Gendered AI: Gender Presentation and Distributions in sci-fi AI

In the first post of this series, I explained what I was out to learn, what I looked at, and how I tagged it. Ultimately, we want to look at the data and be able to answer questions like “Are female AIs more subservient than male AIs?” And in order to do that, we first have to understand what the distributions are for sex and subservience. So let’s talk distributions.

Distribution is a fancy term for how many of each value we see for a given attribute. For example, if we wanted to look at the distribution of eye color across the world, we would count how many browns, blues, hazels, ambers, green, gray, and reds that we see, (finding a way to deal with heterochromia, etc.) and compare them in a bar chart.

Of course eye color is not of interest in this case. For Gendered AI, we are interested in comparing other attributes to gender presentation. We’ll look at the other attributes in later posts, but we’re going to begin with sex ratio, and that will fill up a post all its own.

Simple sex ratio

Author’s request: With that section title I know some hackles are already raised. Please know this is very tough space to write for. Despite having paid for a number of paid content reviews, I may have made some missteps. I am a n00b writer on these topics, and I respond best to friendly engagement rather than a digital pillory.

The very simple explanation of sex ratio is women-to-men. But of course that’s waaaaay too simple for either the real world or our purposes. At the very (very) least, AI might have no gender, so we need a “none” or “other” category. Let’s start with these very oversimplified numbers and move to more detailed later.

The chart shown below shows the data from the survey focusing on simple categories of female, other, and male. The chart shows that AI characters are strongly overweighted male, with a rough ratio of 2 male : 1 female : 0.75 other. The 2:1 M:F ratio is eerily in line with USC Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory’s finding where speaking roles in 1000 scripts they studied, men’s dialogue, and even the number of characters was double (or over) that for women. This is greatly different than the real-world sex ratios of 1:1 as reported in the Wikipedia article about world sex ratios.

I would talk about the weird discrepancies of just this distribution, but any ranting at this point would be overshadowed by the ranting that happens next. Deep breath.

Having an “other” category isn’t enough. After all, characters in one of these bars can be as different as HAL and Gigolo Joe, and that doesn’t seem right. So, let’s break this oversimplification down into more refined bits.

More detailed gender presentation ratios

First, of course, we should note that characters rarely discuss gender directly, and—at least in this sample—discuss gender dysphoria all of never. Also we can’t reach out to ask any of them directly since they’re fictional. So when I speak of gender, it should be read as “gender presentation,” and unfortunately at this point you are stuck with nothing more scientific than my reading of the following four variables.

  • Primary sex characteristics, or biological presentation: The presence of masculine or feminine sexual organs. None of the titles I reviewed were pornographic, and full-frontal nudity is pretty rare up until Westworld, so this often comes down to implication. Gigolo Joe, for instance, could not do what must be a key part of his primary function without male sex organs (with all the important caveats that penetrative sex is just one kind of sex), so he is listed as “Masculine” here.
  • Secondary sex characteristics, or body presentation: These are much more directly observable, and include those other markers of sex, like facial hair and shoulder-to-hip ratio.
  • Voice presentation: This is my hearing of whether the voice has a lower, masculine register, or a higher, feminine register. (In a few cases I checked on the actor listing in IMDB and did web searches for evidence of self-identification.)
  • Pronoun presentation: How other characters refer to the AI character with pronouns. R2D2, for instance, has absolutely no sex characteristics, and no voice, but is still referred to as a “he” throughout the Star Wars franchise.

A note on labeling: I’m aware that there are tricky nuances in the labels. After all, how is body not part of one’s biology? But the shorthand proves useful so we can use the shorthand “BIO” and know what it means instead of always having to use the longer phrase “implicit or explicit primary sex characteristics.”

For each AI character, I tagged each of these variables as either Masculine, Fluid, Neutral, Feminine, Unknown, Multiple, Many, or N/A. (The “n/a” may seem weird, but for instance, HAL doesn’t have a body, so primary and secondary sex characteristics are not applicable.)

