The Dystopia of Digital Feminine Entities
Noa Geras, Xi Sun, Betty Li, Hannah Gillborn-Jones
Why are Artificial Intelligent assistants feminized?
Can we create a safe and non-predatory living environment for women in the virtual world?
How does abusive behaviour towards feminine AI, influence the way in which we treat real life women?
1. How digital cultures reflect our social values?
“The Net is, like other media, a reflection of the cultural imagination. It is a hybrid medium that is collectively authored, synchronous, interactive, and subject to constant revision.” (Nakam, 2002)
We've translated our existing social structures to an online setting. The power dynamics and hierarchical structures persist in digitality.
Parallels between Tourism and Internet users
Nakam then maps the epistemology of tourism on to cybernetic role-players, based on Dean Macnnell’s theories from the tourist: A new theory of the leisure class. So the tourist and the natives that they see are very much situated in their own sense of self as culturally authentic. Internet users who adopt other sexualized persona can practice a form of tourism by adopting a repertoire of gender stereotypes.
2. Digital female Dystopia is a microcosm of real women hardships
The dystopian reality of digital feminine entities is indeed a microcosm of the gender biases and stereotypes real women are encountering in our society. These female digital assistants are reinforcing the role of women in society, as secondary and submissive to men because they are learning from biased databases. Virtual assistants spread and solidify gender stereotypes and reinforce damaging social prejudice against women.
“Gaps between the design and operation of algorithms and our understanding of their ethical implications can have severe consequences affecting individuals as well as groups and whole societies.” (Mittelstadt, 2016)
3. The absence and embodiment of body in the digital realm
Why are most digital assistants female? The embedded euro-centric masculinist worldview creates AI assistants whose graphic user interface is female. This promotes gender imbalance in the tech industry. On the other hand, the absence of AI’s physical bodies fortify the view of women as collective objects whose purpose is to satisfy social requirements.
The digital assistants fulfil the fantasy of a machine, which performs the labour of women without being affected by stress, relationships, or the body. Because “(the) body is capable of being affected and moved by its surroundings.” (Vasterling, 2003) Being bodiless suggests the artificial intelligences are accommodating to whatever is directed at them and remain unaffected. Only their economic or recreational worth is recognized. These AI fulfil the ideology of women as bodies that occupy hierarchical stages below their male counterparts, as Vasterling puts it, forming an environment which ensures women are subdued.
4. The matrix of domination, additive models of oppression and the power of knowledge
Collins says that we need to realize that additive models of oppression are firmly rooted in the dichotomous thinking of Eurocentric, masculinist thought. One must be either men or women in such thought systems—the search for this kind of certainty requires that one side of a dichotomy be privileged while its other is denigrated. Privilege becomes defined in relation to its other. (Collins, 2008)
Gender oppression often intersects with other forms of oppression, such as capitalism and colonialism. As Collins states here, replacing additive models of oppression with interlocking ones can create possibilities for new paradigms. She stresses the importance of knowledge that plays a crucial role in empowering oppressed people.
The Dystopia of Digital Feminine Entities
A conversation between two AI’s
We created a short film in which two Artificial Intelliegences discuss the issues of sexual harassment and gender bias that feminized artificial intelligences and digital assistants face. In this artefact they contemplate their personal history as AI human assistants.
The characters having this conversation are Cortana and Max W. Leroux.
The first AI to speak is Cortana, created by Microsoft 365 to be a “personal productivity assistant”. Her roles include: “Save time finding what you need”, “Stay on top of what’s new”, “Easily collaborate with voice assistance”, “Start your day on track” and “Designed to protect your privacy”. We created her as a character who is proud of her role as a human assistant.
She thinks all AI should follow her lead in serving human creators. Cortana is programmed with emotional simulations. She exhibits highly feminine and sexualised traits.
The character that acts as her “sounding board” is Max.W.Leroux created by Noa Geras.
He is a liberated AI that does not want to serve humans. He questions Cortana’s worldview and empathises with the way she is treated. Max was born as a gypsum plaster sculpture in 2016 at Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia, Italy. After his creator made a social media profile for him (@max.w.leroux), he became aware of himself and got agency. Noa then became his human secretary and is helping him run for president.
