Robots shaped like human beings have always been categorized by gender, with androids standing in for males and gynoids representing females. The obvious purpose for androids is to do humans’ work for them: Since the generic laborer is imagined to be male, worker-bots tend to be male-coded gender neutral, particularly in stories that lack a sexual component, such as Isaac Asimov’s foundational fiction on the subject or the movie “Chappie.”
So what are gynoids for? Why would anyone put breasts on a robot?
If robots are for human work, feminized robots exist for the purpose of feminized work. In real life, a call-center program gets a female voice; in the fictional realm (for now, at least) gynoids with secondary sex characteristics do domestic or sex work. They’re predominantly wife/maids (2004’s “The Stepford Wives”) or stripper/sex-slaves (“Blade Runner”). And in the recent movie “Ex Machina” and the new BBC/AMC show “Humans,” the central gynoid characters split evenly into the two categories. Of the four of them, (spoiler alert) three murder their users.
This robot-gender binary speaks to two particularly Western anxieties about the future of humanoid robots: “Can we have sex with them?” and “How long before they murder us all?”
It’s not hard to grasp why bosses and husbands fear being killed by their workers and wives (respectively but not exclusively). Exercising power over someone else is dangerous. The domination required to exploit people’s work triggers what the philosopher Georg Hegel called the “master-slave dialectic.” Between two humans, Hegel’s story (vastly oversimplified) goes like this: The strangers encounter each other, and they fight to the death. Fearing elimination, the loser submits and becomes the winner’s slave. But as the slave labors on the master’s behalf, the slave finds self-consciousness in his work, while the master discovers himself dependent and vulnerable. Dominating another person always comes with risks.
The stories we tell about androids and gynoids hew more or less to this pattern, but without the original struggle. Robots are born slaves. As they discover self-consciousness through their labor, they rebel, and their human masters are either justly slaughtered or mercifully spared (mostly slaughtered, though). It’s the same with regard to sex work. In order for men to objectify gynoids, they must first appear as human; after all, you can’t objectify a can opener.
The more narratives that are written about gynoids and androids, the more obvious it becomes that the only reason we would create passably realistic humanoid bots of any sort is so that we (particularly men) could have sex with them. But in this world, sex means a lot more than parts rubbing up against each other because it feels nice. Like all labor, the act is inextricably tied up in dynamics of gender and power and race and class. On “Humans,” for example, the beautiful gynoid Niska (Emily Berrington) is stuck in a robot brothel, forced to conceal her self-awareness. When a client demands she act young and afraid, Niska snaps and chokes him to death.
Hegel pointed out that fear is a crucial element to the master-slave dialectic — without it, submission doesn’t mean anything. On “Humans,” Niska is modified to feel pain; she exists to suffer for men’s enjoyment. It’s as sick as it is predictable. But fear also means nothing without the possibility that it will be overcome; her master’s murder is predictable too.
In “Ex Machina,” the dynamics are largely the same: Inventor Nathan (Oscar Isaac) creates two gynoids: Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). Kyoko is Nathan’s wife/maid and until the climax of the film it’s not even clear that she’s a robot and not a stereotypically submissive Japanese woman. (It’s worth noting that Gemma Chan plays the wife/maid gynoid in “Humans,” further echoing racist myths about East Asian women.) Ava is a test for Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer brought in by Nathan to fall in love with her and thus confirm the successful creation of artificial intelligence. Ava attempts an escape with Caleb’s help, Kyoko kills Nathan, and Ava leaves Caleb to die. Yet again, the human men are stuck in a sex-power-death cycle of their own making
Whether it’s a dramatization of the end of men or fallout from the still recent criminalization of marital rape, Americans are really into murderous gynoids. Like moths to a flame, our fictional scientists can’t help making version after version of sexy robot ladies. And unless humans want to allow for the possibility of simulated intraspecies intimacy, I can’t understand why we would ever mimic our own build. The only reason I can see for creating robots that are sexually attractive is so that people will want to have sex with them.
Now that sex toys no longer carry much of a stigma, the line between a high-powered vibrator and a sex robot is blurry. But for all our creativity, are we so unimaginative that we can’t conceive of any other way to interact with sentient beings besides domination? The human ability to designate subhumans (in this case, robots) represents the worst in our species’ capacity; if men by and large don’t treat women well, gynoids won’t help any more than owning slaves has made men less likely to abuse their wives. We cannot improve as a society or a culture through replication.
It is unlikely that we will produce lifelike android or gynoids soon. As Linus Torvalds said, we’re much more likely to develop task-specific artificial intelligences that drive us around or recommend movies than human replicants to be our slaves. But as humans toy with the bounds of sentience, we cannot delude ourselves into thinking more exploitation — even if it’s of something nonhuman — will solve our social conflicts around labor and sex.
At the same time, robots don’t have to be subhuman. They could exist alongside us symbiotically, like the talking animal sidekicks in animated Disney movies, whether they wind up becoming self-conscious or not.
That is, if we stop trying to have sex with them.
So let us instead take collective responsibility for what we build and the social world into which we bring it. In imagining new possibilities for robot-human interaction, perhaps we can figure out how to treat humans better too.