The millionaire futurist Martine Rothblatt is often described as “transgender” even though she self-identifies as transhumanist. This may seem a minor distinction, but when you’re rich enough to commission an artificially intelligent robot version of your wife and loose yourself from the constrictions of biology, it’s not a minor distinction at all. Rothblatt contextualizes her sexuality with technology rather than historical gender roles because that makes more sense to her.

“There are five billion people in the world and five billion unique sexual identities,” Rothblatt writes in The Apartheid of Sex. “Genitals are as irrelevant to one’s role in society as skin tone.”

While society hasn’t caught up to Rothblatt, some of what she says sounds far less radical then it once did. It’s increasingly understood that someone’s biological sex and their gender are different; that gender is less of a binary concept with ‘male’ and ‘female’ standing sentry on either end and more an interrelationship between biology, internal sense of self, and outward expression of personal perception. But while humans as a whole are slowly coming to accept these terms, technological gender expression hasn’t really become part of the broader conversation. And this is why Rothblatt is such an important voice: We need to talk about robots.

An exhibition of a Japanese android. 

Over the last two decades, the majority of humanoid robots have been gendered in a binary feminine or masculine way. A humanoid in this sense is a robot that resembles a human — it has arms, legs, a torso and a head — and either is explicitly designed to look like a human or has an obvious resemblance to the human form. Even if the robot doesn’t look like Gigolo Joe doesn’t mean it’s not shaped into a form that triggers the human brain to see it as male or female; broad straight shoulders or soft almond-shaped eyes. Robots don’t need a gender to exist, yet the fact that they are continuously gendered remains.

And because robots are robots, this is entirely because of humans.

“Anthropomorphic design is commonly used within the field of social robotics,” writes researcher Glenda Shaw-Garlock in Sociable Robots and the Future of Social Relations, “because the human figure is regarded as the ideal model on which to create robots, so as to ensure their successful integration into the human environments imagined for social robots.

These anthropomorphic social cues, according to Shaw-Garlock, come from characteristics like gaze, personality, gestures, and gender, which she describes as the most “psychologically powerful social category.” The thought is that the more human-like the robot, the more likely it is that humans will think it worthy of social responses — but they need to be persuaded into their trust. Gender, studies have found, is extremely persuasive.

“Though its role in persuasion is complex and in some ways evolving, it is clear that if we are to introduce robots into our social environment, we must consider gender and its implications in that process,” writes a team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers in the paper Persuasive Robotics. “Gender is a deeply fundamental part of how people understand and respond to one-another.”

The MIT team found robots signaling as the opposite sex — seemingly male robot meets female human — were considered more trustworthy and engaging. Similar results were found in a Yale study where either female-like or male-like robots offered help with Sudoku puzzles. When conducting research for her master’s project, current Georgia Institute of Technology Ph.D. student Akanksha Prakash found that the majority of her subjects said if they had a robot in their home they’d like it to have a female appearance, while her older subjects said if they had a robot that helped with cognitive tasks, they preferred it look like a man.

“There are different types of robots being made and considered — humanoids are where gender kind of gets intrinsically tied,” Prakash tells Inverse. “People are more likely to ascribe a gender to it because that reaction is so hardwired in human interactions. But if you’re not designing robots to look human-like at all, then it gets into the question of how many human-like traits are people already ascribing?”

She cites a study where people interacted with a Roomba, the round, vacuum cleaning robot. While people spent time with the Roomba, they began to give it names and associated it with a gender. They described it with human-like traits, even though it didn’t look human at all.

Cat on a Roomba.

However, while humans may instinctively call their Roomba Sharon, the degree that gender is pronounced in a humanoid is very much up to its creator.

“Gender attributes may or may not be an essential feature of humanoid robot design,” wrote Micol Marchetti-Bowick, now a Ph.D. student in the department of machine learning at Carnegie Mellon University, in Is Your Roomba Male or Female?, “but both designers and consumers must nonetheless be aware of the social effects of the way gender is represented in the robots that are produced.” Too many robots, she says, reinforce the gender norms that are entrenched in the socio-cultural values of their creators.

This is particularly true for female-gendered humanoid robots, usually designed with hyper-feminine physical characteristics and which perform functions traditionally performed by women, like home services. Current tech movements, such as the Campaign Against Sex Robots, emphasize the idea that “technology is not neutral”. Treating female presenting robots as sex machines has ramifications for actual females (and actual sex machines). Some researchers have begun to call out for a consideration of ethics when creating gendered humanoids, but this change rests largely on roboticists. In her paper Gendering Humanoid Robots: Robo-Sexism in Japan, University of Michigan anthropologist Jennifer Robertson writes:

“How robot-makers gender their humanoids is a tangible manifestation of their tacit understanding of femininity in relation to masculinity, and vice versa. . .In my investigation of the criteria by which roboticists assign gender, it became clear that their naive and unreflexive assumptions about human’s differences informed how they imagined both the bodies and social performances of their creations.”

Director Alex Garland showcases the danger of gender-biased thinking in his 2015 film Ex Machina. At a turning point in the film, Caleb the do-good programmer, trapped in his own male-to-female savior complex, questions why Nathan, the creator of the A.I. Ava, has invented a humanoid that can flirt.

Caleb: Why did you give her sexuality? An A.I. doesn’t need a gender. She could have been a gray box.

Nathan: Actually, I don’t think that’s true. Can you give an example of consciousness, at any level, human or animal, that exists without a sexual dimension. They have sexuality as an evolutionary need…. I programmed her to be heterosexual, just like you were programmed to be heterosexual.

But they’re both wrong. Gender is not prescribed to sexuality. And Ava, according to her real creator, Garland, is not a woman. She is “literally genderless” Garland told Wired, who himself is “not even sure consciousness itself has a gender.”

As humans continue to interact more and more with robots, it’s time to rethink the necessity of the perception of gender. Yes, it is seemingly impossible to suppress the desire to anthropomorphize non-humans, but if humans are beginning to see other humans outside of binary gender, why is it so difficult to do so for robots as well?

“Gender is an increasingly contested category and therefore a key issue to consider is whether robots should be gendered and exactly what it would mean for a robot to be gendered,” writes Shaw-Garlock. “Robots should have the opportunity to become something different. . .A robot’s form should therefore not adhere to the constraining notion of strong humanoid functionality and aesthetics but rather employ only those characteristics that facilitate social interaction with people when required.”

Prakash says the hypothesis that non-gendered robots could in turn help humans relax more about the gender spectrum is one worth pursuing.

“We project human-like attributes to anything made a little bit human-like or animated, but I think that is going to change as more people begin to live with or spend more time with robots,” says Prakash to Inverse. “In imagining the direction of the robot, I can see a future where we have generated a new category for them and can accept a robot as a robot, rather than something human-like.”

At a conference in New York this week, the executive chairman of Google’s holding company Eric Shmidt said that he believes A.I. will solve many of the world’s “hard problems” — education, population growth, climate change. Perhaps A.I. will be able to deconstruct the expectations of gender as well.

Photos via futureatlas.com/Flickr, Giphy