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AI & I: Addressing the gender gap in AI

AI is something I have grown up with throughout my teenage and adult life. 

It’s in the voice assistant on my phone, the clumsy sat nav my dad suctioned onto his car dashboard, the automated train announcements, and the fascinating science fiction films I filled my Sundays with. More recently, I’ve watched the emergence of female companion robots, sex robots, AI Instagram influencers – and just a general obsession with all things cyborg. 

As a woman, I can’t help but find the female representation of AI rather disappointing. Why? Well, the only time women seem to be represented in AI is either as a subservient voice assistant or hypersexualised fembot. 

AI in popular culture

It’s not often you hear a male voice assistant softly reminding you of your menial daily tasks or reminding you to take your umbrella because it’s going to rain for the 10th day in a row in the middle of August.

“Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that”. – Amazon’s Alexa, designed to make your domestic life easier, has a soothing female tone designed to be inoffensive and subservient. 

In fact, when I think of male AI, I think of the powerful Iron Man or The Terminator. Even Hermes the MIT rescue robot has a masculine appearance. These are strong male figures, reflecting the gender norms in a society where, for a long time, men were expected to be the protectors and defenders and women were there to be submissive, visually pleasing objects.  

Atlas, the robot from Boston Dynamics who can parkour. Image: REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon

The stereotypes for female AI don’t stop with voice assistants. They’re present in films, just as the male stereotypes are. 

In his 2013 film Her, Spike Jonze brought us the female assistant of the future. Her portrays a seductive computer system called Samantha who provides comfort for a lonely, soon-to-be divorced man. And what about the super sexy half naked Ava from Ex Machina, Barbarella, Metropolis, Bladerunner, Humans, Westworld… the list goes on and on. 

Don’t get me wrong – I think these productions are incredible, and some of them definitely make it into my top 10 films. But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that all of these hyper-sexualised fembots were created by men, intended entirely for submissive servitude. 

AI’s gender problem is a product of deep-rooted stereotypes, and nowhere is that more obvious than in science fiction.  

I should note that – particularly in modern Sci-Fi films – these stereotypes are often used to deliberately provoke the viewer by throwing an artistic lens onto our current society. In fact, it can be argued that these film directors are actually addressing the lack of diversity in AI in society by shoving it in our faces. 

“My express intention is to make an ideas movie, and it is deliberately setting up questions — not all of which have answers,” - Alex Garland, Ex Machina 2014 

Unrealistic beauty standards and AI 

We’re seeing these cyborg creations become ever present in our real lives as we continue to push the boundaries of technology and the human imagination. I think an excellent way that we as humans bridge the gap between imagination and reality is through fashion. Take a look at Dior’s AW19 runway collection and tell me we’re not obsessed with hypersexualising female cyborgs. The impressive 12-meter-tall runway sculpture created by Hajime Sorayama is undeniably a beautiful piece of art – but it also reflects both socially contrived female beauty standards and the male fixation on fembots.  

The Dior robot. IMAGE: Dezeen

The line between admiring unattainable beauty, and comparing my female body to a fictional object is becoming increasingly blurred. A good example of this is Instagram sensation Lil Miquela. Lil Miquela is a digitally generated Instagram influencer who – despite being entirely fake – has gained huge numbers of followers and continues to contribute to the growing ‘egirl’ subculture, not to mention the huge range of popular beautification Instagram filters that now exist. 

CGI Lil Miquela models alongside Bella Hadid, a real woman. When you look at this, the fembot future doesn’t seem so far away, does it? IMAGE: Calvin Klein

 So where are these fembots coming from?

What really amazes me is how powerful some of the fembots and trends are. These hyper sexualised women ooze authority and demand attention, and it has an aspirational effect. One argument for the increase in this fembot fandom is that humans have a subconscious biological desire to look sexually attractive to find a mate, affecting our conscious decision-making process. So, as the majority creators of AI, men are designing these fembots with the subconscious desire to procreate – hence the overly sexualised female form.  

But is that all it is? 

I like to think that as a human, I have the ability to think for myself. I can choose to look or act a certain way because I want to, not due to some subconscious biological urge. I have the privilege of choosing what to wear in the morning, what I post on my social media and how I want the outside world to perceive me - and I would be lying if I said it was all honest, but it certainly isn’t all sexually charged. It’s what I believe to be my ‘best self’.

But here’s the thing: we’re all so engrossed in consumer culture that we are willingly warping our genuine selves to strive for unattainable beauty. Even before fembots like Lil Miquela appeared, social media was creating a whole new surgically enhanced beauty ideal, with the likes of Kim Kardashian and Bella Hadid leading the way. 

So my question is, how can we expect AI to be diverse and a genuine representation of women, when we’re not representing our genuine selves?

Well before AI existed, women were still going to extremes to achieve a naturally unattainable appearance. But if AI is built on the data and algorithms we produce, then that’s partly what fembots like Lil Miquela are based on, right? 

So, can we close the gender gap? 

We are all, no matter our gender, incredibly complex and intelligent beings. It wouldn’t be right to put the poor representation of women in AI down to the male gaze or repressed sexual urges alone. I think wider societal norms have vastly contributed too. 

It’s obvious that the objectification of women is still very prominent in our culture, and we can’t ignore that AI has a male-orientated creation process. AI reflects the biases of those who build it, so the only way to improve it is to involve diverse creators from all demographics in the design and deployment of AI.  

Tech companies are beginning to invest in incentives to attract more female candidates and create more attractive and reliable roles within the industry – but this is just the tip of the iceberg. 

To truly change the representation of women in AI, we have to change the representation of women in our daily lives. We need to address stereotypes and challenge the damaging and deep-rooted mindsets we have created as a society. We have to push for equality across all demographics, so these AI machines don’t perpetuate the diversity disaster we’ve contributed to.  

There’s no simple answer to fixing this problem, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep fighting for a more diverse and inclusive future. 




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