Gendered AI: Embodiment

Where we are: To talk about how sci-fi AI attributes correlate, we first have to understand how their attributes are distributed.  In the first distribution post, I presented the foundational distributions for sex and gender presentation across sci-fi AI. Today we’ll discuss embodiment.

As always, you can read the Gendered AI posts in order or check out the source data for more information.


Another simple measurement is how the AIs are embodied. That is, how to they manifest in the world of the story (or diegesis): Are they walking around, appearing as a screen on a wall, or as pulsing stars in the cosmos?

The categories that emerged from the survey were as follows:

  • Virtual, where a character only had, for example, a body or face that was generated for presentation to other characters on a screen or via volumetric projection. Joi from Blade Runner 2049 is virtual.
  • Disembodied, if the AI doesn’t have a particular, or an ad-hoc embodiment. The Machine from Person of Interest is disembodied.
  • Edgar from Electric Dreams is a Personal computer. In this regard, Edgar is a sui generis, or a category containing only one example.
  • Architectural: Some AIs are stuck to the walls of a building. HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey is architectural.
  • Vehicular, where a character is embodied in a vehicle of some sort. K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider is vehicular.
  • Zoomorphic robot, where the robot is built to look something like an animal. Often these characters do not have voice. Muffit from the original Battlestar Galactica television series is an example.
  • Mechanical robot, where the robot is mechanical (and more mechanical looking than humanoid looking). WALL·E is mechanical.
  • Anthropomorphic robot, where the robot is proportioned like a human, and has most all the surface features of a human, but is readily identifiable as a robot. The Iron Giant is anthropomorphic.
  • Indistinguishable from human, where the robot can “pass” as a human. Only detailed or violent inspection will reveal it to be non-human. Aida from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is indistinguishable from humans.

Here’s what that looks like in a bar chart.

Sometimes the details are tricksy

Sci-fi can make these things tricky. For example, the virtual crewmembers of the U.S.S. Callister might be considered indistinguishable from humans—as long as they are wearing clothes. Their unfortunate captain (and captor) had them created in virtual space such that they had no genitals. They are listed as bodily male and bodily female (rather than biologically) even though they are also indistinguishable from human.

Similarly, David from Prometheus has a fingerprint with a subtle Weyland-Yutani logo maker’s mark built into it (see the image below), but since this would only be apparent to someone who knew exactly where to look and for what, David is also listed as indistinguishable from human.

He just has to find crimes that don’t involve fingerprints.

Why so human?

My conjecture to explain the high number of AIs that indistinguishable from human is threefold.

First, it is a matter of production convenience—that is, it is much easier and cheaper to insert a line of dialogue that establishes a character as a human-looking robot, rather than any of the other ways of signaling robotic-ness:

  • Create a costume like Robbie the Robot
  • Make a puppet like Teddy from A.I. Artificial Intelligence
  • Do prosthetic makeup like The Terminator
  • Create a set piece that syncs with audio like Alphy from Barbarella
  • Produce special effects, like Ava from Ex Machina

There’s also a fit-to-media argument which notes that people are much better and more comfortable at reading the emotional states of people than they are of machines. If catharsis, or the emotional journey, is part of what the art is about, humans work as a medium. (This lack of emotional information in interfaces was played to great effect in 2001: A Space Odyssey, unnerving us with the psychopathy of HAL’s unblinking eye.) Actors, too (I highly suspect) enjoy using their bodies, voices, and faces to do their jobs without the additional layers of prosthetics or puppetry. So we would expect an overweighting of indistinguishable from humans because they are often the best tools for the narrative job, from both the audience’s and the actor’s perspective.

Not a lot of emotive potential here.

There’s another argument—a genre-and-narrative argument—that people are mostly interested in stories about people, and most sci-fi is a speculation about social effects rather than actual technology, and so indistinguishable robots are the best embodiment of what we’re interested in, anyway. Humans, just with different rules.

To riff on Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s “what if phones but too much”…

  • What if humans, but smarter and faster and helpful?
  • What if humans, but relentless indestructible assassins?
  • What if humans, but their enslavement was “ok”?
  • What if humans, but too much?

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.

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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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