What Gender Is Your Robot?

Before long we'll have personal robots available to help with tasks, safety, companionship, and more. To that I say Hell yeah! I can't wait to outsource all the boring parts of my life to androids. But here's the question: Will those droids be created male, female, or something less gender-stereotyped?


As Motherboard pointed out, robot makers are picking genders for their models, like Toshibo's explicitly female sign language robot. This isn't weird; we like to anthropomorphize our gadgets—we even assign genders to non-humanoid models like Roomba. To soften the landing for when we dive into that uncanny valley, we're trying to make robots feel accessible, and that seems to often translate to giving robots traditional gender roles.

It doesn't have to be this way. This could be the time seize the opportunity to disengage from gender stereotypes. We're seeing robots bucking gender norms in some instances, like how the emotion-reading robot Pepper was given a male character, or DARPA's female Valkyrie rescue robot. But there are less instances where the machines are devoid of traditional gender tells altogether (even Valkyrie has what appear to be breasts). Androids aren't as androgynous as they could be, and this is likely because marketers want to stick with what they think people will feel comfortable around.

In most cases robots don't need to be strictly humanoid in form at all, let alone gendered; even ones that need human characteristics to navigate the world (like how driving robots would need to operate the steering wheel and brakes) don't need to hew to our notion of a body. There are already plenty of examples of this, like a surgical robot capable of doing precise brain operations.

Still, people prefer that assistance robots look explicitly human, which is important because makers are going to want to create stuff that sells. And when robots come with a voice component, things get trickier to work around when it comes to gender. It is possible to program gender neutral voices, but research shows people prefer female voices, which is why GPS units and voice assistants like Siri have female pipes. (And Motherboard pointed out that another study found people preferred security guard robots with male identities.) PLUS, there's the whole "buying a robot for sex" thing, where gender will definitely stay a big factor in picking a model.

So imagine it's the future and you never have to wash your undies again. We are livin' in the age of robots. You can afford your pick, from the most avant-garde domestic assistant to an expensive tutoring model programmed with the educational finesse of Socrates to a brawny bot bodyguard.

Would you choose robots that are modeled as male or as female? Or would you select a genderless or androgynous option? Will your decision depend on whether you're getting a robot to cook for you versus a robot to mow your lawn? Would you feel more comfortable with a male robot chauffeur? And how much does it matter to you that the robot looks human in the first place?


GIF created from Toshiba's YouTube


Ashley Feinberg

What about a Buffalo Bill bot is that an option