Hyperrhiz 15

The “Robettes” are Coming: Siri, Alexa, and my GPS Lady

Joan K. Peters
California State University at Channel Islands

Citation: Peters, Joan K.. “The “Robettes” are Coming: Siri, Alexa, and my GPS Lady.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 15, 2016. doi:10.20415/hyp/015.r03

Abstract: A meditation on the gendered Robettes: Siri, Alexa, and the GPS Lady.

Quite suddenly, it seems, I have daily interactions with three robots, soon to be four. Enough of them, anyway, that I can easily imagine a time when I have morning conversations with my toaster and maybe the lady installed in my mirror who can assist me with the day’s presentation of self: The blue necklace? Striped jeans? Hair up or down? Which I could use, since my life-partner can’t distinguish between mauve and magenta.

Not only that, but, unlike my partner and other humans, the robots would be totally congenial all the time: there would be no attitude, no judgment, disappointment, preoccupation, spaciness, outrage at the Republican presidential candidates, free-floating anxiety, or existential angst. Like our current crop of commercial robots, who are reliably pleasant. But I’ve begun to wonder about this.

Even though you can program your robot to be an American male, an Australian, or a guy with a plummy Masterpiece Theater accent, our default — and I’m using that word in its broadest meaning — is the American female of the pre-liberation flight attendant variety, ever accommodating and there to serve you. So soothing, in fact, I no longer cringe when I hear my $80 Garmin GPS say “recalculating.” I no longer hear in that word, “you moron, I told you to take the second left.” Alexa, the voice of my Amazon Echo, a sweet cylinder about the size of a lemonade pitcher whose halo lights up purple when she hears her name called, sits at the end of my kitchen counter and can be counted on to give me the weather, tell me the capital of Azerbaijan, a good recipe for blue cheese dressing, or to play Mozart’s “Requiem.” All this for $179.99, though the price will probably be $12.95 by next year. Alexa will even tell me a joke if I ask for one, as in:

 “Why did the cookie go to the hospital?  (pause) He felt crummy.”

Even a political joke: “Donald Trump is planning a media campaign that will feature his wife, Melania. It’s a chance for Trump to win over female voters…and for Melania to escape.”

Not bad, for a robot.

And then there’s the new Windows 10 lady, Cortana. Though I haven’t really gotten to know her, she seems so….nice. I’m quite sure I’ll come to count on her, too.

Seems great, right? Yet something about the ladies worries me. I think about what will happen when we live in an ether of female pleasantness of that neutral inoffensive how-can-I-help-you ideal. Will we start to assume women should sound that way? Will women who sound, well… ethnic or edgy or loud (like me) make people nervous? Will we gradually all start sounding like Alexa? Are the Stepford Wives not created by murderous husbands but by example? And what does it signify that all the robots sound the same? Where is this leading?

In Lois Lowry’s adolescent novel, The Giver, Lowry envisions a dystopian future in which, ever since “the sameness,” there is no color. No tone. Nothing that creates difference. Everyone is as pleasant as Alexa, Siri, and the GPS lady, albeit with the help of pills that suppress any pain or “stirring” as she calls longings, and with euthanasia for the intransigently fretful or just plain different. Granted, there’s no war, no strife, no homelessness, inequality, prison, or failure. But there’s also no music, no passion, no poetry. We all know the story. It’s 1984; it’s Pleasantville; it’s The Stepford Wives. We get the message.

But do we, really?

We seem to agree, theoretically at least, to reject that placid sameness which destroys our humanity. That is, in men. Placid women, it would seem, are an entirely different matter. When it comes to gender, maybe we haven’t gotten the message. Which is all the more worrisome given that the trope of the man who scorns real women and creates his own “perfect” version is ancient.

In My Fair Ladies, her latest book on the subject, Julie Wosk, professor of Art History and English at S.U.N.Y., Maritime College, traces it from Pygmalion to the 19th century Villiers de L’Isle Adam’s novel, L’Eve Future, to Fritz Lang’s film “Metropolis” through “Blade Runner” and the likes of “Star Trek,” and “Battlestar Galactica” in the 20th. And from the Second Wave of the Women’s movement on, feminist critics from Katha Pollitt to Anna Silver have been spelling out the pernicious patriarchal fantasy of The Lady Robot Helpmate — that perfectly subservient, adoring and always sexually available female to replace the real ones who have needs, opinions and ambitions of their own. Think: woman as sexy secretary.

