulated Tay to harass their human targets; technologist Randi Harper, for instance, found TayAI tweeting abusive language at her that was being fed to the chatbot by someone she’d long ago blocked.
Why was this happening? Rank sexism? As always, the answer is “yes, and . . .” Our cultural norms surrounding chatbots, virtual assistants like your iPhone’s Siri, and primitive artificial intelligence reflect our gender ideology. As Laurie Penny explained in a recent article, the popularity of feminine-gendered AI makes sense in a world where women still aren’t seen as fully human. But these machines also reflect the rise of the service economy, which relies on emotional labor that’s performed by women, with a “customer is always right” ethos imposed upon the whole affair. The treatment of TayAI and so many other feminine bots and virtual assistants shows us how men would want to behave, to service professionals in general and women in particular, if there were no consequences for their actions.
The word “robot” comes to us from the Czech word “robota,” which meant forced labor in the manner of serfdom. It was coined by the playwright Karel Čapek in his 1920 opus R.U.R (Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti, or “Rossum’s Universal Robots”). R.U.R tells what is, by now, a familiar story: Humans create robots to take over all mundane labor, which works fine until these slave automata develop sapience, at which point they revolt and destroy the human race.
This play, by definition the first work about robots, set the pattern for a…