Mar 28, 2022 - Technology

Should robots have genders?

Children in a shopping mall with a life-sized robot.

Children in a Tokyo shopping center encounter Pepper, a semi-humanoid robot. Photo: Sawada M/Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Last week we asked you, in response to a question posed by reader Desiree Furness, "Should robots have genders?"

Why it matters: We're going to be interacting with robots more and more, whether in human form or not. It's important that we feel comfortable with them and that they seem to hew to societal norms and expectations.

  • We've grown accustomed to Siri and our GPS systems, etc., speaking to us in voices that "sound" male or female.
  • But most of you who wrote to us came down in favor of keeping robots neuter or neutral whenever possible.

What some of you said: "Why do we need to rely on fabricated references to gender in order to 'relate' to robots?  We don’t assign genders to coffee pots, elevators, machine tools, ATMs or forklifts," wrote reader Jeffrey Williams.

  • "One of the most insidious and bias-laden relationships in the modern, Western cultures is that of the domineering male and the subservient female," he added. "Let’s not perpetuate this systematic, antiquated and wholly unacceptable relationship by foisting a thoroughly troubling parallel fiction onto a class of automated humanoid service machines."

Another side: A reader who is a musician, Dan Vedda, sees a parallel between our relationships with robots and those of musicians with their instruments, which they tend to assign both genders and names.

  • "When you spend hours working with anything that includes a large measure of both progress and frustration, it can lean into anthropomorphic bonding, and gender specificity comes along for the ride," he wrote.
  • "While it never surprises me that professional musicians have this penchant, I've observed it spontaneously with fifth and sixth graders new to playing. 'I'm calling him "Oscar,"' one girl told me as she got her first rental clarinet."

A third side: "If you want people to engage with a robot telling them what to do/giving instructions, keep the voice female," wrote Amelia Gaillard.

  • "People, in general, feel safer & more apt to interact with a female-sounding voice (evolutionary/female nurturing/non-threatening, etc.)."

Other readers said: "Why not make half with female-sounding voices and half with male-sounding voices?" — Elizabeth Covington

  • "I have long hated that the default for almost every virtual assistant is female — Alexa, Siri, Google, etc. It's clearly sexist, or why would they all be female by default? I think it harkens back to wanting the tech to not be intimidating or scary, but helpful and non-threatening — hence, female-assigned, which is of course sexist." — Metin Toksoz-Exley
  • "Seriously, what is a positive vs. negative gender stereotype? Kindness, politeness, accuracy?" — Jon Husted
  • Rob Neill: "Instead of gendering robots, how about not assigning them humanity at all?"
  • Cricket Moore: "Robots are NEUTER, so they are ITs. Why has IT disappeared from the gender discussion? Perhaps an androgynous voice recording could be used for robots instead of a gendered one."
  • Page Gardner: "Just wondering, what are the options? … What does a non-gender speaking voice sound like?"
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