Artificial Intelligence And Gender In Science Fiction

I didn’t get to doing a Keycon recap this year, but one of the panels I was moderating was Women in Speculative fiction, and that was the panel where I had the main guests of honour. One of them was Tamsen McDonough, who is the voice of the ship’s AI in The Killjoys.

I watch the show, so I was familiar with the character, and was terribly amused to learn that the ship’s character was originally written to be a motherly, caring sort of character, but Tamsen thought Aaron Ashmore was hot, and got flirty with him in the ship’s dialogue, and the director ran with it. The ship, Lucy, likes her female captain less, but they avoid the jealousy trope by not having the ship get jealous when Ashmore’s character gets a girlfriend, and by giving her some girl chat mutual compliments moments with another female character, Clara. Those happen in season two, so it seems the writers made an effort to adapt the character dynamics in a positive way, which is one reason I love the show.

But since I had her on the panel, I brought up the gendering of artificial intelligences.

My main observation is that when you have an artificial intelligence that’s supposed to provide information or assistance to the human characters – who plays the human’s servant – the AI is typically voiced by a female, or otherwise gendered female. Lucy from the Killjoys is only one example – there’s also Romy from Andromeda, ship’s voices from star trek, hell, the maid in The Jetsons.

If it’s an AI who’s created to be some kind of enforcer – a police or soldier robot who’s intended to be obeyed by human characters – then the AI is voiced by a male. Examples include the combat droids in the Star Wars prequels, the I-robot AI’s, and the police bots from Chappy.

This is also a real-life phenomenon. Siri is voiced by a female. Most GPS devices are voiced by a female, though other voices are now available. Studies were done and they found that both men and women preferred a female voice.

In an aircraft, systems that provide information to the pilots typically have a female voice deliver that information. If a system needs to deliver an instruction that the pilots need to follow, the instruction is typically delivered in a male voice.

But it goes further than that. If an AI is supposed to be a character we sympathize with, if the writers are trying to make us see the character as human, and worthy of human rights, then the AI is gendered male. Examples – Data from Start Trek, the child AI from AI: Artificial Intelligence, Bicentennial Man, and the titular character from Chappy.

There’s less of the converse, but the example that bothers me the most is the AI from Ex Machina. Spoiler alert: I’m not sure if the writers intended to dehumanize the female AI character or not in turning her into a human murdering robot in the end. It feels like they were trying to warn the audience of the dangers of AI’s getting out of control, but what I saw was an AI reacting exactly as one might expect a severely abused woman suffering from PTSD might react when she’s reached a point of no longer being able to discern ally from abuser. I think that’s what the critics were picking up on when they said the ending felt muddled – it’s hard to tell who the sympathetic character was supposed to be.

Of course there are exceptions. C-3PO and Jarvis are gendered-male servant AIs. Cameron from the Sarah Connor Chronicles also breaks the mold, being a badass fighter robot with a female outward appearance, and the android from Dark Matter is a gendered-female android being humanized.

And you’ll hear the anti-SJWs whine that they’re machines, what does it matter what gender they’re made to look? Well queue my eye roll, because humans make the robots and the AI’s and it sure as hell matters to us. I always enjoy seeing stereotypes busted – it makes a story more interesting than seeing the same old same old all the time.

Book Review: The Operative: Gerald Brandt

The next installment in the San Angeles Trilogy – that one with the Final Fantasy VII style tiered city and dystopian cyberpunk setting. (Waiting for the part where the corporations bomb the support columns to drop one level on top of another and blame it on the freedom fighters…)

It starts with Kris having changed her name for privacy reasons. Mixing up the letters of your boyfriends last name to come up with your new last name Kris? Why don’t you just tattoo his name across your chest like all the other cool girls?

Anyway, she’s in training to be an operative for ACE now, the secret rebel group that’s trying to fight the corporations, when the training facility is attacked. I was glad to see the plot got more twisty after that, with Kris getting information leading her to doubt whether or not ACE was actually everything she’s been told it is.

All the while she’s got another survivor of the attack in tow who suffers from some pretty severe PTSD. I liked this character, and the fact that Kris gets to have some female companionship while she tries to track down her boyfriend.

