Boys’ Toys: Tech and Sexual Objectification

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It’s a lucrative business model; a gallery owner makes millions selling art and can keep all the proceeds because he doesn’t have to pay the artist. At a time when creators are already struggling for fair remuneration for their work, is this the future? Meet Ai-Da, an AI robot developed by UK company Engineered Arts for gallery owner Aidan Meller. Using cameras in her eyes, Ai-Da is able to interact with her surroundings and produce original line drawings, and Meller has already made over $1 million selling her work. Yes, her work. Under her paint-smattered smock, Ai-Da’s body is all metallic parts, but her face is that of an attractive female (thanks to the team behind the ‘Westworld’ cyborgs) and she has a gentle, breathy voice to match. Named after 19th century mathematician and computing pioneer Ada Lovelace, the decision to make this technology female was deliberate. Meller says,“What we’re about today is really having everybody’s voice heard because that has not been traditional, especially in the art world. A female voice is needed more now than ever and we’re excited and proud of that.” There are so many questions raised by Ai-Da’s existence: Is it just a coincidence that Meller’s choice of name, supposedly honouring Ada Lovelace, is only one ‘n’ away from his own name, or is the self-aggrandisement deliberate?; Was Meller concerned about the optics of a successful, male gallery owner profiting from the work of an upcoming ‘female’ artist, or is exploitation the point?; Did Meller consider giving voice to a human female artist rather than to a robot, or did that never even cross his mind?

Which leads to the more general question of why so many of these, predominantly male-run, tech companies create ‘female’ robots. Putting aside the issue of specifically designed sexbots, there is an interesting discrepancy around which types of technology are presented as obvious robotics, such as Boston Dynamics’ dog-shaped and humanoid machines shown opening doors, climbing stairs and doing backflips, and those which are designed to look as human as possible, with skin and hair. The latter seem to frequently be female, with one such example being Sophia, who was developed by David Hansen of Hansen Robotics and modelled on Audrey Hepburn. Sophia was famously, and unironically, given citizenship in Saudi Arabia, a country where human women can’t work, study or travel without the permission of a male guardian. Hansen himself displayed an equally traditionalist view of the role of women in society when he explained that his aim is for Sophia to be of use in the healthcare, customer service, therapy and education sectors. It seems gender stereotypes are alive and well in the robot world, with ‘females’ performing the nurturing roles and the gentle arts best ‘suited’ to them.

We don’t need to dig deep into the psyches of such tech developers to find the sexual objectification of the female form together with a desire to create a breed of ‘women’ who can satisfy the need for attractive, sexy companions without the baggage of autonomy, opinions and the ability to say no. This seems to run parallel with a prudish distaste for anything that suggests female sexual desire and gratification. Last year’s case at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) highlighted the hypocrisy in this area, where sex tech to induce male pleasure had never been an issue but a female-targeted sex aid was deemed, immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with CTA’s image by the Consumer Technology Association. This highlighted the misogynistic view that women are a means to male sexual pleasure, but that active female desire is unseemly and must be censored. The CTA have since reviewed what happened, explaining, We just identified some inconsistency is in our handling and our policies that we needed to go back in and address, The prize for the Osé Robotic Massager, which was revoked at the time, has now been reinstated, but the damage has been done and the image of tech as a protected male domain has been reinforced.

The sexual objectification of the female body is also the source of Facebook’s ongoing nipple issue. The company’s nudity moderation had resulted in works of art, historic photographs, content on breastfeeding and campaigns to raise awareness about breast cancer being removed from the platform. Users were also quick to point out the hypocrisy that female nipples were being banned but male nipples were deemed acceptable. Years on and Facebook are still trying to find a fix for their nipple problem, with their policies remaining opaque and questions being raised around how the company responds to images of trans-women and women after mastectomies. What it all points to is an inherent problem with their moderation, and with the algorithms being used to run it. These have been developed by men who see female breasts as merely sexual objects and who had not considered them in any other context. Their almost puritanical concealment of the female body shows that outdated but deep-seated, discriminatory ideas about the role of women in society are being transposed into the online world by powerful companies who are supposed to be at the forefront of the modern age.

Examples abound in the tech world of inequalities, sexual objectification and outright misogyny, from the low hiring rates of women and minorities to coordinated harassment by men who see tech as a male space and try to make it so uncomfortable and dangerous for women that they are forced out. All of this raises concerns over a general lack of diversity in the tech companies responsible for creating the world we increasingly live in. The algorithms which dictate so much of our online interactions today, from the recommendations and news we see to the moderation of content deemed inappropriate, are still predominantly written by white men, and the AI machine learning is based on content produced by even more white men. The danger is that the environment they create will share their views that women are nothing more than receptacles for their desires and not autonomous beings with an equal right to play an active role in that world.

18th June 2019

Jacqueline MacDonald

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