Socially male, but existentially neutral.

Combining voice and pronouns into “social”

There are plenty of characters with no voice or non-human voices, and a few characters that are not referred to by pronoun. Since these two indicate a social performance of gender, I treated them in the algorithms as an “OR” when considering stacking. That means if either variable was present, and they didn’t contradict, I counted it the presenting aspect. Compare these two examples…

  • Wall·E: N/A Primary, N/A Secondary, masculine voice, unmentioned pronoun = socially male
  • R2D2: N/A Primary, N/A Secondary, neutral voice, male pronoun = also socially male

They stack

The main thing to note about how these three variables (counting voice and pronouns as “socially”) played out is that they overwhelmingly stacked. That’s not a term of art, so let me explain. It means that if a character has masculine primary sex characteristics, that invariably meant that he also had masculine secondary sex characteristics, and voice/pronouns. If a character had no evidence of primary sex characteristics, but had feminine secondary sex characteristics, she invariably had feminine voice/pronouns.

It makes more sense if I show you. So, here are six representative examples from the survey of how this monosex stacking looks.

I suspect this is an effect of binary concepts of gender on the part of the markers of the sci-fi, implemented as increasingly detailed costumes for the AI. But when you consider these variables, these 6 are a pale semblance of what could be. Include “fluid” or “nonbinary” as a possibility, and don’t bother with stacking, and there are 58 more possible combinations of these variables.

Click the image for a full-screen spread of possibilities.

Hey, want to feel both hyper-reductive and overwhelmed at the complexity of gender? Try writing a categorization algorithm for analysis.

Anyway, if they hadn’t stacked like they did, I would have had to describe their genders with a four-part-code that would result in 64 genders. But, because they do stack, that meant there were these 6, plus “multiple,” “genderfluid,” “neutral,” and “none,” for a total 9. Note that online lists of genders vary from the 58 available to Facebook’s users to the 229 found on this more creative list (my favorite is “Schrodigender – A gender which you can both feel and not feel” giving a clue to how serious that particular list is.) So while 9 can feel heavy, it does not compare to the complexity of the real world.

OK, given those descriptions of the subcategories, here’s how the numbers played out in the much more detailed analysis of gender presentation in sci-fi AI.

Detailed gender presentation

I’ve noted that we’re here for the correlations, not distributions, here, but in and of itself, this is remarkable. The subcategories provide a deeper (and more troubling) look into the data, and is necessary because these categories have to be thought of differently. Observe, for example, that the biologically-gendered characters are nearly at parity, while the bodily- and socially-gendered characters skew male. There is a frustrating 2:1 ratio for bodily male:bodily female and an infuriating 5:1 for socially male:socially female.

These ratios bear…discussion.

1 biologically male : 1 biologically female

A harsh interpretation of this stat would read a kind of heterosexual panic, where—when sex or procreation is involved—Hollywood needs to assert loudly over a hastily-ordered beer that whoa whoa whoa: Only AI chicks and AI dudes get it on. Or if they do get it on with people it’s with the right gender.

Or, more charitably I suppose, humans are largely heterosexual, and since there is a rough 1:1 sex ratio in humans, there should be a 1:1 sex ratio in them. (?) It’s a hard thing to second-guess.

It gets darker in the other categories where the sci-fi AI has a body but no biological apparatus. The ratios still skew heavily male. As if, when it comes to just being a person, a total sausagefest is the norm.

I await the disturbing fanfic.

2 bodily male : 1 bodily female

Recall from above that this category is reserved for those AI characters that present a gendered body but do not have gendered reproductive or sexual capabilities. We will discuss the germane-ness and embodiment of these AIs in a later post, but for now we can note that this category of AI character, with its 2:1 ratio is roughly in the middle between the biologically and socially gendered categories, and in-line with the oversimplified distribution seen above.

