Robots don’t lactate: Humanoid robots, warfighting and gender

October 9, 2013

This is a guest post from Heather Roff-Perkins, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School.

Photo credit: Caroline Davis
(Caroline Davis)

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With increased debates over the creation and deployment of fully autonomous weapons in combat, we find many scholars and practitioners questioning not only the desirability of such systems but also what might be the perverse effects of their use.  To be sure, addressing whether we should hand over targeting and firing decisions to a machine is pressing, but there are also subtler and less obvious problems, particularly those related to gender and the design of robot fighters.  While fielding humanoid robot fighters is futuristic, their development is not.  Researchers are busy creating these humanoid machines.  From the U.S. Navy’s SAFFiR, who throws peat grenades at onboard ship fires, to DARPA’s “Atlas,” who looks like a precursor to “Battlestar Galactica’s” first generation Cylon, we have evidence that humanoid robots are entering the defense sphere.  Yet here is the question: Why does it appear that such robots are being created with masculine traits?  And is there any compelling reason to do so?

What might be a compelling reason to engineer gendered humanoid robot fighters?  One might respond by saying that “male” robots would be scarier than female-looking ones, and when trying to win a war, frightening one’s enemy is part of the plan.  Perhaps creating a robot that is more “female” would be better suited to noncombat roles, like translation or interrogation.  Certainly we have some discussion about sexed bodies and militarism, but nowhere have we yet discussed the overt creation of a nonhuman but gendered warfighter. The closest we might come to this is the current use of higher-octave automated voice systems in some military aircraft, whereby this more “feminine” voice is supposed to be less obtrusive to the pilots.  These may be reasons to make one type of behavior more gendered than the other.  However, is this compelling?  No.  In fact, it reaffirms traditional gender roles, and by creating machines that have physical attributes of male or female, it engages in the “essentialism” derided by most feminists.  In other words, it collapses the distinction between gender and sex and makes everything about sex.  In one fell swoop,  roboticists and engineers undermine years of fighting for equal rights and opportunities, and it reaffirms the notions that “masculinity” equates with power, and if “femininity” is even constructed, it is done so by its absence or by its “role.”

This is to say nothing, of course, of the artificial intelligence (AI) of a gendered machine or what might result from gendered AI.   Indeed, right now all I am concerned with is the body.   These corporeal design decisions need to be taken carefully if they are not to undermine attempts at inclusion, openness and non-domination.  There must be consciousness on the part of developers to understand that gender and technology are not “neutral” categories, and that the decision to give the “WowWee FemiSapien Humanoid Robot” not merely breasts, but high heels, reaffirms a cultural narrative that says that to be feminine is to look a certain way and even to be a certain way.

More disturbing, though, is the potential effect that gendered humanoid robots may have on the relationships of power and norms governing civic virtue.  As J. Ann Tickner argues, those that believe that “a ‘realistic’ view of international politics demands that  ‘real’ men remain in charge,’ ” ultimately “silences, rather than promotes feminist agendas and women’s equality” in international politics (Tickner, 1999).   While we may say that a robot is not a “real man” to begin with, we still must lend weight to Tickner’s observations.   For if warfighters are made to look masculine, and these are purposeful design decisions, then we ought to question the message this sends.   The image of an ideal fighter becomes embodied in the machine, and with it, a cultural narrative about masculinity and civic virtue becomes reified.  In other words, war is a man’s game, and thus domestic and international politics are as well.

Some might think my observations are overblown, but all we need to look to are the current humanoid robots produced by DARPA and the U.S. Navy.   They appear as tall, broad-shouldered, V-shaped and thus rather “male” robots.  I cannot say whether the researchers have the ideal warfighter image in their heads, but they are (un)knowingly passing this vision on through their design. Thus in the best-case scenario, they only reaffirm male bodies with masculinity, but more subtly and more dangerously, they reaffirm that war is a man’s domain and endorse essentialism. Perhaps more subtly still, they may even be telling the world that masculinity is a prerequisite for civic virtue.

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John Sides | October 9, 2013