Sarah: Building off of that, there’s a lot of discussion surrounding the gendering of artificial intelligence systems, regardless if they are embodied or disembodied, and we have a lot of examples of that today like Amazon Alexa and Siri, and I’m wondering what your thoughts are on this and how you see this impacting how the public interacts with current technology and the roles that we want AI to play in our lives.
Annalee: This is something that, as you said, a lot of people have already explored. And I feel like I have the very standard feminist response to the fact that so many AI’s or assistant-type things like Siri and Alexa, have been gendered female. It’s pretty clear what’s going on there. It’s basically a way of creating the mechanical bride. The mechanical bride idea has existed for a really long time. And it shows that, at least in the West, where we’re developing these personalities for our machines, we still think of women as caretakers and servants, and we still think of women’s voices as submissive and non-confrontational. And part of the thought that goes into designing something like Siri is ‘how do we get something that’s comforting, that people won’t be scared of’, because there is this concern that people will be disturbed by having a robot assistant or an AI assistant. So we’ll make it a girl and then everyone will understand how to use it. I think that’s just a basic problem with gender and it spills over into lots of areas of our lives, not just automation.
On the other hand, one of the things that I’ve explored in Autonomous and other writing is that we don’t always project femininity onto our machines. Sometimes our machines are men, usually when they are war machines. And so I think, again, we’re going to just continue doing that. When I was writing Autonomous, my editor kept saying, ‘it’s 150 years in the future, there’s not going to be any homophobia’. And my reaction was that I think there will be. I think we’ve had homophobia for thousands of years in various shapes and formats, and misogyny and misandry where we treat men’s bodies as cannon fodder, which is also a really terrible thing that we do with gender. I don’t think we’re going to get away from that anytime soon. I think it’s improving, there’s little pockets of resistance to it, but we’re still going to be struggling with the same gender issues that we’ve been struggling with in the West, which is the culture that I’m most familiar with. For thousands of years we’ve been having these debates over what it means to be female and male and what roles do men and women play in society? As long as we are anthropomorphising our robots, we are going to project all that gender crap onto our robots. And so, you’re going to get someone like Paladin, the robot character in Autonomous who is really gender confused because robots probably won’t have the same relationship to gender that we do. And they also won’t have thousands of years of history of gender the way we do so. If that ever happens, if that future comes to pass, it will be really exciting to take gender studies classes with robots and see what they have to say.
Sarah: You already touched on human rights for robots or artificial beings. In the book you mentioned that human rights for artificial beings for human level or greater intelligence were developed in the 2050s. And I’m wondering, how would your story have been different if artificial intelligent beings didn’t have those rights?
Annalee: Part of my conceit in the book was that things would probably not be very different. This is partly backstory stuff that I did in my brain, but there’s definitely hints of it in the story, which is that there’s a Robot Rights movement that has happened sometime in the past, and robots gained certain rights. But at the same time, they are still subject to a lot of the same forms of abuse that they have always been. They can still be owned and in fact, the default understanding is that when a robot is built, it will be owned by whoever builds it for ten years. And as the robots say to each other, a lot of robots don’t survive ten years. So effectively they are still enslaved and they are still property. Unless they get very lucky, or unless they are built by some nice liberal academics who are building free robots. The main difference would be, there’s a nominal idea in the law, that robots should have this right to become free and autonomous after ten years of ownership. And that does make a difference. It makes a difference in that it can motivate the robot to perform well at their job. And it means that you do have free robots running around who can come up with their own ideas about how the laws should work and how robot society should be run. There is a robot neighbourhood in Vancouver in the book and presumably there are other robot neighbourhoods around the world.
I guess now I’ve talked myself into saying there is a difference, because if they didn’t have those nominal laws, which are just a kind of minimum protection, there wouldn’t be any free robots. Or if there were, they would be illegal, or they would be extremely marginalized. So at least there’s this possibility that robots can be free, a little bit. But there is still a lot of prejudice against them. We see all these microaggressions against the robots who have jobs alongside humans. Humans will say things like, ‘a robot can’t come up with an original idea, it has to be programmed’. They have to overcome a lot of hatred in order to exist in the world as free creatures. It makes me think of civil rights in the United States. We nominally have all these laws that protect Black people in the US and other people of color. But there’s still so much prejudice and there’s still so much systemic racism that people of color are really struggling. So there’s the laws on the books, but then there’s the reality of how the social world functions. Robots are trapped in a place where they kind of have these rights, but they also don’t have a lot of rights. And even when they do have rights, people act as if they don’t.