Do robots mainly replicate gender stereotypes or are these technologies posing challenges to our notions of gender? This Friday, Google completed the purchase of BigDog, Cheetah, WildCat and Atlas. These are not wild animals with wrester names to be displayed in their main office but actual running, walking, balancing robots. A New York Times article asserting how google added more robots to its collection mentioned how Boston Dynamics, an engineering company that has designed mobile research robots for the Pentagon “is the eighth robotics company that Google has acquired in the last half-year.”
So, does Boston Dynamics make really manly or really womanly robots? So far, all I see are various gender traits that are represented in the body of these robots, but not enough to add up to a rigid masculinity or femininity.
Let us take a look at BigDog, a gas-powered, four-legged, walking robot that climbs, can travel through snow and even makes its way through ice and even manages to stay upright in response to a well-placed human kick. Disclaimer: Google’s robots are to do various jobs “from warehouse work to package delivery and even elder care.” John Markoff writes for NYTimes, without mentioning any projects designed for violence.
Then there is Cheetah, who runs faster than Ussain Bolt.
I don’t find any of these robots exactly manly, maybe because BigDog does remind me of a real-sort of cute, dog. But the fact that I am already looking for a heterosexual reassertion of hegemonic masculinity in this robot means that I am also conditioned to recognize gender stereotypes. Now, let’s explore if there are any hyper-sexualized or hyper feminine robot bodies in this pack. Boston Dynamics is currently under a multi-million contract with the U.S defense advanced research projects to supply a group of humanoid robots to take part in Darpa’s Robotics Challenge. Only this week, NASA revealed its own submission to the contest: the 6 foot 2 inch tall Valkyrie a robot with the name of a female goddesses in Norse mythology. Here “she” is:
The gender representation that robot Valkyre, performs has raised some controversy among feminists last week. Heather Roff , International Studies professor at University of Denver wrote for Huff Post on Thursday, arguing that the robots, who are generally built for violence purposes, reflect on rigid representations of gender stereotypes “the jobs that these robots are being designed to undertake, or the names that they have been given, speak volumes about the more ambiguous gendered relationships between and within masculinity, femininity, technology and politics” Roff added that Valkyre was made to represent femininity and also has boobs.
Later in the week, Lauren Wilcox who lectures in gender studies at Cambridge, used Valkyre as an example to argue that the mechanic bodies of robots present interesting theoretical challenges. We may use the hyper femininity or hyper masculinity in a robot to actually laugh at how absurd gender is. Wilcox writes,
A gendered robot or posthuman cyborg assemblage arguably demonstrates just how constructed the gendered imperatives placed upon humans are in the first place. With the ridiculous examples that Roff-Perkins points out, such as robots with high heels, we can perhaps get a glimpse of the ultimate absurdity of repressive gender roles in the first place: after all, high heels for women and being ‘ideal warfighters’ for men are no more natural than the design elements of robots are (although changing such norms of course requires much more than tinkering in a laboratory).
Hyper gendered or not, the bodies of robots can be a productive starting ground to analyze our own biases, preconceptions, and stereotypes regarding rigid male/female binaries. A hyper masculine robot could be read as replicating masculinity, or, it could also be understood as an over-compensation for masculinity in crisis, both performances revealing its absurdity.
To add more robot love, Beyoncé was wearing a robot hand on her 2009, single ladies music video. What does that say about marriage ideals if one is putting a ring, not on her, but on the robot hand?