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.