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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Artificial intelligence should transform our lives, not reduce women to robots

Why do so many artificial intelligence gadgets have female personas? Shelina Janmohamed asks if we feel more comfortable bossing them around

Stop working, the robot's got it covered. Reuters
Stop working, the robot's got it covered. Reuters

The Rotimatic is a recent addition to the plethora of kitchen gadgets taking the hard labour out of cooking. The machine costs an eye-popping $1,000 (Dh,3680) but it does something that women from the Asian subcontinent have dreamed of for decades: it makes perfectly round, perfectly thin, perfectly cooked rotis, that staple of the Asian family meal.

Could this, my friends and I have wondered in excited low whispers, really be the answer at last? Will this spare us the judgment heaped on us if we fail to make fresh rotis?

While technology has often been a source of liberation for women, its rapid advancement also unearths darker attitudes about how women and their roles are seen. Our anticipation of the gadget's release went hand-in-hand with plenty of male comments along the lines of: “I won’t need to get a wife now.” A joke? Maybe. But it is also deeply revealing of the attitude that women are too often seen as nothing more than domestic labour.

The way we talk about technology and, in particular, the rapidly developing field of artificial intelligence reveals just how deep our assumptions run about how women are there to follow orders and organise things.

AI seems to be the hot topic of the moment. I was at a conference earlier this week in which the topic of AI was being discussed. There is no doubt that the capabilities of AI and its predicted sophistication in the near future has the potential to totally change how society operates.

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We are already familiar with robotic assistants like Siri and Alexa. Similar robots and intelligence are set to be able to predict our future behaviour based on our past actions. They will learn from what we’ve done in the past and organise in advance the kinds of activities we’d like to do in the future, including buying tickets and supplies, for example.

Offering an insightful, big-picture vision of the incredible potential of AI, a presenter at the conference joked: “She will be able to organise your life even better than your wife!” A joke? Not really. But it is also deeply revealing of the fact women are too often seen as nothing more than personal assistants; that the value of a wife is reduced to an administrative role.

Just think about how AI gadgets are given female names and voices. We - including women - feel more comfortable bossing them around. Their job is to serve and do menial tasks. Some people argue that we are all used to the service industry and administrative tasks being carried out by women so it is natural to use women’s voices for them.

What is clear is how entrenched the notion is that the vast majority of such roles are undertaken by women and that society views the role of women as replaceable by AI.

Such a stark revelation is pause for thought. But it is also an opportunity to set in motion a radical change. We can alter our perceptions of "women’s work" and how we perceive the functions of women. It becomes even more important when we think about the practical impact on the workforce. Since it is unavoidable that many service industry roles and manual labour jobs are undertaken by women, this could be a huge obstacle in women’s economic and employment progress.

AI is a top concern for women’s issues because it could go either way. It could, in theory, liberate women from the back-breaking labour they continue to undertake, despite the push for equality. But as we see a shift to the alt-right and men’s rights activists reviving the idea of women serving, administrating and staying at home, there’s nothing stopping them being replaced by intelligent bots.

What makes it even more worrying is how few women are involved in developing AI, which would be an opportunity to shape its development rather than entrenching the existing stereotyping of women.

AI should be about maximising our humanity. While we’re busy dreaming about how it will help us live life on Mars and beyond, let’s make sure that here, at home, women aren’t reduced to rotimatics and robots.

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