[-empyre-] Machine Dreams: Gender Bots

Mark Marino markcmarino at gmail.com
Thu May 25 01:03:42 AEST 2017

Margaret mentioned that my talk reflected on bots from the standpoint of
intersectionality.  Along with racial and ethnic performances/impositions
of/on chatbots, I also reflected on gender.

Gender and race/ethnicity, sexuality, all of these arise from this tendency
to make machines in our own image.  Noah Wardrip-Fruin's "ELIZA effect" (in
_Expressive Processing_) which names our tendency to anthropomorphize
software even with very little evidence of that humanity, draws in name
from a highly charged history.  The name carries an allusion to
power-relations and gender construction (i.e., Eliza Doolittle), as
re-emagined in Joseph Weizenbaum's conversation program, the first chatbot.
Though I don't think Noah intended this, the ELIZA effect, points to our
tendency to assign gender (and other identity characteristics) to
computational machines -- and we do this to other machines as well. (Is
your car/computer male or female? How do you know?)  Of course, the Turing
Test had already intertwined the notion of conversational software and
gender performance.

In the case of chatbots, you begin with a machine acting like a human,
carrying out one of our most human activities, conversing.  Humanity is, of
course, wrapped in subject positions and intersubjective interactions.
Chatbots thereby become evocative objects for our concepts of race and
gender and sexuality and socio-economic status.  But there's even more
going on -- since Pygmalion-like, we construct these artificial others to
chat with an imagined user, who is of course a proxy for us.  These are the
bots of our dreams.

As you mentioned, Machine Dreams engendered another conference, The
Inadequate Human at CSUCI, organized by the fabulous duo, Soraya Zarook and
Ande Murphy.  At that conference, I also had the chance to hear Joan Peters
talk on the Amazon Siri, Alexa.  You'll notice the shared affinities with
what I was discussing in what grew into her paper:  The “Robettes” are
Coming: Siri, Alexa, and my GPS Lady
Check out that paper.  It carries these ideas even further.

All of this leads to some questions: what does gender add to our sense of
the robot? How is the concept of robots already gendered?  Do we envision
gender as a software running on our hardware, evoked or produced through

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