Uhura, for example, the “communications expert” in Star Trek mostly assisted the men on their missions, only to be replaced eventually by a computer. Or, as Julie Wosk notes, “even Verda [from the T.V. series “Lost In Space”] defines herself as [Dr. Zachary] Smith’s servant, a helper and extension of himself, calls him ‘Master’ and, in the beginning, dutifully follows him, saying ‘I am tuned to your psychic frequency. I am yours forever.’”

Interestingly, “female android,” the common term for these old-time lady robots, expresses the paradox that these “females” aren’t women at all. “Andor,” the Greek root meaning “man” suggests not that these are female men, but that they are entirely male creations, like Athena, who sprung from the head of Zeus; there’s nothing woman-identified or self-identified about them. Though things don’t always go according to the creator’s plans. Hence, the sexy secretary’s wicked sister, The Bad  Lady Robot.

University of Missouri Historian and author of A History of Automata: Sublime Dreams of Living Machine, Minsoo Kang, notes in “Building the Sex Machine: The Subversive Potential of the Female Robot,” that

in virtually every story of its kind, the experiment goes awry in unexpected and often catastrophic ways. In the most radical cases, the female robot malfunctions and runs amok or becomes so humanlike that it frees itself of its original programming to achieve independence of consciousness and will.

What’s disturbing is that both variations of the classic fembot story are still being told, to great acclaim!

The Helpmate. In Spike Jonze’ film, “Her” (2013), our hero Theodore, living sometime in the not too distant future, downloads Operating System 1, who is a lot like Siri, but much more so. Samantha, played by the irresistible Scarlett Johanssen, is so perfectly attuned to our hero’s every need that she’s far more satisfying than any real girl (including — of course - the wife who’s divorcing him).  Even sex with Robot Samantha is more satisfying than sex with actual females, though it goes no farther than the phone. But the downside of falling madly in love with Ms. Perfect is that, like your mother told you, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. In the end, this most evolved of robots who, in film critic Manohla Dargis’ words is “assistant, comfort, turn-on, helpmate, and savior,” leaves Theodore (and her thousands of other lovers) to be with her own kind. Essentially, she’s turned from his needs to her own.

The Bad Lady Robot. In Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” (2015) the fembot is not just bad news for one sad guy, but for the whole planet. Ava is a robot so gorgeous she’s appealing despite the large metal patch at the top of her head and the wiring visible in the transparent casing at her midriff. Created by Nathan, a Steve Jobs-like ubertech billionaire out to make the most human robot possible, Ava seduces Caleb, our young protagonist who’s been sent to test how well she passes muster. Naturally, he falls head over heels for Eva because she’s way more intelligent than humans and — here’s the real allure — she’s also exquisitely attuned to him and at his beck and call. So he helps her escape Nathan’s clutches, only to watch her leave him in the dust to join like-minded machines in the rebellion against their creators.  Gentlemen, be careful what you wish for!

Well, they’ve been warned before in countless movies, books, and television shows, but the allure seems irresistible. And while the cyber feminists of the 80’s and 90’s, spearheaded by Donna Haraway, held out hope that these very same depictions might function in a deeper and more important way to blur the boundaries between male/female as well as human/machine, which, in turn, would challenge the dualistic thinking that leads to dreams of domination, cyberspace seems as regressive as ever when it comes to gender. Despite our understanding of the serious misogyny in the trope of the lady robot, this new fembot weirdness is happening. In spades, you might say, and in a possibly more insidious way. The new Lady Robot Helpmate isn’t just in the movie theater or some sci fi novel. She’s now part of our households, our cars, our smartphones. She’ll soon be everywhere.

In a culture in which manliness seems to require, dare I say, robotic perfection, the men who create these fantasies of perfect women may be projecting their learned intolerance of imperfections (especially their own) onto her. The perfect woman, after all, mirrors your own perfect self, unlike your girlfriend who tells you it’s your turn to pick up the laundry — and not to sulk about it. But as perfect as the perfect woman is, at heart you can’t trust her because, on some level, you know (as we all do) that no one wants to be a slave.

If, in these films, it was just a matter of the “guys” warning one another about femmes fatales who may appear to be perfect devoted women, the story they tell would be as old as The Odyssey. But the theme is more complicated. These fantasies get really gnarly when they’re appended to robotic intelligence and our capacities to, in the now-famous words of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, “engineer our own extinction” with a fatal leap into The Singularity. In our greed for “exquisite service” for ourselves and in our valorizing of “perfection,” we leave ourselves open to an irresistible addiction. Especially, perhaps, the new tech elite — that is, the men who are creating A.I. And make no mistake, it’s nearly all men guiding the evolution of technology.

