In Singapore, robots also suffer from sexism

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This is an observation that may at first glance seem paradoxical. How can the cutting edge fields of robotics and artificial intelligence reproduce traditional sexist stereotypes? In Singapore, the question has been analyzed and to answer it we need to probe how the ultra-modern city-state tries to make these humanoids acceptable and familiar.

Like the theologians of the Middle Ages debating for hours on end about the sex of angels, roboticists today wonder about the gender of a completely different creature, a priori also asexual: humanoid robots.

AT Singapore, a man in particular wondered about the sexist stereotypes that could be projected on robots, Dr. Benedict Tay tried to prove this through various experiments. In 2013 first he presents two identical robots supposed to be used for security purposes, to a panel of participants. Only difference, one will be named John, and will have a male voice, the other will be named Joan and will speak with a female voice.

In front of a parity of men and women selected for the experiment, these humanoids then show a small range of their talents. : detecting an intrusion, proposing to lock the front door, alerting to an electric kettle that has been inadvertently turned on… At the end of this meeting of a new type, the verdict falls, John is considered more useful and satisfactory than her female counterpart.

Gender stereotypes

A year later, the two humanoids are further differentiated using gestures, mimics, and colors meant to indicate Joan’s shy personality, and make John an outgoing man. The two robots are in turn staged in two missions also responding to gender stereotypes, medical assistance on one side, security on the other. Once again, the conclusion is the same, the more the robot responds to gender stereotypes, the more believable and likeable it is.

If the human brain thus projects its vision of the world and the gender stereotypes that inhabit it on these machines, for Dr. Tay this is hardly surprising: “ Qhen the human being is faced with a new phenomenon, he always tries to relate it to existing mental models, unconsciously .

The strange valley

And if the Nanyang Technological University, to which Benedict Tay then belonged, wanted to understand how potential users perceived male or female robots, it was to solve a very specific problem, the researcher developed: “ Singapore was studying the placement of robots in public places and homes. Of course, as these robots were entering new places where people were sometimes alone, it caused a lot of fear and anxiety. And when we started the experiment, the aim was to look at how robots could be more familiar to older people, who are wary of new technologies, in order to avoid a low return on investment in any new project. “.

However, the fear that a humanoid robot can arouse is a pitfall that every robotics designer seeks to avoid, since the theorization in the early 1970s of a phenomenon with a very poetic name, the valley of the strange. Expression of the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, this concept was born from the following observation : While a few human traits in a robot can cause sympathy and a sense of familiarity, when a humanoid becomes too similar to a human body, it suddenly becomes disturbing.

Asked about it in 2016, Frédérique de Vignemont, philosopher of cognitive sciences at the Jean Nicod Institute analyzed this phenomenon as follows: Une of assumptions is that the brain does not like uncertainty at all. This robot that looks a bit like you, but not totally, sends contradictory information. You perceive both a human and a non-human. We know that the brain does not like perceptual dissonance, it seeks to find a solution at all costs in the face of contradictory information ”.

Noodles prepared by the mechanical arm of Sophie

Suggest robots familiar enough to arouse sympathy without becoming frightening thus becomes a balancing act, in which the genre, assures the study of Dr. Tay, remains a very practical tool: “ From the age of five, children have already developed an impressive constellation of gender stereotypes. They often use them to gain insight into others, to guide their own behavior, to direct their attention, and to organize their memories. This process is. considered automatic and almost inevitable, wrote the researcher in 2013.

And since Dr Tay’s first work, his conclusions seem to have come a long way in Singapore. In 2021, this small Southeast Asian state is in first position in the TOP 10 of the most automated countries according to the International Federation of Robotics, and exhibits these robots, with occupations often very correlated with gender stereotypes, like pride. The tourist who goes to Singapore will thus be able to meet as soon as he lands Ella, the robot cleaning lady who mops in the lobby of the airport. When he goes out to take a taxi, it’s To fart the police robot that he will then see monitoring traffic. He can then go to a Chinese medicine clinic where the robot Emma massage it, and then taste the noodles prepared by the mechanical arm ofSophie.

Among all these Singaporean robots, some are more famous than others, likeEdgar who had the honor of being the Master of Ceremonies of the National Day in 2017.

And many more are coming in these times of pandemic. Ballets of cleaning robots tracking down health risks, in particular with UV rays, the robot who executed a twenty-second PCR test shows in hand, those of the police patrolled between the dormitories of the migrant workers placed in isolation, and in the hospital the metallic and feminine voice of Temi she tried to support the sick and brighten their loneliness.


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