Intelligent robots may strengthen gender norms

Machines and technology increasingly fill more and more human functions. According to researchers, society’s gender roles affect the development of robots and artificial intelligence, but technology may also shape ideas about gender.

Will they take our jobs? Will they become our new girlfriends and boyfriends? Robots and services based on artificial intelligence affect our work life and major parts of our everyday life while we hardly notice it. Technology consists of seemingly lifeless, material things. But do machines also have a gendered life?

“The way we understand robots’ gender is tied to how we understand human gender,” Roger Andre Søraa explains. He is a researcher at Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), and chief investigator of the robot research project My Robot Friend.

We humans have an urge to give personality to non-human objects.

In his research, Søraa seeks to demonstrate that there is a connection between gender in society and gender in technology.

“We humans have an urge to give personality to non-human objects. For instance, many people give their boats, or their robot vacuum cleaners, female names. Gender is one of the first characteristics we assign to objects and humans.”

Robot, not human

Robots may be self-driving cars, vacuum cleaners, or it may be virtual assistants helping you through the day by checking your calendar, putting on a song on Spotify or doing your google search for you. There are several ways of gendering these robots.

“One example is to provide the technology with a high-pitched voice,” says Søraa.

Think about Apple’s Siri, or the now discontinued phone service Frøken Ur (the Speaking Clock). These are just some examples of services with a soft female voice.

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