By Laura Dattaro.
Published in Slate.
In 2007, General Motors ran a commercial featuring an assembly-line robot that loses its job after dropping a screw. The robot doesn’t look human—it’s a mechanical arm and some hydraulics mounted on a metal body with wheels.
But it definitely felt human, enough that viewers’ concerned and angry response compelled GM to pull a scene of the robot throwing itself off a bridge. It didn’t need a face, two arms, and two legs for people to empathize with its sad robot noises and string of dissatisfying jobs. It just needed to tilt its “head” the right way, and people could impress all sorts of human qualities upon it, just like we do with inanimate objects every day.
One of those qualities is gender, and unless given specific cues otherwise, most people faced with a robot tend to default to male. NASA’s robotic astronaut assistant Robonaut, for example, was designed to be gender-neutral. But that’s not how most people perceived it.
“People inevitably would assign a gender to the robot,” says Nicolaus Radford, a former NASA roboticist and one of the lead engineers on Robonaut. “I would say 99 out of 100 are quicker to identify a robot and use a ‘he’ pronoun. You know, ‘Tell me what he can do!’ ”…