The Design of Evil

The exports from my keynote at Dark Futures.

Way back in the halcyon days of 2015 I was asked by Phil Martin and Jordan of Speculative Futures SF to make a presentation for one their early meetings. I immediately thought of one of the chapters that I had wanted to write for Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Sci-Fi, but had been cut for space reasons, and that is: How is evil (in sci-fi interfaces) designed? There were some sub-questions in the outline that went something like this.

  • What does evil look like?
  • Are there any recurring patterns we can see?
  • What are those patterns?
  • Why would they be the way they are?
  • What would we do with this information?

I made that presentation. It went well, I must say. Then I forgot about it until Nikolas Badminton of Dark Futures invited me to participate in his first-ever San Francisco edition of that meetup in November of 2019. In hindsight, maybe I should have done a reading from one of my short stories that detail dark (or very, very dark) futures, but instead, I dusted off this 45 minute presentation and cut it down to 15 minutes. That also went well I daresay. But I figure it’s time to put these thoughts into some more formal place for a wider audience. And here we are.

Nah, they’re cool!

Wait…Evil?

That’s a loaded term, I hear you say, because you’re smart, skeptical, loathe bandying about such dehumanizing terms lightly, and relish in nuance. And you’re right. If you were to ask this question outside of the domain of fiction, you’d run up against lots of problems. Most notably that—as Socrates said through Plato in the Meno Dialogues—by the time someone commits something that most people would call “evil,” they have gone through the mental gymnastics to convince themselves that whatever they’re doing is not evil. A handy example menu of such lies-to-self follows.

  • It’s horrible but necessary.
  • They deserve it.
  • The sky god is on my side.
  • It is not my decision.
  • I am helpless to stop myself.
  • The victim is subhuman.
  • It’s not really that bad.
  • I and my tribe are exceptional and not subject to norms of ethics.
  • There is no quid pro quo.

And so, we must conclude, since nobody thinks they’re evil, and most people design for themselves, no one in the real world designs for evil.

Oh well?

But, the good news we are not outside the domain of fiction, we’re soaking in it! And in fiction, there are definitely characters and organizations who are meant to be—and be read by the audience as—evil, as the bad guys. The Empire. The First Order. Zorg! The Alliance! Norsefire! All evil, and all meant to be umabiguously so.

Image result for norsefire
from V for Vendetta.

And while alien biology, costume, set, and prop design all enable creators to signal evil, this blog is about interfaces. So we’ll be looking at eeeevil interfaces.

What we find

Note that in earlier cinema and television, technology was less art directed and less branded than it is today. Even into the 1970s, art direction seemed to be trying to signal the sci-fi-ness of interfaces rather than the character of the organizations that produced them. Kubrick expertly signaled HAL’s psychopathy in 1969’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and by the early 1980s more and more films had begun to follow suit not just with evil AI, but with interfaces created and used by evil organizations. Nowadays I’d be surprised to find an interface in sci-if that didn’t signal the character of its user or the source organization.

Evil interfaces, circa Buck Rogers (1939).

Note that some evil interfaces don’t adhere to the pattern. They don’t in and of themselves signal evil, even if someone is using them to commit evil acts. Physical controls, especially, are most often bound by functional and ergonomic considerations rather than style, where digital interfaces are much less so.

Many of the interfaces fall into two patterns. One is the visual appearance. The other is a recurrent shape. More about each follows.

1. High-contrast, high-saturation, bold elements

Evil has little filigree. Elements are high-contrast and bold with sharp edges. The colors are highly saturated, very often against black. The colors vary, but the palette is primarily red-on-black, green-on-black, and blue-on-black.

Mostly red-on-black

The overwhelming majority of evil technologies are blood-red on black. This pattern appears across the technologies of evil, whether screen, costume, sets, or props.

Red-on-black accounts for maybe 3/4 of the examples I gathered.

Sometimes a sickly green

Less than a quarter focus on a sickly or unnatural green.

Occasionally calculating blue

A handful of examples are a cold-and-calculating blue on black.

A note of caution: While evil is most often red-on-black, red does not, in and of itself, denote evil. It is a common color to see for urgency warnings in sci-if. See the tag for big red label examples.

Not evil, just urgent.

2. Also, evil is pointy

Evil also has a lot of acute angles in its interfaces. Spikes, arrows, and spurs appear frequently. In a word, evil is often pointy.

