Girls & Robots: Reflections on the Being Human Festival

In March 2016, Microsoft released a chatbot called Tay. Designed to replicate the language patterns of a 19-year-old American girl, Tay joined Twitter in a PR move that was meant to illustrate the promise of social learning in robots. Instead, Tay began to respond to deliberately offensive tweets, and within 24 hours Tay’s tweets, too, had become incendiary. For Microsoft, this moment proved to be a PR disaster, with pundits and journalists weighing in on how it signalled the dangers of AI.

Today, as artificial intelligences multiply, our ethical dilemmas have grown thornier.

The usual concerns around AI were tinged with something else, however: something more precise. Helena Horton at The Telegraph writes:

All of this somehow seems more disturbing out of the ‘mouth’ of someone modelled as a teenage girl. It is perhaps even stranger considering the gender disparity in tech, where engineering teams tend to be mostly male. It seems like yet another example of female-voiced AI servitude[.]

What Horton calls attention to in this quotation is significant. While AI itself might give us pause, the gendering of AI should also be given attention. Despite a paucity of women in STEM fields, women and girls are the faces, the voices, and the physical models for AI, especially when such AI is service driven. And, this phenomenon has a history—spanning the reaches of science fiction through to today’s automated devices. A conclusion that can be drawn from this, then, is that in both tech industry and tech fantasy, women and girls can serve as the models for AI, but when it comes to providing real input on the design and function of these models, their voices are noticeably absent.

As a researcher of both gender and tech, I began to wonder what it might be like if teenage girls had a say in these inventions and these stories. Would the face and shape of robots change?

In support and collaboration with At-Bristol Science Centre, UWE’s Faculty of Arts, Creative Industries and Education, and The Being Human Festival, this was how ‘We, Robots’ was born. ‘We, Robots’ was a recent workshop that explored these questions with girls and young women at the helm. The event was organised in 3 parts:

1. A contextual and interactive history of the girl-robot in science fiction and technology.

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2. A hands-on play and building session, where girls were introduced to a number of robots and had the opportunity to design their own scribble-bots: Video.

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3. A creative writing session where girls told their own stories about what they imagined robots to be and expressed their own hopes and fears around contemporary and future robotics.

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Equal parts cute, creepy, and deadly, cat-like overlords, mystical sea creatures, and molten insects populated these robot stories. Such inventive examples at once undermine the tradition of girl-modelled AI, and provide a glimpse into how girls perceive current cultural impressions and anxieties around the subject.

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Featured in the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen, the workshop has received some fantastic international attention. We at the DCRC are planning to put together similar events in the future so watch this space!

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