Saturday, July 27, 2002

robots with grace

thanks to adam for keeping me abreast of new robots, but i'm not sure i feel the same way about this one.

adam writes "I just get so tired of the essentialist assumptions that couple politeness and grace to femaleness. I expect more from people in 2002, and I'm disappointed." this makes him one of the good guys ;) and granted, as a woman, that sort of thinking doesn't just disappoint me, it pisses me off.

but i think that this robot isn't being gender-coded as much as it is being class-coded. a graceful, polite and accomodating robot - be it female or male - is primarily coded to serve its superiors. i don't like it if engineers assume that females are more likely to serve, but there is a long historical (and not necessarily pejorative) tradition of christening new technologies as female. i've always been curious about why predominantly male-driven design and construction produces a "female" machine (a ship, a car, a computer) - it seems to comprise an odd reversal of the biological and mythical (re)productive capabilities of women.

but this is where i start to get uncomfortable: "the robot was made female because [the roboticist] believes women communicate better than men". this assumption is a gross generalisation about both women and men, and we should all rail against that. but we're talking about individuals here, and perhaps this assumption says more about the roboticist than any of us. the problem, as adam pointed out, is the insidiousness of these assumptions, and i would add, the ease with which they are transferred (uncritically) to new technologies.

i choose to believe that this supports my argument that anthropologists and sociologists need to be helping design sociable robots. after all, being sociable involves way more than social etiquette.


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