Ian gets to be the damsel in distress for most of this book, and I’m willing to bet there’s going to be some whiney male readers who don’t like seeing a male love interest given treatment typically reserved for female love interests. Screw ’em though. Torture porn content warning.

Plot wise, The Operative I think did what it needed to do in a sequel. Book one had Kris just focused on not dying, and book two would have been boring if it was more of the same. Instead her goals get to expand to keeping her boyfriend from dying, and finding out the truth about ACE. The scope of impact of her actions grows too, from simply slipping out of the Corporations’ grasp, to doing some real damage.

This was more of the fast paced action of the last one. Trilogies usually go one way or the other – either each book gets better, or they peter out. This one is definitely getting better as it goes along. You can tell the author’s making an effort towards getting some diversity into it, even more so with book two than book one, and even in book one there were a number of female side characters and it wasn’t just a “Hey look, female protagonist” and then no other female character in the entire book like some books. Book two had a gay couple and several new female characters to replace the ones that didn’t make it to the end of book one. And the Chinese guy who was a background character in book one steps up into a main supporting role.

And it’s set up well for the sequel. I hope Kris gets to go to the space station or something; that would be cool. I wonder how many characters will still be alive at the end of book three!

Video Games: A Metaphor For Dispatching

I’ve been at the new job a little bit now, done job shadowing and on my own now. It’s a new experience – it’s a position with a lot more responsibility than I’ve ever had before. I’m literally in a position to make decisions that can cost or save the company thousands of dollars. It’s a small company, five planes, and I’m in charge of receiving calls from the ambulance dispatchers that take basically 911 calls from outside of Winnipeg, and sending the planes to pick up patients.

It sounds simple, but there’s a fair bit of strategy to it. Because legally, the pilots can work a maximum of fourteen hours consecutively before they have to be given a minimum of eight hours consecutive rest, plus we give them a little on top of that for transit time. Add to that the complication of some of the crews being based at our crew houses up North because the closer they are to where we’ll need to pick up patients, the more likely we are to be assigned the trip, and the more money the company makes.

There’s a type of game – board game or video game – called “worker placement games.” It will be based around units being used to build things, or collect resources that are then used to build things, and generally there’s a map and proximity to the resources has to be taken into consideration when working out strategy. Limits will be worked into the game mechanics on how long it takes to complete a task, or make a trip to the resource cache and back. In many games, the workers will need rest, or your fighters will need to return to someplace to be healed up before they can be sent out to fight again.

Very early on, I realized this whole dispatch thing, when the guy training me described the strategy involved in moving our planes into position, arranging schedules and calling out crews, I can think of it as a game – the goal being preventing the company from missing out on getting trips by having our crew held up unnecessarily or having crews called in and their fourteen hour duty day start but them sit around twiddling their thumbs rather than flying, and helping them make money by having our crews in position to get to patients quickly and relaying estimated times of arrival so that crews rendezvous with ground transportation efficiently.

The only thing missing is tallying up scores at the end of the game and seeing who wins.

I’d love to get on as a pilot here – the idea of having a job where I’m helping people has always appealed to me, and that’s one of the reasons I want to fly a water bomber some day. But I need 500 hours to get on as a Medevac pilot, so I’m looking for something part time, now that I have more time and energy to handle a possible second job.

In the meantime, and I’m enjoying working here, and not just because I’m not in a call centre. I’m being told that I’m doing well, and everyone seems to like me here, and my training went super quick.

But the company itself it very different than what I’m used to. I’m used to big companies now, with management being impersonal. Here, co-workers have described it as being like a big family. Everyone knows everyone, and it seems like the owners care about their employees. It’s a small company, and there’s no union like at MTS, but they don’t use the absence of a union to take advantage of employees and be hard-asses. Instead, they use the absence of a union to take advantage of opportunities to reward hard work and give employees a bit of a break when they know an individual could use it.

On top of that, it’s not as exhausting as the call centre work, so I have more time and energy left over for writing and other hobbies. Money is tight, so I’m helping my dad out with the bees for some extra cash, and looking into selling my art for the first time – I’m making Ukranian Easter eggs, or Pysanky, which are not just for easter, but traditional gifts for many occasions. And despite money being tight, I’m much happier where I am. I think I’d rather be homeless at this point than go back to the call centre. We will manage.