Why would this be?

Where would this pattern of high-saturation, high-constrast, pointy, mostly red-on-black come from?

Now, usually, I try and run numbers, do due diligence to look for counter-evidence, scope checks, and statistical significance. But this post is going to be less research and more reason. I’m interested if anyone else wants to run or share a more academically grounded study.

I can’t imagine that these patterns in sci-fi are arbitrary. While a great number of shows may be camping on tropes that were established in shows that came before them, the tropes would not have survived if they didn’t tap some ground truth. And there are universal ground truths to work with.

My favorite example of this is the takete-maluma effect from phonosemantics, first tested by Wolfgang Köhler in 1929. Given the two images below, and the two names “maluma” and “takete”, 95–98% of people would rather assign the name “takete” to the spiky shape on the left, and “maluma” to the curvy shape on the right. This effect has been tested in 1947 and again in 2001, with slightly different names but similar results, across cultures and continents.

What this tells us is that there are human universals in the interpretation of forms.

I believe these universals come from nature. So if we turn to nature, where do we see this kind of high-contrast, high-saturation patterning? There is a place. To explain it, we have to dip a bit into evolution.

Aposematics: Signaling theory

Evolution, in the absence of heavy reproductive pressures, will experiment with forms, often as a result of sexual selection. If through this experimentation a species develops conspicuousness, and the members are tasty and defenseless, that trait will be devoured right out of the gene pool by predators. So conspicuousness in tasty and defenseless species is generally selected against. Inconspicuousness and camouflage are selected for.

Would not last long outside of a pig disco.

But if the species is unpalatable, like a ladybug, or aggressive, like a wolverine, or with strong defenses, like a wasp, the naïve predator learns quickly that the conspicuous signal is to be avoided. The signal means Don’t Fuck with Me. After a few experiences, the predator will learn to steer clear of the signal. Even if the defense kills the attacker (and the lesson lost to the grave), other attackers may learn in their stead, or evolution will favor creatures with an instinct to avoid the signal.

In short, a conspicuous signal that survives becomes a reinforcing advertisement in its ecosystem. This is called aposematic signaling.

There are many interesting mimicry tactics you should check out (for no other reason that they can explain things like Dolores Umbridge) but for our purposes, it is enough to know that danger has a pattern in nature, and it tends toward, you guessed it, bold, high-contrast, high saturation patterns, including spikes.

Looking at the color palette in nature’s examples, though, we see many saturated colors, including lots of yellows. We don’t see yellow predominant in sci-fi evil interfaces. So why is sci-fi human evil red & black? Here I go out on a limb without even the benefit of an evolutionary theory, but I think it’s simply blood and night.

Not blood, just cherry glazing.

When we see blood on a human outside of menstruation and childbirth, it means some violence or sickness has happened to them. (And childbirth is pretty violent.) So, blood red is often a signal of danger.

And we are a diurnal species, optimized for daylight, and maladapted for night. Darkness is low-information, and with nocturnal predators around, high-risk. Black is another signal for danger.

Image result for nighttime scary
This is fine.

And spikes? Spikes are just physics. Thorns and claws tell us this shape means pointy, puncturing danger.

So I believe the design of evil in sci-fi interfaces (and really, sci-fi shows generally) looks the way it does because of aposematics, because of these patterns that are familiar to us from our experience of the world. We should expect most of evil to embody these same patterns.

What do designers do with this?

So if I’m right, it bears asking, What we do with this? (Recall that the “tag line” for this project is “Stop watching sci-fi. Start using it.”) I think it’s a big start to simply be aware of these patterns. Once you are, you can use it, for products and services whose brand promise includes the anti-social, tough-guy message Don’t Fuck with Me.

Or, conversely, if you are hoping to create an impression of goodness, safety, and nurturance, avoid these patterns. Choose different palettes, roundness, and softness.

What should people not do with this?

As a last note, it’s important not to overgeneralize this. While a lot of evil, like, say, Nazis, utilize aposematic signals directly, some will adopt mimicry patterns to appear safe, welcoming, and friendly. Some evil will wear beige slacks and carry tiki torches. Others will surround themselves with in-group signals, like wrapping themselves in the flag, to make you think they’re a-OK. Still others will hang fuzzy-wuzzy kitty-witty pictures all over their office.

