Radford, for one, was not on board with that message.
So when he was put in charge of a team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center to build a rescue robot for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Robotics Challenge, he decided it was time for a strong, utilitarian bot to be female.
Radford and his team hired a graphic designer to help construct clay shells that were then modeled and 3-D-printed, Radford says, to “get the form of the robot that right.” They brought in a French physicist-turned–fashion designer to help work out the overall appearance and style.
Radford kept the robot’s gender quiet, even from most of his own team, for months.
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.
Overall, the students expressed a preference for the female robot, though in this case whether it was simply a preference for a more human robot is unclear. When asked to describe the robot, one student—gender unspecified—answered: Well, it’s female, so that’s a positive. The feminine form is typified as being weak or fragile in some form, but really inviting and warm and more interactive.
In 2005, researchers asked students to explain dating norms to a robot that had either a feminine voice and pink lips or a masculine voice and gray lips, which the majority of students identified as female and male, respectively.
“Although it looks like it does have a female form, it’s more a result of form and function versus actual design to be a female or a male,” says Jay Bolden, a public affairs officer with NASA’s Johnson Space Center To hear Radford tell it, by denying Valkyrie’s gender, NASA missed a big opportunity to reach out to the women and girls who could one day build their own robots.
(It also makes them “a bunch of weenies.”) As proof, he points to one person he knows who particularly appreciated Valkyrie: his 7-year-old-daughter. She drew pictures of Valkyrie.” All humans understand the world and their place in it in part by seeing how others who look like them are treated—how they talk, what they wear, what they do when they grow up.
“Robots have some traits, such as movement or their morphology, that trigger our tendency to attribute some agency and intelligence to robots, even if we know better,” Carpenter says.
“So right now, we are developing some of our cultural norms for interaction with robots in different contexts.” The creators of robots, then, have both a fantastic opportunity and a very real responsibility to consider what gender means as they design the machines that are becoming increasingly present in our hospitals, our schools, our homes, and our public spaces at large.