5 socially male : 1 socially female

This is the category where the only markers of gender are voice and pronouns. In other words, characters for whom a gender seems like an arbitrary choice. WTF is up with a 5:1 ratio? Why are all these “arbitrarily” gendered AI characters guys? We’ll talk about germaneness to the story later, but I want to see if there is some extradiegetic reason first.

Is it the available voice talent?

We have to acknowledge that filmmakers must hire someone to voice their speaking AI characters, even if there are no other markers. Despite the fact that…

…it’s fair to say that most available voice talent is recognizably gendered, and the AI character may just inherit the presentation of its actor. Then you might expect the roles to match the sex ratios in the available talent pool. I couldn’t find any formal studies of this, so I created a throwaway account on voice.com—a major job site for voice actors—and performed separate searches for male and female talent. There I found 42,786 males, and 24,347 female non-union voice actors, around 2:1. (Union actors were closer to 1:1, with 3,079 male and 2,336 female. n.b. The site gives only those two gender options in its search.) Though that’s more anecdotal than I’d like, even the worse ratio of 2:1 still pales compared the 5:1 of socially gendered AI, so no, that’s not it. You might think that explains the “simply” gendered characters, but my suspicion is that the genders of the characters are set in the script and pass down through the process, unquestioned after that.

Is it what sci-fi audiences want?

Might the ratio be some sales rationale, some presumption that sci-fi audiences are mostly men and therefore might only be more interested in male characters? No, of course numbers vary by show and genre, but this article by Victoria McNally shows that there is only a slight majority of men in these audiences (hovering around 60% male and 40% female, rather than 73% male and 17% female, which the 5:1 socially gendered ratio would have you believe.)

Plus the 2018 annual Hollywood Diversity Report by UCLA shows that “new evidence from 2015–16 suggests that America’s increasingly diverse audiences prefer diverse film and television content,” so we would have to greatly exaggerate the connection between the sex ratio of the audience and those we see here.

There has to be some other reason, and I suspect it’s the dark patriarchal notion that “male” is somehow the default gender. Even though it is, literally, not.

Is it that Hollywood itself is mostly white and male?

The 2018 Hollywood Diversity Report shows that gatekeepers, writers, directors, and (points at self) critics are still overwhelmingly white and male. White male writers and directors account for 91.9% and 86.2% if their fields, respectively. This is closer to the 73% male, but still a crappy, crappy excuse for the default assignment of AI as male. Representation matters and this is sorry representation.

P.S. Don’t get uppity, real world

The Global Gender Gap Report issued on 17 DEC 2018 by the World Economic Forum showed (in collaboration with LinkedIn) that women only occupy 22% of jobs in AI professions. (See page viii, 28–35 of that report.)


So yeah.

Pictured: Sci-fi AI, mostly

You probably had a general sense of this disparity from simply being an audience member. But it’s “nice” to have some data to back it up. Be forewarned: It gets worse when we look at correlations. (No, really.) But before we do that, we should look at the rest of the distributions, in the next post.

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Gendered AI, initial results

Men are machines. Women are bodies.
Male is extreme. Women are nuance.
General AI has gender. Other AI does not.
Male is free-will. Machine is subservience.
Male is default. Women when it’s necessary.

At least in screen sci-fi.

Let me explain.

In November of 2018, a tweet thread between Chris Geison and Kathy Baxter called my attention to questions about the gender of AI in sci-fi. Baxter noted that most AI is male, and how female AI is often quite subservient or sexualized. In this thread, Gieson added Cathy Pearl’s observation that embodied AI is often female and male is more often disembodied and regarded as a peer.

I already had a “database” (read: Google Sheet) of AI in screen sci-fi from Untold AI, my 2018 study of the stories screen sci-fi doesn’t tell, but should. So, I thought I could provide some formal analysis to this Gendered AI discussion. To that end I’ve added around 325 AI characters to the Google Sheet, and run some analyses. This series of posts will break it all down for you.

Image result for r2d2 hologram
Oh, we’ll come back to this little “guy.”