Image result for dolores umbridge
Is there a better example in sci-fi? @me.

Do not be fooled. Evil is as evil does, and signaling in sci-fi is a narrative convenience. Treat the surface of things as a signal to consider, subordinate to a person—or a group’s—actual behavior.

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Evaluating strong AI interfaces in sci-fi

Regular readers have detected a pause. I introduced Colossus to review it, and then went silent. This is because I am wrestling with some foundational ideas on how to proceed. Namely, how do you evaluate the interfaces to speculative strong artificial intelligence? This, finally, is that answer. Or at least a first draft. It’s giant and feels sprawling and almost certainly wrong, but trying to get this perfect is a fool’s errand, and I need to get this out there so we can move on.

This is a draft.

I expect most readers are less interested in this kind of framework than they are how it gets applied to their favorite sci-fi AIs. If you’re mostly here for the fiction, skip this one. It’s long.


Continue reading

Gendered AI: An infographic

To date, the #GenderedAI study spans many posts, lots of words and some admittedly deep discussion. If you’re a visual person like me, sometimes you just want to see a picture. So, I made an infographic. It’s way too big for WordPress, so you’ll have to peruse this preview and head over to IMGUR to scroll through the full-size thing in all its nerdy glory. (https://imgur.com/k6wtuop) That site does marvelously with long, tall images.

Anyway this should make it easy to grok the big takeaways from the study and to share on social media so more people can get sensitized to these issues. Also… (more below)

…Please help me get this content in front of creators at SxSW 2020. Head over to their panelpicker and vote up the submission (You can use that link or this one). If accepted, the panel will include awesome sci-fi author and futurist Madeline Ashby and awesome author and podcaster Leila A. McNeill of the Lady Science podcast and of course myself! Thank you!

http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/vote/98525

A Default Gender?

By guest blogger Cathy Pearl

In 8th grade, I went on our class trip to Washington D.C. The hotel we were staying at had kids from all over the country, and one night they held a dance.  I had changed into sweats and a t-shirt and was dancing away with my friends when a boy walked up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, “Fairy!”

cortana
“I think we both know the answer to that.” —Cortana, Halo: Combat Evolved

When I turned around and the boy realized I was a girl, he got a confused look on his face, mumbled something and walked off.  I was left feeling angry and hurt.

Humans have a strong pull to identify gender not just in people, but in robots, animals, and even smart speakers.  (Whether that is wrong or right is another matter that I don’t address here, but many people are uncomfortable when gender is ambiguous.)

Even robots, which could easily be genderless, are assigned a gender.

Author Chris Noessel has accumulated an amazing set of data which looks at hundreds of characters in science fiction, and has found that, among many other things, of the 327 AI characters he looked at, about twice as many are male as female.

Social Gender

Noessel has further broken down gender assignment into types:  social, bodily, and biological. I find the “social” category particularly interesting, which he defines as follows:

Characters are tagged as socially male or female if the only cues are the voice of the actor or other characters use gendered pronouns to refer to it. R2D2 from Star Wars, for example, is referred to as “him” or “he” many times, even though he has no other gender markers, not even voice. For this reason, R2D2 is tagged as “socially male.”

Disturbingly, Noessel found that the gender ratio was skewed most for this category, at 5 male characters for every 1 female.

I believe that much of the time, when writers create an AI character, it is male by default, unless there is something important about being female.  For example, if the character is a love interest or mother, then it must be female; otherwise, by default, it’s male. This aligns with the “Men Are Generic, Women Are Special” theory from TV Tropes, which states:

This leads to the Smurfette Principle, in which a character’s femaleness is the most important and interesting thing about her, often to exclusion of all else. It also tends to result in works failing The Bechdel Test, because if there’s a potential character who doesn’t have to be any particular gender, the role will probably be filled by a male character by default. 

TV Tropes

Having been designing and researching voice interfaces for twenty years, I’d like to add some perspective on how gender and AI is applied to our current technology.

In the real world

One exception to this rule is voice assistants, such as Siri, Cortana, and Alexa.  The majority of voice assistants have a female voice, although some allow you to change the default to a male voice. On the other hand, embodied robots (such as Jibo (pictured below), Vector, Pepper, and Kuri) are more often gendered as male.

When a robot is designed, gender does not have to be immediately assigned.  In a voice assistant, however, it’s the most apparent characteristic.