Gearing Up for Keycon

I can usually only manage one con a year, and last year I hit When Words Collide in Calgary, but this year I’m broke, so hometown con again this year.

The good news is I’ve been emailing back and forth with the programming committee, pushing for more serious writing related programming. There was some talk of not wanting to get too technical and have the panels end up not being of interest to non-writers.  I pointed out that the two need not be mutually exclusive, one can have the fluff panels and fan panels for non writers, and the nitty gritty technical panels for the writers. I also mentioned that there have been complaints about there not being enough serious writing panels in previous years, as well as the amount of positive feedback programming committees have received in years when they have had a good amount of serious writing panels. They were easily convinced and literary paneling this year is looking fantastic.

So, the panels I will be on:

Religion and SF & F with Lindsay Kitson, Sherry Peters and Daria Patrie: From Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality to David Webber’s Honor Harrington Series, from Michael Carpenter in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files to Bobby Dollar in The Dirty Streets of Heaven, and many more novels, religion has played a key part in SF&F literature. What part does religion have in the world building process? How has religion been used as a central theme or as an allegory in SF&F? How are religions portrayed? Should writers and readers alike be concerned about cultural appropriation when some religions are used in a book?

Alternative Aviation in Science Fiction with Timothy Gwyn: From Autogyros to Zeppelins: a catalogue of unusual aircraft past, present and future. A look at the strengths and weaknesses of each, plus how much technology is needed to build them, and how well they fit into different sub-genres of SF. Examples from noteworthy fiction, and how they played a role in plot or worldbuilding. Do you need air transportation in the age of steam, or on an alien world? Alternative aviation may hold the answers you’re looking for. Remember: getting there is half the fun! (I’m not so much on this panel, as manning the projector and heckling.)

How to Edit Your Own Work, and Why You Need an Editor with Lindsay Kitson, J. Boone Dryden, Diane Walton and Daria Patrie: The trick to writing is re-writing. Our panelists will share a few tips on editing your own work, and will go over what an editor will do with your work. Also, is the editor always right? What happens if you disagree with your editor?

Point of View with Gerald Brandt, Melinda Friesen, Lindsay Kitson, and Daria Patrie: What writing point of view is most often found in SF&F literature and why? How does point of view change the narrative or style of the story? Is it more difficult to write a certain point of view?

Women in Speculative Fiction with Kelley Armstrong, Tamsen McDonough, Lindsay Kitson, and Van Kunder: Join our panelists as they explore how female characters have been portrayed in books and on film in the past and present, and how women have been involved in their respective fields over time. Is Speculative Fiction on the leading edge of equality? Or is there still a long way to go?

Critique Group Survival with Lindsay Kitson and Daria Patrie: So you’re ready to share what you’ve written with others and get feedback on it. How do you find a critique group? How do you know if you’ve got a good one? How do critiquing meetings go, and how to you contribute effectively? And when is it time to move on to a different group? Bonus content: How to start your own critique group!

Aviation and Believable Airships and Aircraft in Science Fiction with Timothy Gwyn and Lindsay Kitson:. An interactive session with two pilots who are also writers. Lindsay Kitson and Timothy Gwyn tackle the credible and incredible in aviation fact and fiction. Learn how getting aviation right can enhance your story. Some pointers on how to keep it real with aircraft and airship scenes that actually work. (This one’s going to be fun, and there will be at least one signed pre-release copy of Tim’s book, Avians, as a prize for whoever gets the most questions right!)

The timetable is tentative and incomplete so far, but this is the earliest I recall them ever  having it available before the con, so that bodes well for how organized they are this year. What they have so far can be viewed here. Looking over it, I can see some other panels already that I’d like to hit.

Looking forward to seeing everyone there!

Avians – Cover Reveal

You might recall I mentioned one of the members of my critique group was getting published, and I promised to post more when there were further developments. Well it’s getting closer to his publication date, and he’s got a cover reveal post on his blog right here. 

I read this in it’s infancy a few years ago, and while it needed work at that point – every novel does at that stage – I whipped through it as fast as I used to read authors like Lloyd Alexander and Monica Hughes. Actually, I think Monica Hughes would be the author I’d compare him to – YA, but with serious themes and without the preoccupation with romance that a lot of YA fiction with female focal point characters seems to feature these days.

