C.G. Masi Weblog


22 February - Back in the early 1970s my Advanced Laboratory instructor made the comment: "Tradition is the sum total of things our ancestors over the past four million years have found that worked." I was reminded of it while reading an article in this morning's The Wall Street Journal entitled "Digital Aides' Gender Problem" by Joanna Stern. The article points out that AI-based robotic assistants, such as Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa, by and large have female personas.

Gender-neutral robot face
Robot assistants generally are not gender neutral. They're more often female.

Ms. Stern goes on to report a number of things wrapped up with this gender "problem." While conventional politically correct wisdom might suggest that gender bias arises from a high proportion of decision makers in Silicon Valley being male, that ain't necessarily so. She points to a substantial body of research over many decades that indicate a preference for female assistants by both men and women. Furthermore, these studies, she suggests, show that this preference is natural. People just warm up to female-mimicing robots better, and their creators just bow to market forces.

Another not-too-surprising result she reports is that humans tend to assign gender to purposely androgynous robots.

All of this is no news to those of us who've paid attention to this phenomenon over the years. We armchair psychologists have seen all the same reports, and have reached the same conclusions based on our own anecdotal observations.

Leaving the realm of reporting research results and wandering off into opinion, Ms. Stern suggests that we'd be better served if our robot assistants started out androgynous and allowed us to choose a gender for them. Here again, I'm all for giving folks choices, so I couldn't agree more. It turns out that my wife's GPS navigator has just that characteristic, and she chose a masculine-sounding voice named "Richard."

Where I have to part company with Ms. Stern, however, is when she indicates that there might be something wrong with our having a preference for gender-assigned bots of the female persuasion.

Yeah, we prefer gender assignments. Yeah, it's based on our own primitive instincts. So, the flock, what? There's nothing wrong with that. We're in it for our assisted-living pleasure, anyway. We prefer petting kittens to snakes, too. So, we invite kittens to live with us more often than snakes. And we like to assign gender to our robotic assistants.

Going back to that quote about tradition, we traditionally surround ourselves with things we like, not things somebody else tells us we should surround ourselves with for some other reason. We do that because our ancestors over the past four million years have found that it works. So, if Ms. Stern wants us to do something else, like try to live with gender-neutral robotic assistants, she can go pound sand.

Actually, I suspect she unrepentantly keeps kittens as pets, not snakes, and generally assigns gender to her robot assistants, too. It's just another example of my thesis that when making decisions, humans generally push logic aside and do what Mommy Nature, in her infinite wisdom, has programmed them to do.