In his book Wired for Speech, Clifford Nass wrote that individuals generally perceive female voices as helping us solve our problems by ourselves, while they view male voices as authority figures who tell us the answers to our problems.

If voice-only assistants are predominantly given female voices, why are robots any different?

Why are robots different?

One reason is androcentrism: the default for many things in society is male, and whatever differs from that default must be marked in some way. When people see a robot with no obviously “female” traits (such as long hair, breasts, or, in the case of Rosie from the Jetsons, an apron) they usually assign a male gender, as this study found. It’s similar for cartoons such as stick figures, and animals in animated movies. Animals are often given unrealistic bodies (such as a nipped-in waist), a hairbow, or larger, pink lips to “mark” them as female.  

It would not be surprising if designers felt that to make a robot NOT male, they would have to add exaggerated features. Imagine if, after R2D2 was constructed, George Lucas said “let’s make R2D2 female”.  Despite the fact that nothing would have to be changed (apart from the “he” pronoun in the script), I have no doubt the builders would have scrambled to “female-ize” R2D2 by adding a pink bow or something equally unnecessary. 

“There. Perfect!” (This is actually R2-KT. Yes, she was created to be the female R2-D2.)

In addition, male characters in fictional works are often more defined by their actions, and female characters by their looks and/or personalities.  In this light, it makes sense that a more physical assistant would be more likely to be male.

There are some notable exceptions to this, mainly in the area of home health robots (such as Mabu).  It is interesting to note that Mabu, though “she” has a physical form, the body doesn’t move, just the head and eyes; it serves mainly as a holder for an iPad. Again, she’s an assistant.

So what?

One may ask, what’s the harm in these gendered assistants? One problem is the continued reinforcement of women as always helpful, pleasant, organized, and never angry.  They’re not running things; they’re simply paving the way to make your life easier. But if you want a computer that’s “knowledgeable”—such as IBM’s Watson that took on the Jeopardy! Challenge—the voice is male.  These stereotypes have an impact on our relationships with real people, and not for the better. There shouldn’t be a “default” gender, and it’s time to move past our tired stereotypes of women as the gender that’s always helpful and accommodating. 

As fans of sci-fi, we should become at least sensitized, and more hopefully, vocal and active, about this portrayal of women, and do our part to create more equal technology.


My donation

Thanks to all who donated to compensate underrepresented voices! I am donating the monies I’ve received to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. This group “is the first and only research-based organization working within the media and entertainment industry to engage, educate, and influence content creators, marketers and audiences about the importance of eliminating unconscious bias, highlighting gender balance, challenging stereotypes, creating role models and scripting a wide variety of strong female characters in entertainment and media that targets and influences children ages 11 and under.” Check them out.

Gendered AI: Germane-ness Correlations

The Gendered AI series looks at sci-fi movies and television to see how Hollywood treats AI of different gender presentations. For example…

  • Do female- and male-presenting AIs get different bodies? Yes.
  • Are female AIs more subservient? No.
  • How does gender correlate to an AI’s goodness? Males are extremists.
  • Men are more often masters of female AIs. Women are more often masters of non-bindary AIs. Male AIs shy away from having women masters. No, really.

This last correlations post investigates the complicated question of which genders are assigned when gender is not germane to the plot. If you haven’t read the series intro, related germane-ness distributions, or correlations 101 posts, I recommend you read them first. As always, check out the live Google sheet for the most recent data.

Recall from the germane distribution post that the germane tag is about whether the gender is important to the plot. (Yes, it’s fairly subjective.)

  • If an AI character makes a baby via common biological means, or their sex-related organs play a critical role, then the gender of the character is highly germane. Rachel in the Blade Runner franchise gestates a baby, so her having a womb is critical, and as we’ve seen in the survey, gender stacks, so her gender is highly germane.
  • If an AI character has a romantic relationship with a mono-sexual partner, or is themselves mono-sexual, or they occupy a gendered social role that is important to the plot, the characters is listed as slightly germane. For example, all you’d have to do is, say, make Val Com bisexual or gay, and then they could present as female and nothing else in the plot of Heartbeeps would need to change to accommodate it.
  • If the character’s gender could be swapped to another gender and it not change the story much, then we say that the character’s gender is not germane. BB-8, for instance, could present as female, and nothing in the canon Star Wars movies would change.
Yes, this matters.