And I can’t say 100% for sure that I didn’t read it that fast because it revolved around aviation, but that can’t have been the only factor, because I’ve picked up some other books revolving around aviation, and not devoured them that quickly. The characters and world are engaging and imaginative, the plot had a solid foundation, and meaningful themes. It pulled me in, even at the stage I saw it, and I look forward to seeing it again in it’s polished form.

If you like aviation and YA books, or if you have daughters you’d like to inspire with a book that’s about young girls having adventures and not obsessing over boys, check it out!

Also, Timothy will be at Keycon this coming May, as will I and my close friend Daria Patrie, who is a Master in Creative Writing, so come see our panels. I’ve been in touch with the programming committee and it sounds like the writing panels will be exceptional this year.

Taking The Plunge – New Job

My call centre job is one that pays decently well, so I’ve known for a long time that whenever I ended up getting a job in the aviation industry, it was going to be a pay cut, and a fairly massive one. Which is scary, with a lot of debt, but I’m very grateful that my Dad is in a position to help me out so I’m not afraid my husband and I will end up on the street or anything while I transition to a completely new industry.

So it’s scary, leaving my decent wage job for something minimum wage, and I wanted to wait until I’d passed all my tests before starting to search. Which I’ve done now.

Most pilots don’t get their first job in the industry flying. Usually they start by getting their foot in the door with a company by taking a job on the ground, typically either working the ramp, loading cargo, fueling planes, etc, or dispatching.

Apparently I interview well. Most of the time, if I an get an interview, I get the job. I was taught basic manners and stuff and that goes over well.

I put out a bunch of resume’s and after all of a week of searching, a friend passed my resume on to management at a local Medevac company, and they called me in for an interview for a position dispatching.

Now, at least in this setting, the dispatcher is kind of the central nervous system of the company, responsible for knowing where all the planes are at a given time, receiving estimated arrival times and passing them on to parties who need them, relaying details of trips to pilots and medics to send them on their way to pick up patients. A lot of responsibility for an entry level position.

I remember years ago, I was working back at EDS, another call centre, and a call came out for applications for a position within the project called “Incident Problem Management”. My manager suggested I apply.

I hadn’t even considered it. It didn’t sound like anything I was qualified to do, though I really didn’t have any clue what was involved. I was just a phone monkey – in no way whatsoever, did I think I had a chance at getting that position; for sure there was someone more qualified than me.

But they interviewed me and gave me the position. Now, in my head, they sat down in a room and went, “You know what? I think we should take a shot on Lindsay – give her a chance, what do you think?”

My friends, who have worked with me in the past told me the conversation likely went more like “Lindsay’s demonstrated she’s competent and doesn’t slack off, we want her.”

My duties turned out to be monitoring ticket queues and acting on patterns I saw that could indicate a major problem, and facilitating communication between departments in order resolve issues in the company’s IT environment as they arose.

I did do well, and when the company lost the project to a lower bidder and the position disappeared, I soon got a supervisor position in another project within the company based on my performance in the IPM position.

Fast forward to now, interviewing for the dispatcher position, which is a job with huge responsibility, despite being an entry level position. But I listened to the description of the job and realized, I can totally do this. In fact, I’m literally their ideal candidate, and when I described by previous job experience, I got the sense the manager interviewing me realized that too.

So I was offered the job on the spot, and now I’m dispatching for Sky North.

A Humble Plea

It’s my last day doing tech support in a call centre.

I will do a post about my new job shortly, but before I get on to that, I have some things to say.

I’ve left with the standard two weeks notice so I can be recommended for re-hire, and MTS is likely to hire me back on if I had to go crawling back….

But I really frickin’ don’t want to.

Don’t get me wrong – MTS has been really good to me, and my managers have done all they can to not stand in my way as I’ve worked on my licences and ratings. No, what makes call centres a meat grinder that the average employee lasts six months; a place where you can get stress leave easier than just about any job short of air traffic control – what makes me so glad to never have to go back there…

That’s the customers.

Not all the customers, but enough of them. So on behalf of my co-workers, who are great people and more patient than a lot of the people they have to deal with deserve, a humble plea:

When they ask you for your name, please give them your name – the name you think the account might be under. There’s no need to ask what name we’re looking for, that only makes you sound suspicious. The rep asked for your name. If you have a deep, masculine voice, and you say your name is Brenda, most of us would rather misgender you because you can’t answer a simple question than misgender some poor trans person who can.