Now, it can get a little dry to talk about percentages and comparisons and distributions, so I’m going to do my best to keep tying things back to the shows and the characters and the upshot of all this analysis. But the way we get to that upshot is through the numbers, so stick with me. For this first post, I’m going to share what I captured, and what counts as an AI character for purposes of this study.

The following is true in the survey as of 08 APR 2019. The live data, available in Google Sheets, may be updated from this.

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Report Card: Idiocracy

Read all the Idiocracy posts in chronological order.

Now we come to the end of Idiocracy, if not yet the idiocracy.

This film never got broad release. There are stories about its being supressed by the studio because of the way the film treated brands.

I don’t know what they’re talking about.

But whatever the reason, I’m happy to do my part in helping it get more awareness. Because despite its expositive principle being wrong (and maybe slightly eugenic), the film illustrates frustrations I also have with some of the world’s stupider ills, and does so in funny ways. Also, as I noted in the last writeup, it even illustrates speculative and far-reaching issues with superintelligence. So, it’s smarter than it looks.

I’d recommend lots and lots more people see this, generally, if only to reinforce the demonization of idiocy and make more people want to be not that. So first let me say: If you haven’t yet, see the film. Help others see it. Make People Valorize Enlightenment Again.

Now, let’s turn to the interfaces.

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Idiocracy is secretly about super AI

I originally began to write about Idiocracy because…

  • It’s a hilarious (if mean) sci-fi movie
  • I am very interested in the implications of St. God’s triage interface
  • It seemed grotesquely prescient in regards to the USA leading up to the elections of 2016
  • I wanted to do what I could to fight the Idiocracy in the 2018 using my available platform

But now it’s 2019 and I’ve dedicated the blog to AI this year, and I’m still going to try and get you to re/watch this film because it’s one of the most entertaining and illustrative films about AI in all of sci-fi.

Not the obvious AIs

There are a few obvious AIs in the film. Explicitly, an AI manages the corporations. Recall that when Joe convinces the cabinet that he can talk to plants, and that they really want to drink water…well, let’s let the narrator from the film explain…

  • NARRATOR
  • Given enough time, Joe’s plan might have worked. But when the Brawndo stock suddenly dropped to zero leaving half the population unemployed; dumb, angry mobs took to the streets, rioting and looting and screaming for Joe’s head. An emergency cabinet meeting was called with the C.E.O. of the Brawndo Corporation.

At the meeting the C.E.O. shouts, “How come nobody’s buying Brawndo the Thirst Mutilator?”

The Secretary of State says, “Aw, shit. Half the country works for Brawndo.” The C.E.O. shouts, “Not anymore! The stock has dropped to zero and the computer did that auto-layoff thing to everybody!” The wonders of giving business decisions over to automation.

I also take it as a given that AI writes the speeches that King Camacho reads because who else could it be? These people are idiots who don’t understand the difference between government and corporations, of course they would want to run the government like a corporation because it has better ads. And since AIs run the corporations in Idiocracy

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Tattoo surveillance

In the prior Idiocracy post I discussed the car interface, especially in terms of how it informs the passengers what is happening when it is remotely shut down. Today let’s talk about the passive interface that shuts it down: Namely, Joe’s tattoo and the distance-scanning vending machine.

It’s been a while since that prior post, so here’s a recap of what’s happening in Idiocracy in this scene:

When Frito is driving Joe and Rita away from the cops, Joe happens to gesture with his hand above the car window, where a vending machine he happens to be passing spots the tattoo. Within seconds two harsh beeps sound in the car and a voice says, “You are harboring a fugitive named NOT SURE. Please, pull over and wait for the police to incarcerate your passenger.”

Frito’s car begins slowing down, and the dashboard screen shows a picture of Not Sure’s ID card and big red text zooming in a loop reading PULL OVER.

It’s a fast scene and the beat feels more like a filmmaker’s excuse to get them out of the car and on foot as they hunt for the Time Masheen. I breezed by it in an earlier post, but it bears some more investigation.