I need to clarify that I’m talking about plot—what happens in the show—rather than story—which entails the reasons it is told and effects—because given the nature of identity politics, a change in gender presentation would often change how the story is received and interpreted by the audience.

All the characters in Alien, for instance, were written unisex, to be playable by actors of any sex or gender presentation. So while it “didn’t matter” that Ripley was cast as Sigourney Weaver, it totally did matter because she was such a bad-ass female character whose gender was immaterial to the plot (we hadn’t had a lot of those at this point in cinematic history). She was just a bad-ass who happened to be female, not female because she “needed” to be. So, yes, it does matter. But diegetically, had she been Alan Ripley, the plot and character relationships of Alien would not need to change. He still damned well better save Jonesy.

So what do we see when we look at the germane-ness of AI characters in a mostly-binary way?

Sure enough, when gender matters to the plot—slightly or highly—the gender presentation of the character is 5.47% female, or about 7% more likely than presenting male. When the gender presentation does not matter, that value is flipped, being around 7% more male than female, and around 9% more other than female.

The sample size for highly germane is vanishingly small, and one would expect the coupling to include a male, so the under-noise values for that category is not too surprising. But the other categories. Holy cow.

Put another way…

AI characters more often present as female only when they need to be.

Otherwise, they’re more often male or not gendered at all.

That is shitty. It’s like Hollywood thinks men are the default gender, and I know I just said it, but I’m going to stay it again—that’s shitty. Hey, Hollywood. Women are people.

Ayup.

Gendered AI: Gender of Master Correlations

The Gendered AI series looks at sci-fi movies and television to see how Hollywood treats AI of different gender presentations. For example…

  • Do female-presenting AIs get different bodies than male-presenting AIs? Yes.
  • Are female AIs more subservient? No.
  • How does gender correlate to an AI’s goodness? Males are extremists.

This particular post asks who are the master of AIs. If you haven’t read the series intro, related master distributions, or correlations 101 posts, I recommend you read them first. As always, check out the live Google sheet for the most recent data.

Barbarella (female-presenting human) is master of Alphy (an AI whose voice presents male.) This is, statistically, an unlikely and unrepresentative relationship, but spot on for the late 01960s-feminist bent of Barbarella.

You may be wondering how this is different than the earlier subservience posts. Recall that the subservience studies look at gender presentation of AI as it relates to their own degree of freedom. Are most AIs freewilled? Yes. Do free-willed AI tend to present as boys more often than as girls or other? Yes. But these tell us nothing about the gender relationship of the subservient AIs to their master’s gender. It would be one thing if all the male-presenting AIs were “owned” by male-presenting owners. If would be another if female-presenting AIs were owned much more often by male-presenting masters. This post exposes those correlations in the survey. Chart time!

Data nerds (high fives) may note that unlike every other correlations chart in the series, these numbers don’t balance. For instance, looking at the Male AI in the left chart, -1.63 + 3.97 + 3.97 = 6.31. Shouldn’t they zero out? If we were looking at the entire survey, they would. But in this case, free-willed AI only muddy this picture, so those AIs are omitted, making the numbers seem wonky. Check the live sheet if you’re eager to dig into the data.

This is two charts in one.

The left chart groups the data by genders of master. Turns out if you have a female-presenting master, you are unlikely to be male- or female-presenting. (Recall that there are only 5 female-presenting masters in the entire Gendered AI survey, so the number of data points is low.) If you present as male, you’re more likely to be master of a gendered AI. Otherwise, you are more likely to be master of a male-presenting AI.

Your AI may not be happy about it, though.

The right chart is the same data, but pivoted to look at it from genders of AI. That’s where the clusters are a little more telling.

  • If you are a female-presenting AI, you are more likely to have a male-presenting master.
  • If you are non-binary AI, you are more likely to have a female-presenting master.
  • If you are a male AI, you have anything but a female-presenting master.

The detailed chart doesn’t reveal anything more than we see from this aggregate, so isn’t shown.

The notion of people owning people is revolting, but the notion of owning an AI is still not universally reviled. (With nods to the distinctions of ANI and AGI.) That means that sci-fi AI serves as unique metaphor for taboo questions of gender and ownership. The results are upsetting for their social implications, of course. And sci-fi needs to do better. Hey, maybe this gives you an idea…

And yet this isn’t the most upsetting correlations finding in the study. I saved that for last, which is next, which is when we look at gender and germaneness. Gird your loins.