If you don’t understand the technology you’re calling about or why you’re being asked to do something, don’t get angry and tell my friends that they don’t know what they’re doing.

If you have one of my female friends on the line, or one of my friends who has an accent, don’t make them convince you that they’re competent. I’ll let you in on a little secret. Anyone that can be identified as a minority over the phone constantly has to persuade people (male and female customers alike) that they know what they’re doing before they can get someone to follow their directions. If they’re not smart, they get abuse so bad, they don’t make it long in tech support, while if customers have a guy without an accent on the phone, he can be completely clueless and they’ll happily follow directions without question. So if you have a woman or someone with an accent on the phone, chances are you have someone who knows their shit.

It’s okay if you don’t know anything about the technology my friends are helping you troubleshoot – they don’t need you to. Often the hardest part of troubleshooting is convincing you that you can do it. Please don’t play stupid to try and avoid having to do the troubleshooting – we know exactly how complex the tasks are that we’re asking you to perform, and you’re not going to convince them that unplugging a cord from the back of a box from the port labelled power, waiting ten seconds, then plugging it back in, is incalculably complex to the point that you shouldn’t be expected to attempt it. They’re just going to come to the conclusion that you’re either incalculably lazy or in calculably stupid. I have walked stroke survivors and people with obvious intellectual disabilities through tv troubleshooting and got them going over the phone. Seriously, the biggest deciding factor is most often not your competence, it’s your compliance.

On that note, please pay attention. I’m used to having to repeat pretty much everything I say at least three times, so if my friends sound like they’re tired of repeating themselves, it’s probably because you weren’t listening the first two times they said what they’re saying now.

If we ask you do do something, it’s safe to assume it’s for one of two reasons – either my friends hope it will fix the problem, or they hope that it will give them information that will help determine what the problem is so they know what needs to be done to fix it. If you don’t understand why you’re being asked to do something, and you don’t understand the explanation when you ask, please, just do it. My friends want to help you, but they can’t if you dig your heels in and refuse to let them.

Likewise, please don’t have a fit and refuse to do any further troubleshooting because the first thing my friends tried didn’t instantly fix it. Often there’s multiple steps to a task, and it’s not going to be a magical push-this-button-and-it-starts-working fix.

Often,you’re able to give my friends so little information about the problem we need to do diagnostic steps to figure out what you’re even describing. Please don’t get angry when they ask you to elaborate. There are too many things that can go wrong with a computer and internet for you to be able to go “That thing’s happening again” and us know exactly what you’re talking about.

Please don’t demand my friends tell you what you’re supposed to do with your kids while you wait for your tv service to be repaired. We provide tv service, not child care. You’re just turning yourself into a joke. Likewise, don’t ask them how you’re going to get assignments turned in to professors or work assignments that you need internet access to work on. Take some personal responsibility people.

I feel like this statement often falls on deaf ears, but please remember that my friends on the other end of the phone are frickin’ human beings and deserve to be treated with respect. Don’t fool yourself into thinking bullying will magically get your internet or tv working without you having to follow instructions. If you do and they hang up on you, you deserve it.

Please don’t yell. Please don’t call my friends names or belittle them. Please don’t cry. If it’s for legit reasons, like you’re calling in to change the name on your account because your husband just passed away, we’re cool with you crying about that, and we try to be sensitive as much as we can, but it’s really hard to be sympathetic to someone crying over their tv not working when we don’t even have cable.

My friends are good people, and they spend their days dealing with near-constant abuse. Give them a break if they sound tired. Look up the term “emotional labour” and understand there’s an intense amount of that involved in tech support. Look up “hang up on abuse” and listen to some of the nasty things customer service reps get told over the phone on a regular basis. My friends are expected to hop on the phone and basically treat you as if you were our old friend and they’re happy to talk you, not just doing a job. Imagine you’re getting on the phone with your own friend and they sound exhausted, irritable, even and you can tell they’ve had a long day. You’d give them a break, rather than making their life more difficult.

We’re all human, just trying to get by. Be nice to one another, people.