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Gendering Robots

We cannot escape gendering robots. The novel Autonomous deftly illustrates findings from two decades of human-robot interaction research.

Click here for Science Robotics article that describes the human-robot interaction research on our perception of gender in robots and what that means for working with, and around, robots. The award winning sci-fi 2017 novel Autonomous by Annalee Newitz illustrates the principles via a sentient humanoid military robot, Paladin, who becomes transgender along the path to full autonomy. Autonomous is chock-full of other big ideas including the de facto takeover of academic research (and intellectual property law enforcement) by Big Pharma.

Here are five principles on gendering robots from the robotics literature discussed in the SciRobotics article:

  • People anthropomorphize robots, which includes presuming gender, even if the robots are not human-like or zoomorphic.

  • Humans rely on physical cues, such as shoulder to hip or waist ratio, to project the gender of human-like robots.

  • People without prior experience with robots rely at least in part on gender stereotypes to guide interactions and to build trust that it can perform a task.

  • People are more comfortable with a "male" robot performing "male tasks"

  • People requesting help on a task will more closely and completely follow directions from a "female" robot more than a "male" robot

Christopher Nossel has a lovely visualization of gender in 371 AI characters from movies and TV shows from 1927-2018- the results of his analysis on gender bias are depressing. AI characters, either software agents or embodied robots, are overwhelmingly male, even when they don’t have to be. Wouldn't it be nice if roboticists followed Bernotat, Eyssel, & Sachse suggestion to play against stereotypes when they create robots instead of exploiting gender to "social engineer" favorable human-robot interaction?

If you want to learn more about human-robot interaction, check out my book Learn AI and Human-Robot Interaction Through Asimov's I, Robot Stories and see the human-robot interaction topics page for more sci-fi. A deeper review of Autonomous discussing Natural Language is here.


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