May 17, 2019

Fembots vs. HAL: Who are the people of AI?

Posted by in category: robotics/AI

From Watson to Sophia, who are the artificially intelligent robot personas of today, and what can they tell us about our future?

Siri. Alexa. Cortana. These familiar names are the modern-day Girl Fridays making everyone’s life easier. These virtual assistants powered by artificial intelligence (AI) bring to life the digital tools of the information age. One of the subtle strategies designers use to make it easier for us to integrate AI into our lives is “anthropomorphism” - the attribution of human-like traits to non-human objects. However, the rise of AI with distinct personalities, voices, and physical forms is not as benign as it might seem. As futurists who are interested in the impacts of technology on society, we wonder what role human-like technologies play in achieving human-centred futures.

For example, do anthropomorphized machines enable a future wherein humanity can thrive? Or, do human-like AIs foreshadow a darker prognosis, particularly in relation to gender roles and work? This article looks at a continuum of human-like personas that give a face to AI technology. We ask: what does it mean for our collective future that technology is increasingly human-like and gendered? And, what does it tell us about our capacity to create a very human future?

The Women of AI

One of the most important observations we want to convey is that the typical consumer-facing AI persona is highly feminine and feminized. There are several robots and AI that take a female form. The examples below show the sheer breadth of applications where a feminine persona and voice are deliberately used to help us feel comfortable with increasingly invasive technology:

  • Emma: Brain Corp’s autonomous floor cleaner Emma (Enabling Mobile Machine Automation) is no chatty fembot. She is designed to clean large spaces like schools and hospitals. Currently, Emma is being piloted at various Wal-Mart locations, where the human cleaning crew is being asked to embrace a robot-supporting role – even though it may ultimately replace some of them. Emma washes floors independently using AI, the lidar light based remote sensing method, and smart sensors.
  • Alexa: Amazon’s Alexa is the disembodied feminine AI that lives inside a smart device. As a personal assistant, Alexa does it all. There are versions of Alexa for hotels, some that act as your DJ, and those that provide medical advice. There is another side to Alexa, however; one that secretly records your private conversations. This is a great example of how companion AIs embody the surveillance of Big Brother with the compassion of Big Mother rolled into one.
  • Siri: Like Alexa, Apple’s Siri is an AI-powered woman’s voice. The iPhone assistant is helpful and direct. You can find information, get where you need to go, and organize your schedule. Lately, Siri is attempting to learn jokes and develop more of a natural rapport with users. Can brushing up on social skills help virtual assistant AIs shed their reputation for being both nosy and dull?
  • Cara: In the legal industry Casetext’s Cara (Case Analysis Research Assistant) is an algorithmic legal assistant that uses machine-learning to conduct research. Cara is widely available to attorneys and judges, a great example of AI replacing professional jobs with a powerfully smart feminine figure. With Cara, we have to wonder if there are too many outdated assumptions about gender involved—why is Cara a legal assistant, and not an attorney like Ross, the world’s first robot lawyer?
  • Kate: This specialized travel robot from SITA, is an AI mobile passenger check-in kiosk. Kate uses big data related to airport passenger flow to move autonomously about the airport, going where she is most needed to reduce lines and wait times. Kate, like many AI programs, uses big data predictively, perhaps displaying something similar to women’s intuition.
  • Sophia: This humanoid robot from Hanson robotics gained notoriety as the first robot to claim a form of citizenship. Debuted in 2017, Sophia is a recognized citizen of the nation of Saudi Arabia, and the first robot with legal personhood. Sophia can carry on conversations and answer interesting questions. But with her quirky personality and exaggerated female features, we would categorize Sophia as a great example of AI as hype over substance.
  • Ava: As one of the newest female AIs, Autodesk’s Ava seems to take extreme feminization a step further. A “digital human”, Ava is a beautiful and helpful AI chatbot avatar that can read people’s body language. Ava is programmed to be emotionally expressive. Her customer service job is to support engineering and architectural software product users in real time. Being able to detect emotions puts Ava in an entirely new league of female virtual assistants. So do her looks: Ava’s appearance is literally based on a stunning actress from New Zealand.

The Men of AI

What about the male personas? Probably the most well-known AI is Watson, the IBM machine that’s matched its immense wits against human opponents at chess and the trivia gameshow Jeopardy. Watson has also been used in cancer diagnosis and has a regular role in many more industries, including transportation, financial services, and education. When it comes to the masculine, it seems both brain and brawn are required. In many cases, male robots do the literal heavy lifting. Here are some examples of the jobs male-personified AIs do.

