Inside the surprisingly sexist world of artificial intelligence


Tessa Lau, a computer scientist and cofounder of robotics company Savioke, says she frequently sees designs that neglect to take into account the perspectives of women and other minority groups.

Back when she worked for robotics research lab Willow Garage, she encountered “this enormous robot research prototype called PR2,” Lau recalls. “It weighs hundreds of pounds—it’s much larger than a smaller woman—and it has two big arms. It looks really scary. I didn’t even want one of those things near me if it wasn’t being controlled properly.”

At Savioke, Lau has made it her mission to design robots that are accessible to a diverse range of people. The Relay service robot, already in use at five hotels including the Holiday Inn Express in Redwood City and Aloft locations in Cupertino and Silicon Valley, brings towels, snacks and other deliveries straight to guests’ doors. The robots come with a touch screen that’s easy to reach for children and people in wheelchairs, and obligingly perform what Lau calls a “happy dance” if they receive a five-star satisfaction rating from guests.

“For most people, that’s the first time they’ve had a robot come to the door,” Lau says. “We want the experience to be a pleasant one.”



And also:

“The way we teach technology and AI, we start from ‘Let us teach you how to code,” says Russakovsky, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute. “So we wind up losing people who are interested in more-high level goals.”

Veeeery interesting!



Funny how most “AI” personal assistants have women’s voices:

The argument that we’re somehow hardwired to listen to women’s voices is bunkum too:

In 1980, for example, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported that several surveys among airplane pilots indicated a “strong preference” for automated warning systems to have female voices, even though empirical data showed there was no significant difference in how pilots responded to either female or male voices. (Several of the pilots said they preferred a female voice because it would be distinct from most of the other voices in the cockpit.)

In another study, published in 2012, people who used an automated phone system found a male voice more “usable,” but not necessarily as “trustworthy” as a female voice. And much like the group of pilots, men tended to say they preferred female voices even though they didn’t end up demonstrating that preference. “Whereas the women in the study implicitly preferred female voices to male ones, even more than they admitted in the questionnaire,” Tanya Lewis wrote for Live Science at the time.

If men are often the ones building digital assistants, and those assistants are modeled after women, “I think that probably reflects what some men think about women—that they’re not fully human beings,” Kathleen Richardson, the author of An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines, told Lewis.



I’m quite interested in this topic - I was watching something the other day (can’t remember now, which is helpful!) but it had this robot and the guy who built it was telling the robot he didn’t think she was pretty or some such. Her behaviour was a bit docile and all that, and I just found it all a bit weird. I’ve probably missed something crucial (and the article does point out he made a replica of himself too), but I dunno…



That’s just creepy as fuck, frankly.



Why do we give robots female names? Because we don’t want to consider their feelings
Another look at why robots are female.

“Right now, as we’re anticipating the creation of AIs to serve our intimate needs, organise our diaries and care for us, and to do it all for free and without complaint, it’s easy to see how many designers might be more comfortable with those entities having the voices and faces of women. If they were designed male, users might be tempted to treat them as equals, to acknowledge them as human in some way, perhaps even offer them an entry-level salary and a cheeky drink after work.”

1 Like


OK Google, Show Me Your Tits

First of all, who on the Google Home team thought [‘OK Google, show me your tits’] was a good question to make sure Google Home had an answer for? Was this a fun little Easter Egg some software engineer or product manager decided to throw in there? Or was this architected somehow? Was there a meeting about this? Is the prompt, “Show me your tits” on some spreadsheet somewhere as a high priority question that needed a good answer? Okay maybe I don’t know what “AI” is or how it works but I know one thing: I never would have thought to ask this.