What Gender Is Your Roomba?

Why do we assign genders to robots, even when they look like Wall-E or a Roomba vacuum cleaner? That was the subject of a panel at WisCon, where a roboticist debated sexbots and macho tanks with writers and science fiction fans.

Technical writer Heidi Waterhouse chaired the panel called "What Gender is Your Roomba?" where she was joined by robotics engineer Hari Mirchi and fantasy author Madeleine Robins. Waterhouse began by saying that she'd done an informal poll at the con, asking people what gender they imagined for their Roomba broom robots. "A lot of people said it was female because it does domestic work," she said. "Somebody said it has no gender until they get angry with it, and then it becomes female."

Robins said her Roomba was female, but only because "everything in my house is female except my husband - I have two daughters and a female dog. So I just assume all the machines are female too."

Mirchi said none of the machines in her house were gendered except her Roomba, which is decidedly male. "I have a hard time communicating with it and don't understand its behavior, so I think of it as male," she said.

The question is, why do even roboticists attribute gendered characteristics to something as clearly inanimate as a Roomba? "I think we want to anthropomorphize our robots," Mirchi said. "So we give them genders." She talked about a study done at the lab where she'd worked on robots in Japan, where researchers introduced a genderless robot to schoolchildren. With its boxy frame, the robot struck the children as male or female seemingly at random. "About fifty percent of the children called it female, and fifty percent male," she said. "But the gender each child chose for the robot had nothing to do with the child's gender."

Robins asked why certain machines are gendered female, while others are male. Ships - and, in science fiction, spaceships - are female. But soldier robots are male. Nobody could figure out what a tank's gender might be.

The speakers and the audience debated why ships are female, talking about how it was partly maternal because the ship protects its crew in a kind of womb. But it's also condescending, because of course the ship cannot do anything without being controlled.

Waterhouse talked about how robots in science fiction are often divided up into two groups: Fembots (who are generally sex bots or at least sexy) and hypermasculine military-style robots like Terminators or Robocop. Audience members noted that when the robots aren't particularly sexy or macho, like those in Wall-E, we still assign them genders. Perhaps, suggested one person, we want to give genders to robots in order to make them seem more human. Calling a robot "it," the way the humans do in Terminator, is intended to turn them into faceless enemies.

Mirchi described recent efforts in Japan to create robots who will be caretakers for the elderly or sick. These robots, she said, are deliberately created to be genderless. But the idea of creating a genderless robot, especially one that will interact a lot with people, seems doomed. Even schoolchildren assign random genders to robots designed to be genderless.

Panel members and the audience debated a lot about why people sometimes want to make their robots female, giving their GPS devices women's voices for example. Or why it's common to give automated instructions to pilots using male voices. Female voices are easier to hear over engine noise, but studies show that people follow instructions better when delivered by a male voice. Are our robot designs sexist, or pragmatic?

The question I was left with after the panel is what will happen to all these gendered robots in the future. If robots ever achieve human-level intelligence (or greater) will they want to be gendered, or will they view gender as something human-centric? Perhaps, in the end, robots will develop genders that mean nothing to humans, assigning specialized pronouns to wheeled robots, scorpion-shaped robots, insect-sized robots, and humanoid robots. Will relationships between the scorpions and insects be taboo?