  • Botler: A chatbot called Botler seems enlightened. He provides legal information and services for immigrants and victims of sexual harassment. Botler wears a smile and tuxedo with bowtie, appearing to be a helpful proto-butler-like gentleman.
  • Stan: Stanley Robotics’ robotic valet Stan parks your car. An autonomous forklift, Stan is able to strategically fill parking garages to capacity. Does Stan reinforce gender-based stereotypes about cars and driving?
  • FRAnky: At Frankfurt Airport you can meet FRAnky, a Facebook Messenger-based chatbot that can search for flights and give information about restaurants, shops and airport wifi service.
  • Leo: Another travel pro, SITA’s Leo is a luggage-drop robot who prints a bag tag, checks your suitcase, then prints a baggage receipt. The curbside helper is strong and smart.
  • Ross: The world’s first robo-lawyer. The phenomenal computational power Ross uses for legal research saves attorneys time, effort and mistakes. The proliferation of data is the main rationale for the rise of the robo-lawyer. Human attorneys are expensive and time-consuming when it comes to the drudge work of digging up information; proponents of Ross say the AI saves 20–30 hours research time per case.
  • DaVinci: Intuitive Surgical’s DaVinci surgical assistant is one of the most established names in the robotics field. Named after the artist Leonardo DaVinci, this robot is reported to be cutting hospital stay times, improving patient outcomes, and reducing medical mistakes. Like Ross, DaVinci suggests a future where even highly skilled professional roles could be at risk from robots, which could impact the large proportion of men in these jobs.

These examples raise the question of how much does technology shape reality? The personal computer and the mobile phone, for instance, have had immeasurable impacts across society and changed everything from work and healthcare to politics and education. Think about all the things that didn’t exist before the rise of the iPhone: texting and driving, selfies, online dating, Uber and Twitter, these are just some of the new normal. The way we work, live, and play have all been transformed by the rise of the information age. Hence, as we scan the next horizon, there is a strong sense that AI will form the basis of the near-future evolution of society.

Overall, we find it interesting to ponder the human-like manifestations among AI companions. A close look at the people of AI raises many questions: What is the role of human intelligence in an AI world? What will the relationship between robots and people be like in the workplace and in the home? How might humanity be re-defined as more AI computers gain citizenship, emotional intelligence, and possibly even legal rights? How can we avoid reinforcing unhealthy gender stereotypes through technology? We don’t expect to get at the answers. Rather, we use these questions to start meaningful conversations about how to construct a very human future.

About the Authors

The authors are futurists with Fast Future — a professional foresight firm specializing in delivering keynote speeches, executive education, research, and consulting on the emerging future and the impacts of change for global clients. Fast Future publishes books from leading future thinkers around the world, exploring how developments such as AI, robotics, exponential technologies, and disruptive thinking could impact individuals, societies, businesses, and governments and create the trillion-dollar sectors of the future. Fast Future has a particular focus on ensuring these advances are harnessed to unleash individual potential and enable a very human future. See:

Rohit Talwar is a global futurist, award-winning keynote speaker, author, and the CEO of Fast Future. His prime focus is on helping clients understand and shape the emerging future by putting people at the center of the agenda. Rohit is the co-author of Designing Your Future, lead editor and a contributing author for The Future of Business, and editor of Technology vs. Humanity. He is a co-editor and contributor for the recently published Beyond Genuine Stupidity – Ensuring AI Serves Humanity and The Future Reinvented – Reimagining Life, Society, and Business, and two forthcoming books — Unleashing Human Potential – The Future of AI in Business, and 50:50 – Scenarios for the Next 50 Years.

Steve Wells is an experienced strategist, keynote speaker, futures analyst, partnership working practitioner, and the COO of Fast Future. He has a particular interest in helping clients anticipate and respond to the disruptive bursts of technological possibility that are shaping the emerging future. Steve is a contributor to the recently published Beyond Genuine Stupidity – Ensuring AI Serves Humanity and The Future Reinvented – Reimagining Life, Society, and Business, co-editor of The Future of Business, and Technology vs. Humanity. He is a co-editor and contributor to two forthcoming books on Unleashing Human Potential – The Future of AI in Business, and 50:50 – Scenarios for the Next 50 Years.

Alexandra Whittington is a futurist, writer, foresight director of Fast Future, and a faculty member on the Futures program at the University of Houston. She has a particular expertise in future visioning and scenario planning. Alexandra is a contributor to The Future of Business, the recently published Beyond Genuine Stupidity – Ensuring AI Serves Humanity and The Future Reinvented – Reimagining Life, Society, and Business. She is also a co-editor and contributor for forthcoming books on Unleashing Human Potential – The Future of AI in Business, and 50:50 – Scenarios for the Next 50 Years.

Helena Calle is a researcher at Fast Future. She is a recent graduate from the MSc. program in Educational Neuroscience at Birkbeck, University of London, and has eight years of international experience as a teacher, teacher trainer, pedagogic coordinator, and education consultant. Helena coordinates Fast Futures’ growing research on the future of learning.

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