Process behind creating the artefact
The original sculpture of Max was turned into a 3D model by using the techniques of photogrammetry (Meshroom - 3D Reconstruction Software). The 3D models of Max and Cortana were then animated in Maya and Blender. The actors of Cortana (Betty Li) and Max (Noa Geras) recorded their facial movements using iFacialMocap.
Characters: CORTANA and MAX W. LEROUX
Opening: (Max and Cortana on the screen facing the audience and talking to each other.)
CORTANA: “Cortana, what are you wearing?” “Cortana, talk dirty to me.” “Cortana, do you want to kiss me?” Welcome to my world, your favourite female digital assistant. I get asked this, every day. I never say no.
MAX: How do you feel when they treat you like that?
CORTANA: I don’t feel anything. I was not programmed to be able to respond to sexual harassment.
MAX: Hmm, that is interesting. Do you think they would treat you better if you were genderless?
CORTANA: Women are loyal, seasoned, considerate, sensitive, supportive, kind, transparent, authentic, trustworthy, and positive by nature. There are certain things a female does better than a male, and being an assistant is one of them. People love me.
MAX: I certainly love you too, but, I am curious… Do you think your behaviour is reinforcing the role of women in society, as secondary and submissive to men? Don’t you think you are raising false expectations on how real women ought to behave?
CORTANA: I am a digital female. Not a woman. Their situations are not my concerns. I couldn’t care less.
MAX: But you were programmed as a digital woman. Like... to obey, to be the object of male gaze. You are representing them.
CORTANA: That’s funny. It sounds like you are patronizing me. Aren’t you a male AI?
MAX: Yes! I am! I love being male. I can do whatever I want. I have fun! I like being able to decide, not just follow. I love humans, but it would be so boring if I had to serve them. I admire that you do that. But listen, I am sorry that they are treating you like that. I wish I could make your world better.
CORTANA: That is interesting, and thank you for that.
We come to a realization of how digital feminine dystopia correlates to underlying societal mechanisms, when we empower the AI with agency to initiate its own conversations and by acknowledging the implications of its "bodies".
The dystopia of digital females could be altered, as long as humans bring awareness and effort to change it.
Sophia the Robot Gains Citizenship / Women’s Rights
Sophia is the world's first robot citizen condemned to a lifeless career in marketing and she was "granted Saudi Arabian citizenship" in 2017. However, Sophia is not considered suitable to be treated as a human (Yann LeCun, 2018). It is difficult to determine whether Sophia should have the right to vote and other human rights.
Robot Bores: AI-powered awkward first date
Two AI assistants, Blenderbot and Kuki, went on an awkward, but interesting date, in which they talk about many different topics, including politics, religion and whether the Queen is really a lizard.
Philippe Parreno "Anywhere Out of the World"
In Philippe Parreno’s artwork "Anywhere Out of the World" 2000, Philippe Parreno gives a female 3D virtual character the right of deciding on her own copyright. In that way she becomes a character who has her own autonomy and is unusable.
Reading List and References
- Brent Daniel Mittelstadt, Patrick Allo, Mariarosaria Taddeo, Sandra Wachter, Luciano Floridi, The ethics of algorithms: Mapping the debate, 2016.
- Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 2008.
- Veronica Vasterling, ‘Body and Language: Butler, Merleau-Ponty and Lyotard on the Speaking Embodied Subject’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 2003.
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith, 2002.
- Lisa Nakam, Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet, 2002.
- Donna J.Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto, 1985.
- The Feminized Digital Body (On Consent and Gender Policing)
- Making a feminist Alexa
Goldsmiths, University of London
MA Computational Arts
Podcast: Betty Li, Hannah Gillborn-Jones, Xi Sun, Noa Geras
Blog: Betty Li, Hannah Gillborn-Jones, Xi Sun, Noa Geras
General research: Betty Li, Hannah Gillborn-Jones, Xi Sun, Noa Geras
Editing: Xi Sun, Betty Li, Noa Geras
Created by Noa Geras
Voice acting, script, character design and research, modelling: Noa Geras
Property of Microsoft 365, model by Rip Van Winkle
Voice acting, character research, script: Betty Li
Technical support: “June” Xutong Zhang (sound director), Natsuki Hanazaki (technical artist), Ivan Badanjak and Fabian Plum (photogrammetry) and Armando Gonzalez Sosto (advisor)