This is a class of transaction where, like taxes and advertising, the subject is an unwilling and probably uncooperative participant. But this same interface has to work for payment, in which the subject is a willing participant. Keep this in mind as we look first at the proximate problem, i.e. locating the fugitive for apprehension; and at the ultimate goal, i.e. how a culture deals with crime.

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Report Card: Las Luchadoras vs. El Robot Asesino

Read all the Las Luchadoras vs. El Robot Asesino posts in chronological order.

By any short description of its plot, this film should be amazing and meta. Like Kung Fury or Galaxy Lords, but, let’s be frank, it is so not that. Someone at Netflix should produce a reboot and it would probably be amazing. No, instead, this film has an actor in a robotic Truman Capote getup smashing through dozens of cardboard sets and flailing vaguely in the direction of characters who dutifully scream and drop from the non-contact karate chop.

And hugs. Robot assassins need hugs, too.

It is a pathetic paean to its source material, the much more well-done Cybernauts from The Avengers, (the British one with younger Olenna, not the Marvel one with the cosmic purple snap crackle and pop.)

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Trivium remotes

Once a victim is wearing a Trivium Bracelet, any of Orlak’s henchmen can control the wearer’s actions. The victim’s expression is blank, suggesting that their consciousness is either comatose, twilit, or in some sort of locked in state. Their actions are controlled via a handheld remote control.

We see the remote control in use in four places in Las Luchadoras vs El Robot Asesino.

  1. One gets clapped on Dr. Chavez to test it.
  2. One goes on Gemma to demonstrate it.
  3. One is removed from the robot.
  4. One goes on Berthe to transform her to Black Electra.
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Trivium Bracelet

The control token in Las Luchadras is a bracelet that slaps on and instantly renders its wearer an automaton, subject to the remote control.

Here’s something to note about this speculative technology. Orlak could have sold this, just this, to law enforcement around the world and made himself a very rich and powerful person. But the movie makes clear he is a mad engineer, not a mad businessperson, so we have to move on.

From Orlak’s point of view, getting the bracelet on its victim should be very easy. Fortunately, it does just that. Orlak can slap it on in a flick. But it’s also trivially easy for a bystander to remove, which seems like…a design oversight. It should work more like a handcuff, that requires a key to remove. It can’t look like a handcuff, of course, since Orlak wants it to go unnoticed. But in addition to the security, the handcuff function would enable the device to fit wrists of many sizes. As it is, it appears to be tailor-made to an individual.

As the diagram illustrates, not all wrists are made the same, and it would not help Orlak to have to carry around a sizing set when he hasn’t had time to secretly get the victim’s measurements.

Lastly, the audience might have benefited from seeing some visual connection between the bracelet and the remote, like a shared material that had an unusual color or glow, but Orlak would not want this connection since it could help someone identify him as the controller.

Mission slot

To provide the Victim Cards to the Robot Asesino, Orlak inserts it into an open slot in the robot’s chest, which then illuminates, confirming that the instructions have been received.

There is, I must admit, a sort of lovely, morbid poetry to a cardiogram being inserted into a slot where the robot heart would be to give the robot instructions to end the beating of the human heart described in the cardiogram. And we don’t see a lot of poetry in sci-fi interface designs. So, props for that.

The illumination is a nice bit of feedback, but I think it could convey the information in more useful and cinemagenic ways.

In this new scenario…

  • Orlak has the robot pull back its coat
  • The chamfered slot is illuminated, signaling “card goes here.”
  • As Orlak inserts the target card, the slot light dims as the chest-cavity light brightens, signaling “I have the card.”
  • After a moment, the chest-cavity light turns blood red, signaling confirmation of the victim and the new dastardly mission.

When the robot returns to Orlak after completing a mission, the red light would dim as the slot light illuminates again, signaling that it is ready for its next mission.

These changes improve the interface by first drawing the user’s locus of attention exactly where it needs to go, and then distinguishing the internal system states as they happen. It would also work for the audience, who understands by association that red means danger.

