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.

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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!