A recent article titled “Why is AI Female?” made the connection that gendered labor, in service professions in particular, is fueling our expectations for gendered AI assistants and service robots. Furthermore, the author argues, this “feminizing — and sexualizing — of machines” signals a future with a disproportionate use of feminized VR and robots for a male-dominated sex industry. Monica Nickelsburg writes:
“Sex with robots is a big leap from asking Siri to set an alarm, but the fact that we’ve largely equated artificial intelligence with female personalities is worth examining. There are, after all, few sexualized male robots or avatars.”
Not sexualized, but certainly sexed. Herbert Televox and Mr. Telelux, the early 20th century robots made by Westinghouse, were both male. When Elektro the Westinghouse Motoman debuted at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, he smoked a cigarette, called the presenter “toots” and made entertainingly crass jokes about his brain being composed of electrical relays and the “good numbers” he saw out in the audience. Somehow, though certainly not through sentience, Elektro could assert himself by dominating and sexualizing the human women in attendance. At least his programmers made sure he could command with a charismatic robot-noir masculinity appropriate to contemporary Hollywood standards.
If such assertiveness is a territory traditionally understood as a heteronormative masculinity ascribed to the male sex, does mass culture know how to assert control over technology in other terms yet? Or are we forever doomed to the gendered male subject position in technology, either dominating it or allowing ourselves to be seduced and led by it to our future downfall, as with the masses duped by the maschinenmensch robot “Maria” in Metropolis? With our generational advent of plausible problems in AI, questions at the intersections of democratic posterity and dangerous technology persist despite being very, very old. Our concerns over power, meanwhile, certainly retain a gendered vocabulary.
How unsurprising, then, that the infamous 1984 commercial for the Apple Macintosh, which unleashed the personal computer revolution, featured a sexy, skimpily-clad woman shattering the gray political passivity of scores of lonely, propaganda-watching men. “The hardest part to cast, the rebellious blond, went to a British discus thrower named Anya Major because she could spin around to launch her liberating mallet at the video image of Big Brother without getting dizzy,” the L.A. Times blithely announced. Yet the predominantly male audience and the sexualized, heteronormative nature of this “liberation” are all implied in her powerfully feminine (and jiggly) standout role — that and the phallic hammer smashing the manipulative screen.