Gendered AI: Gender and Goodness

The Gendered AI series looks at sci-fi movies and television to see how Hollywood treats AI of different gender presentations. For example, do female-presenting AIs get different bodies than male-presenting AIs? (Yes.) Are female AIs more subservient? (No.) What genders are the masters of AI? This particular post is about gender and goodness. If you haven’t read the series intro, related goodness distributions, or correlations 101 posts, I recommend you read them first. As always, check out the live Google sheet for the most recent data.

n.b. If you’re looking at the live sheet, you may note it says “alignment” rather than “goodness” in the dropdown and sheets. Sorry about the D&D roots showing. But by this, I mean a rough, highly debatable scale of saintliness to villainy.

Gender and goodness

What do we see when we look at the correlations of gender and level of goodness? There are three big trends.

  1. The aggregate picture shows a tendency for female-presenting AI’s to be closer to neutral, rather than extreme.
  2. It shows a tendency for male-presenting AI’s to be very good, or very evil.
  3. It shows a slight tendency for nonbinary-presenting AI to be slightly evil, but not full-bore.

When we look into the detailed chart, some additional trends appear.

  • Biologicially- and bodily-presenting female AI tends toward somewhat evil, but not very evil.
  • Socially female (voice or pronouns, only) tend toward neutral.
  • Gender-less AI spike at somewhat evil.
  • Genderfluid characters (noting that this occurs mostly as a tool of deception) spike at very evil, like, say, Skynet.
  • AIs showing multiple genders tend toward neutral, like Star Trek TOS’s Exo III androids, or somewhat evil, like Mudd’s androids.

Gendered AI: Gender and AI category

The Gendered AI series looks at sci-fi movies and television to see how Hollywood treats AI of different gender presentations. For example, are female AIs generally shown as smarter than male AIs? Are certain AI genders more subservient? What genders are the masters of AI? This particular post is about gender and category of intelligence. If you haven’t read the series intro, related category distributions, or correlations 101 posts, I recommend you read them first. As always, check out the live Google sheet for the most recent data.

What do we see when we look at the correlations of gender and level of intelligence? First up, the overly-binary chart, and what it tells us.

Gender and AI Category

You’ll recall that levels of AI are one of the following…

  • Super: Super-human command of facts, predictions, reasoning, and learning. Technological gods on earth.
  • General: Human-like, able to learn arbitrary new domains to human-like limits
  • Narrow: Very smart in a limited domain, but unable to learn arbitrary new domains.

The relationships are clear even if the numbers are smallish.

  • When AI characters are of a human-like intelligence, they are more likely to present gender.
  • When AI characters are either superintelligent or only displaying narrow intelligence, they are less likely to present gender.
  • My feminist side is happy that superintelligences are more often female and other than male, but it’s also such small numbers that it could be noise.

If you check the details in the Sheet, you’ll see the detailed numbers don’t reveal any more intense counterbalancing underneath the wan aggregate numbers.

Gendered AI: Pride March Edition

Chris: I posted a question on Twitter, “Other than that SNL skit, have there been queer sci-fi AI in television or movies?” Among the responses is this awesome one from Terence Eden, where he compiled the answers and wrote a whole blog post about it. The following is slightly-modified from the original post on his blog. Consider this a parade of sci-fi AI, to help you nerds celebrate Pride.


Terence: Let’s first define what we mean by queer. This usually means outside of binary gender and/or someone who is attracted to the same sex—what’s commonly referred to as LGBT+. Feel free to supply your own definition.

As for what we mean by AI, let’s go with “mechanical or non-biological autonomous being.” That’s probably wide enough—but do please suggest better definitions.

So is a gay/lesbian robot one who is attracted to other robots? Or to humans with a similar gender? Let’s go with yes to all of the above.

Wait. Do robots have gender?

Humans love categorising things – especially inanimate objects. Some languages divide every noun into male a female. Why? Humans gonna human.

The television is female in French —“la télévision”—but masculine in German—“der Fernseher.” Stupid humans and their pathetic meaty brains. Nevertheless, humans can usually look at a human-ish thing and assign it a specific gender.

