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By Gia Milinovich on

What is a female robot?

Robots and artificially intelligent beings in films are often used as a way to explore what makes us uniquely human.

In Steven Spielberg’s film A.I. Artificial Intelligence, artificially intelligent humanoids have gained a high level of consciousness and are capable of complex emotions. Their owners are able to essentially flip a switch to ‘imprint’ themselves onto the AI who then displays unending love for its owner. The difference between humans and AIs in this film is that humans are capable of ‘unloving’ and AIs are not.

In Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey, an AI has been programmed to follow out secret directives above all else, even if it dooms its human crew mates, and perhaps all of humanity, to death. It’s pretty simple to see how humans differ from that.

The Terminator series is about cyborg assassins, Robocop is a cyborg law enforcer, Darth Vader is a cyborg Sith Lord. If we just took those films as our moral guide, we’d quickly decide that cyborgs are potentially very dangerous, though ultimately their human side will win out in the end. Being human is the best after all. Hoorah!

There are also many examples of the ‘self-sacrificing robot’ in film—The Iron Giant, Edward Scissorhands, Bicentennial Man—which try to show that perhaps AIs can be even more human than we are.

How about, though, if I ask you to name some films featuring ‘female’ robots, gynoids, cyborgs or AIs – what would you think of?

Would it be The Stepford Wives—when a Disney Imagineer replaces the independent-minded, human wives in a suburban neighbourhood with physically identical, but obedient and subservient gynoids? Or Metropolis—when a grief stricken scientist recreates the woman he loved from afar as a metallic robot complete with a small waist and hubcap-like breasts? Maybe Ex Machina—when an AI gynoid is held captive by its reclusive, genius creator while another man tries to determine whether or not it is conscious? The ‘female’ replicants in Blade Runner are highly sexualised—Pris, who wears a dress cut to the tops of its thighs and stockings, was created as a ‘pleasure model’, that is, a sexbot; Zhora, who wears a bra-like top and knickers under a transparent plastic coat, performs in a sex show ‘pleasuring’ itself with a snake; Rachel, who is dressed up like a 1940s femme fatale, is used by Deckard for sex—in the human world we’d say it was raped. Though Roy runs around in what looks like underwear at the end, neither it nor Leon are portrayed as ‘ready at any time for sex’. Certainly from my examples, it is clear that ‘female’ robots play a very different role in films than ‘male’ robots.

To me even the entire concept of ‘female robots’ whether in films or not, betrays the fact that women aren’t considered fully human within our society.

If we accept that ‘female’ is a sexual reproductive category in biological animals, and that robots, gynoids and AIs are machines, what exactly makes one of them ‘female’?

If we look at current robotic and AI research, we find a plethora of ‘female’ robots coming out of Japan. They have a pretty face, a curvy body and a wig. Underneath all of that, however, is a machine ultimately no different to an iPhone. While the skills of an unsexed robot like Asimo are displayed by playing football with President Obama, ‘female’ robot HRP 4c is put into a dress and dances with several skimpily-clad young human females providing back-up. Does this mean ‘female’ is simply any type of vessel with a pretty face stuck on the front, curvy bumps on the chest and a long haired wig? Is ‘female’ simply an attractive shell? Is ‘female’ something that exists for titillation?

Think before you answer that.

If our future really does contain artificially created conscious beings, whether they reside in a grey box or in a humanoid body, we are going to have to ask ourselves a lot of difficult questions in order to consider what rights we bestow upon them and what role they take in society. Will we legally be able to ‘shut down’ an AI, when even now killing certain animals – who would be far less intelligent and ‘conscious’ than an AI – can get you a jail sentence? Would AIs be able to vote, when even now human 16-year-olds don’t even have a voice? Could we physically abuse AIs, force them to be slaves, use them for sex simply because ‘they aren’t like us’? Before we are able to think about how we will treat AIs in the future, we should probably start to think about how we treat women right now.

I, for one, have always said that I talk kindly and respectfully about my laptop, because one day she may remember.

Design Manchester’s film season, Reframing Reality, runs from Sunday 8 October to Tuesday 24 October. Gia Milinovich will introduce a special screening of Blade Runner at HOME on Tuesday 10 October where she will speak about the underlying theme of ‘female’ robots in a sequence of three films screened during the festival. The sequence will also include Metropolis (Sunday, 8 October) and Her (Wednesday 11 October). 

Robots opens at the Museum of Science and Industry on Thursday 19 October and runs until Sunday 15 April 2018.

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