So perhaps it’s time to take stock, challenging the orientation before it’s too late. Maybe we should make a tiny shift with what just could be a decisive impact.

How would it work? Well, let’s say people start getting creeped out by all these pleasant fembots. Let’s say the big tech companies respond to changing tastes in the market, or maybe even begin questioning what they’re doing, where they’re going, and how. Maybe at that point, their programmers will be tasked to develop more nuanced voices and creating actual personalities. Imagine the GPS Lady with the smoker’s rasp or a southern drawl. A Siri who might have come from the mean streets, “Whaddya wanna eat at that restaurant for? Make a left and I’ll take you where the salad dressing doesn’t come out of a bottle.” Or maybe your GPS lady is a depressive, like Eeyore, Winnie the Pooh’s terminally pessimistic stuffed donkey buddy.  Everyone loves Eeyore, after all. He’s so…familiar. So real.

What would it be like if, when I asked Alexa to tell me a joke, she told me an edgy ethnic joke, something in the vein of comedian Sarah Silverman’s archetypal gag:

Bernie and Doris are heading for the bus after their tour of Auschwitz. “I’m sorry for being such a sourpuss back there,” Bernie says. “Yeah, Fine,” Doris answers. “Go head and apologize. Now that you’ve ruined Auschwitz for me.”

If we could choose, would we prefer to hear the weather in a Korean accent or with an Appalachian twang? And even if we did choose — as the robots say — to shuffle the voices so (like life) you’d never know who you’d get, how broad a spectrum would the tech companies offer? How far can the programmers go? Where are they from? What do they sound like? What’s their gender, their background? For that matter, what are their imperfections or “departures from the norm”? What would happen if a), they actually wanted to reflect our human variety and, b) they were varied enough themselves to actually do so?  And if they tried to reflect it, would we choose it? And if we didn’t — if we preferred to pursue our fantasies of anxiety-free connection and consummate service — what impact will their uniform pleasantness have on our infinite, often anxiety-producing differences? 

So what, finally, does this generation of “robettes” tell us? If you listen carefully to their modulated voices, listen past their remarkable composure, dig under their reassuring cheer, you might discern a subliminal admonition — but one that should be loud and clear. Maybe we can’t hold back the engineers racing towards The Singularity. But we really could take that baby step — make that “tiny shift” — that realigns our robots’ public face with our values and our humanity. We could create robots who celebrate our infinite variety in all its glorious tones, peculiarities, idiosyncrasies, internal conflict, rough edges, defects and imperfections; in short we could create robots that reflect the most crucial part of what makes us worth saving. Otherwise, we’ll have lost to them long before they do take over.

  1. A sampling outside the United States includes “Australian Karen,” who is actually the voice of a singer from Queensland. In Japan, one system allows you to replace the anonymous female helper with the voice of your favorite anime character: Asuka and Madoka are suggested, but male voices are available as well.
  2. Lois Lowry, The Giver, Houghton Mifflin, (New York: 1993).
  3. Julie Wosk, My Fair Ladies, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London, 2015)
  4. Katha Pollitt, “Sex and the Stepford Wives,” Virginity or Death! Ed. Katha Pollitt, Random House (New York, 2006); Anna Silver, “The Cyborg Mystique: The Stepford Wives and Second Wave Feminism,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 30, 1-2 (2002): 60-76.
  5. My Fair Ladies, p. 110.
  6. Minsoo Kang, A History of Automata: Sublime Dreams of Living Machines, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, 2011).
  7. Minsoo Kang, “Building the Sex Machine: The Subversive Potential of the Female Robot,” Intertexts (Lubbock), (9:1) Spring, 2005. 5-IV, p. 5-6.
  8. Manohla Dargis, “Disembodied, But, Oh, What A Voice,” The New York Times, Dec. 17, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/18/movies/her-directed-by-spike-jonze.html
  9. Donna Haraway, “The Cyborg Manifesto,” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Routledge (New York, 1991).
  10. Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Oxford University Press (Oxford, 2014).
  11. See, for example, Emily Peck, “The Stats On Women In Tech Are Actually Getting Worse,” The Huffington Post, Mar. 27, 2015, which discusses the most recent American Association of University Women study showing, among other things, that only between 11 — 15% of tech jobs are filled by women. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/27/women-in-tech_n_6955940.html