Maschinenmensch, from Metropolis, is a gynoid (as distinct from an android). “She” has a feminine body shape and that’s enough for most people to go on.

Still from Metropolis. A sexy female robot.

HAL from 2001 is just a disembodied voice. But it definitely has a male voice. Is there any attraction between HAL and Dave? I doubt it, but it’s an interesting reading of their toxic relationship.

Editor’s note: The whole Gendered AI series is predicated on the question of gender in sci-fi AI, so if you’re interested in this question, have I got a series for you

Wait. Do Robots have sexuality?

Did we mention that humans love categorizing everything? Just like we can speak of the gender presentation, robots with a General AI can have romantic affection for other beings, and depending on their equipment and their definitions of sex, yes, get it on. Even by narrow human common definitions of gender and sexuality, (TV, movies, and comic book) sci-fi has a dozen or so examples that can populate our imaginary AI pride parade.

A lesbian robo kiss from Bjork’s music video All is Full of Love.

The Robosexual Float

Kryten from Red Dwarf is an AI that receives a human body. Kryten coded as male. All the characters refer to him with male pronouns. Under British comedy rules, he is also “camp,” an over-the-top and stereotypically effeminate man. Kryten is sexually attracted to household appliances.

But… Kryten’s “perfect mate” is a distinctly female Gynoid, so he’s something other than straight, something other than appliance-sexual.

Kryten and Camille Kissing.
Fun fact: Camille and Kryten are played by real-life wife and husband Judy Pascoe and Robert Llewelyn!

C-3P0—another British campbot—is arguably in love with R2-D2. Whether or not that love is reciprocated is hard to say.

Two robots embracing.

Threepio and Artoo may behave like an old married couple, but the astromech has a lens for the ladies.

(I say “ladies,” but for the record let’s note that just because a robot is pink, wearing bobby socks, and a high heels, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a girl. If you’re looking for a pink R2 unit that is expressly a girl, check out the real-world KT-10 robot.)

In the “extended universe” of Transformers (outside of movies and television), there are a few gay Autobots and gay Decepticons.

Image result for Airazor and Tigatron
Tigatron and Airazor. They even kind of had a baby.
File:TAAO1 KnockOutBreakdown.jpg
Knock Out and Breakdown.

And of course there’s no denying that a few of the Futurama bots have tastes that veer from the straight and narrow. Notably we can point to that one time Hedonismbot stole Bender’s antenna and used it for “anything and everything,” said while in a sex dungeon surrounded by couples of every stripe who are getting it on.

“You might want to sterilize that.”

The “Robots attracted to humans of the same sex” float

There are several examples of “female” computers falling in love with male humans, a handful of male robots with female human lovers, and a disturbing number of sex-worker bots, but it is much harder to find queer examples of any of these.

The Tick show has a superhero named Overkill whose sidekick is an AI named Danger Boat that is, yes, housed in a boat. (Hat tip to Twitter user @FakeUnicode.) The AI identifies as male and is expressly attracted to other men, specifically The Tick’s (human) sidekick Arthur.

Is Danger Boat programmed to be gay? Are his desires hardwired? Are yours?

Remember Alien: Resurrection? Winona Ryder played the robot “Call” who has a suggestive relationship with Ripley. As this ship video demonstrates.

Battlestar Galactica has some demonstrably bisexual Cylons. They are sexually compatible and interested in humans and other Cylons.

Two lady robots lay entwined with a bloke in red sheets.

TV show Humans has one of the robots fall in love with a human.

Two women holding hands.

The Bisexual (maybe?) Float

Is Rachael from Blade Runner a robot, or bisexual?

Clearly, yes.

How about Samantha from Her? Late in the movie she reveals to Theodore that she’s having intimate conversations with 621 other humans. Some portion of them must have turned romantic and even sexual, as hers did with Theodore himself. The genders aren’t mentioned, but the odds are that 51% of them are female.

Unfortunately she has no embodiment, but maybe we can hook her up to the loudspeakers.

The Transexual Float

This float only has one robot, (the poorly-named) Hermaphrobot from Futurama, but she is sassy and awesome and assuring us that we couldn’t afford it. (And apologies for the insulting title added by the person who uploaded this video.) We are wholly unsure of Hermaphrobot’s sexuality, but we welcome our transexual robot brothers and sisters and others all and the same.