The shape of the slot is pretty good for its base usability. It has clear affordances with its placement, orientation, and metallic lining. There’s plenty of room to insert the target card. It might benefit from a fillet or chamfer for the slot, to help avoid accidentally crumpling the paper cards when they are aimed poorly.

In addition to the tactical questions of illumination and shape of the slot, I have a few strategic questions.

  • There is no authorization in evidence. Can just anyone specify a target? Why doesn’t Gaby use her luchadora powers to Spin-A-Roonie a target card with Orlak’s face on it and let the robot save the day? Maybe the robot has a whitelist of heartbeats, and would fight to resist anyone else, but that’s just me making stuff up.
  • Also I’m not sure why the card stays in the robot. That leaves a discoverable paper trail of its crimes, perfect for a Scooby to hand over to the federales. Maybe the robot has some incinerator or shredder inside? If not, it would be better from Orlak’s perspective to design it as an insert-and-hold slot, which would in turn require a redesign of the card to have some obvious spot to hold it, and a bump-in on the slot to make way for fingers. Then he could remove the incriminating evidence and destroy it himself and not worry whether the robot’s paper shredder was working or not.
  • Another problem is that, since the robot doesn’t talk, it would be difficult to find out who its current target is at any given time. Since anyone can supply a target, Orlak can’t just rely on his memory to be certain. If the card was going to stay inside, it would be better to have it displayed so it’s easy to check.
  • How would Orlak cancel a target?
  • It is unclear how Orlak specifies whether the target is to be kidnapped or killed even though some are kidnapped and some are killed.
  • It’s also unclear about how Orlak might rescind or change an order once given.
  • It is also unclear how the assassin finds its target. Does it have internal maps with addresses? Or does it have unbelievably good hearing that can listen to every sound nearby, isolate the particular heartbeat in question, and just head in that direction, destroying any walls it encounters? Or can it reasonably navigate human cities and interiors to maintain its disguise? Because that would be some amazing technology for 1969. This last is admittedly not an interface question, but a backworlding question for believability.

So there’s a lot missing from the interface.

It’s the robot assassin designer’s job to not just tick a box to tell themselves that they have provided feedback, but to push through the scenarios of use to understand in detail how to convey to the evil scientist what’s happening with his murderous intent.

Who did it better? Victim card edition.

Let’s cut to the chase. Las Luchadoras is a wholesale rip-off of Cybernauts, from the 1961–1969 British TV series The Avengers, specifically the episode “Return of the Cybernauts” from 1967. Thanks to readers Xavier Mouton-Dubosc @dascritch and Roger Long @evil_potato for drawing my attention to the complete ripoffery.

Dust off your stereoscopes for this one.

Compare freely…

  • Bad robot is silver-faced, wears a black trench coat, does not speak, wears black sunglasses, and a black hat.
  • Bad robot is given instructions via a graphically-designed card inserted into a machine slot.
  • Bad robot smashes through walls to gain access to victims who stand there in horror rather than, say, running from the slow-walking golem.
  • When bad robot kills, it does so with karate chops.
  • Bad human captures scientists and forces them to provide engineering specs to fulfill his evil ambitions.
  • Bad human forces scientists to build a wrist-wearable mind-control device, for use on Team Good. (One’s a bracelet. The other is a watch.) The main target for mind-control is a woman.
  • Bad human has plans to use the mind-controlled person to fight the rest of Team Good.
  • The day is saved (spoiler? I guess?) by pulling the mind-control device from the victim and putting it on the robot, which instead of granting the bad human more control of the robot, causes it to go berserk.

It’s like René Cardona saw “Return of the Cybernauts” on TV, loved it, and thought there is only one thing that could make this better: Lady. Wrestlers. So he added luchadoras and hoped BBC Four wouldn’t notice. He just wanted to make the world better, y’all.

If you think I’m exaggerating, here are a few side by side shots.

I guess we can give credit to Cardona’s selection of a Bolero hat instead of that tired Fedora thing? SciFiFashionChoices.com
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