'Fembots' push stereotypes into the digital world
First came Nadia, then there was Rachel - they are not real women but they carry society's sexist stereotypes all the same.
Both are digitally created personalities, with Nadia "hired" by Australia's National Disability Insurance Agency to help disabled customers.
Rachel is a blue-eyed, brunette, online financial services assistant.
Their creator, Auckland technology firm Soul Machines, made them deliberately female at the request of their clients.
Soul Machine's chief business officer Greg Cross, said organisations requested female digital employees to represent their brand.
Cross said he was blown away by the amount of thought the companies deploying the likes of Nadia and Rachel put into creating their look and personality.
He admitted customers' bias of feminine machines reflected society's stereotype of women as empathetic and harmless.
There appears to be a preference for virtual women to fulfil assistant and care work roles - but does this suggest gender bias is creeping into the digital world?
Cross said it was not a surprise that sexism was being carried into digital technology given the ingrained messages about feminity and machinery in science fiction films.
"The evil robots are men and the good robots are women."
Some robots in Auckland manufacturing plants have been granted womens names too,although it's not clear why.
Lock manufacturer Assa Abloy introduced two robots to its factory floor over the past year.
The company named them Viktoria and Beyonce because its human resources department suggested they be named after women.
Meanwhile, food freeze drying company Fresh As, recruited machines named Susan and Willow from Cullen Engineering.
But both sexes in the manufacturing and technology industry have argued such names stink of subservient connotations for women in the workplace.
New Zealand Manufacturing and Exporters Association chief Dieter Adam, said the female naming of robots in factories was concerning because it would make the industry look even less appealing to women than it already was.
The Next Billion co-founder Priti Ambani, said female machines fuelled the stereotype that women were assistants, not leaders.
Chatbots and artificial intelligence voice commanders such as Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Alexa were almost always female by default, Ambani said.
"Women are always in helping, carer roles and showing them in this paradigm is doing a disservice."
She said she worried it was sending the wrong message that women's jobs on factory floors would be the ones taken over by automation.
Designers needed to be careful about how they depicted women in their inventions because they were setting a precedent to future generations, she said.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) carried out an experiment to find out if a robot's simulated gender affected the way humans interact with them.
MIT's study of 134 people found that males were more likely to donate money to a robot with a feminine voice because they felt it was more trustworthy than a robot with a masculine voice.
The women participants showed no gender preference, suggesting males carried a sexist slant towards machines.
University of Canterbury Human Interface Technology Lab New Zealand associate professor, Christoph Bartneck,said his research did not analyse robot gender, but it found that people were most threatened by intelligent robots that looked human.
He said naming was only one aspect that affected how humans felt towards robots.
"You can give a washing machine a name, but will it change how men and women interact with each other? Probably not."
Bartneck disagreed that robots were being popularised as female.
"Robots do not have a gender, even if we make them look like a male or female human, they are not."
Cross said society's preference for female machines was a phase that would quickly pass on.
He said Soul Machines wanted to create digital humans of every gender, age, race and language so consumers could choose who they would like to interact with.
It has just created its first male digital human, Roman.
It has also created a baby and was looking into artificially intelligent cartoons, Cross said.
Cross said there was still a lot to learn in his industry.
He said he was confident that society was becoming more aware of the power of diversity.
"[Diversity] is an inherent part of literally every conversation," Cross said.
"I think this will be this exactly the same."
MIT's research paper gave sound advice to robot designers and their employers.
"If we are to introduce robots to our social environment, we must consider gender and its implications."
- Sunday Star Times