The GenderFluid Float

It’s possible for you to swap the gender of your Voice Assistant in real life. Your GPS can have a male voice one day, and you can swap it to female the next. There’s only one example of a sci-fi AI that swaps gender.

It takes us back to Red Dwarf again. In the series 3 opener “Backwards” it is revealed that Holly (a computer with a male face) fell in love with Hilly (a computer with a female face). And subsequently performed a head sex change. Although she kept the name Holly.

Meanwhile, Holly, the increasingly erratic Red Dwarf computer, performs a head sex change operation on himself. He bases his new face on Hilly, a female computer with whom he'd once fallen madly in love.

What is awesome and instructive is that the entire crew of Red Dwarf accept this. They never comment on it, nor disparage her. Basically, what I’m saying is this: if you can’t accept your trans and non-binary friends, you’re literally a worse human than Arnold Judas Rimmer, the worst human in the Red Dwarf universe.


Oh, look, and here comes The Fifth Element floor sweeping robots, picking up all the glitter and source code left on the ground by the crowd, marking the end of the AI Pride parade. Happy Pride to everyone, silicon or not!

Gendered AI: Gender and Subservience

The Gendered AI series looks at sci-fi movies and television to see how Hollywood treats AI of different gender presentations. For example, are female AIs given a certain type of body more than male AIs? Are certain AI genders more subservient? What genders are the masters of AI? This particular post is about gender and subservience. If you haven’t read the series intro, related subservience distributions, or correlations 101 posts, I recommend you read them first. As always, check out the live Google sheet for the most recent data.


Recall from the distributions post that subservience is cruder than we would like. Part of what we’re interested in is the social subservience: specifically whether female-presenting AI more often demur or take a deferential, submissive tone. The measurements I show here are more coarse than that, because the nuanced measurements are very open to debate, and can change over the course of a show. What I felt confident about tagging was first free-willed vs. subservient; and then, for those that had to obey a master, whether they could only act as instructed (slavish), whether they seemed to register and resist their servitude (reluctant) or not (improvisational). Still, even with the crude metric, there’s stuff to see.

What do we see when we look at the correlations of gender and subservience? First up, the trinary chart, and what it tells us.

Chart, gender and subservience. Freewilled: Female 0.61%. Other -4.1%. Male 3.5%. Improvisational: Female -0.04%. Other 3.36%. Male -3.32%. Reluctant: Female 0.59%. Other -0.64%. Male 0.05%. Slavish: -1.15%. Other: 1.38%. Male -0.23%.

The numbers are small here, at a max of 4.1% away from perfect, but we can still note the differences.

  • If it is free-willed, it is slightly more likely to be male than female, and male much more than other.
  • If it has a master, but free to improvise actions within constraints and orders, it is more likely to be other than male: ungendered (the majority), multi-gendered, or genderfluid.
  • Female-presenting AI do not appear to have significant disproportions of subservience. Those pink bars are all pretty small, all hovering near perfect distribution, and the one place they’re not, that is, slavish obedience, they’re less represented. Those characters tend to have a machine embodiment and therefore no gender, but it still means there is no bias toward or against female-presenting AIs in this correlation.
A graphic stating “In (screen-based) sci-fi AI…” male is free-will. Machine is subservience.

Now this probably breaks your gut sense of what you’ve seen in shows. What about Ex Machina! What about Maria! What about Ship’s computer in Star Trek? What about…? I’m not sure what to tell you, as these results thwart my expectations as well. But these are the numbers. It may just be that those examples of subservient female sci-fi AIs stand out for us more, given oppressive norms in the real world.

There’s not a lot more to be pulled from the detailed view of the data, either.

A chart of corellations with more-detailed gender breakdown. Because the large amount of numbers would be tedious, listen to the following summary for the takeaways. More detail available on request.

Note that the examples of characters with reluctant obedience to a master are dominated by the unfortunate, neurocloned crew of the U.S.S. Callister from Black Mirror. (Each of whom are reluctantly subservient.) Other than that example, there are three female-presenting characters and one male-presenting character. We would have more confidence in the results with a bigger sample size.

A picture of the main cast of the Black Mirror episode “USS Caliister.”
What is Space Fleet? I’ll tell you what it is. It is a belief system founded on the very best of human nature. It is a goal for us to strive towards for the betterment of the universe, for the betterment of life itself. And you assholes are fucking it up. </irony>