Category Archives: Gender

Ex Machina: What happens when Turing meets Bechdel test

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Alex Garland’s first feature film as a director, Ex Machina, had its US debut at SxSW on March 14. This stylish idea film explores the Turing Test in a very Pinteresque fashion as a young coder falls in love with an advanced AI. Ex Machina is beautifully framed, but Garland’s stark script succeeds on the strength of the acting from Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac.

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Garland’s writing career launched in 1997 with the best selling novel “The Beach”, which the Times called the Gen X answer to Lord of the Flies. After a string of cult successes like 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd and drafts of Halo and Logans Run, Garland became fascinated with the emerging promise and perils of AI. In the Q&A following the SxSW screening, Garland talked about feeling a zeitgeist, a technological and cultural turning point, compelling him and other film makers and writers to address robots and artificial intelligence.

Although he says he’s on the side of the robots, it’s an uneasy truce. Garland describes his film as the story of ‘two brains torturing each other’. That’s true. In Ex Machina, Tony Stark meets John Searle in a gripping drawing room theater, when a billionaire tech genius recruits a young coder to administer the Turing Test to his secret advanced embodied AI.

And it’s a stark film, there are only 4 characters; 2 men and 2 women. 2 AIs and 2 humans. And which two are the brains? That is supposed to be uncertain, but anyone who has used the Bechdel Test to analyze films or popular culture for gender issues knows exactly where the ‘brains’ are.

The Bechdel Test started as a gender litmus and has become a remarkably useful indicator of power imbalance. The test is named after Amy Bechdel a cartoonist who outlined the rules in a 1985 cartoon. To pass the Bechdel Test, a film has to have two women in it, who talk to each other, about something other than a man.

Sometimes the proviso is added that the women have to have names, because some films can have many women characters, but if the characters are all “girl at checkout” and “girl with gun” then they are just devices to add color or move the action forward. And of course, possession of a name is an important indicator of personhood, or identity awareness, so it’s always one of the first steps to separate the beings from the machines.

Many films seem at first glance to have badass female characters but when put to the Bechdel Test, it becomes clear that they never talk to anyone but the main man, or if they talk to each other, it’s about the main male characters. So really, they have no interiority, no self awareness and are probably going to fail a Turing Test. That’s where I think it would be very interesting if the Turing Test were to meet the Bechdel Test more often.

Garland is also playing games with gender and the alienness of AI in Ex Machina. There is a beautiful scene where Ava, the AI, performs a reverse strip tease, putting on her human body.

But I’m afraid that Ex Machina falls at the final fence, as does just about every other science fiction film I’ve ever seen, aside from Alien. The Bechdel Test is useful for more than examining gender representation. It can be our Turing Test for creating believable alien or artificial life forms. If you look at our filmic or cultural representations of the other or alien, then you have to be struck by the singular nature of them all. From Frankenstein to Big Hero 6, do they have any reality without the central human characters?

No, they are alone. Even Alien is alone. At least in Frankenstein, it is the utter aloneness of the new form that is the whole story. Films that have pushed the envelope are few. And doing a quick mental check, the was left feeling empathy for the ‘others’ in only a couple, like Westworld, BladeRunner and Planet of the Apes, and the books of writers like Brin and Cherryh.

How believable are our ‘other’ AIs and robots? Brad Templeton said that an autonomous vehicle isn’t autonomous until we tell it to go to the office and it decides to go to the beach instead. A life outside of our anthropomorphic story is what’s missing from our AIs, aliens and others. We don’t really care about them or their lives outside of their impact on our own. And this makes us poorer.

The final shot is a haunting homage to Plato’s Cave’ although Garland credits his Director of Photography entirely for it. In The Republic, Plato posed the question, what if humans were born chained to face a cave wall seeing the world only as the shadows passing in front of a fire behind them in the mouth of the cave. Imagine the difference when you see the world, unchained from the cave.

I can’t say more. Go see Ex Machina. And use the Bechdel Test on everything.

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The Uncanny Valley at IROS

Masahiro Mori Uncanny Valley-1338919046064For me, the highlight of IROS was the Uncanny Valley special session, although the sheer size of the IROS conference and the parallel iRex industrial and service robot expo also gave much food for thought. In particular, the new coworking robots from Kawada [video] and ABB look very interesting, but it’s clear that it still takes a long time for research to transition into robust applied robotics.

The Uncanny Valley Revisited was a special tribute to Emeritus Professor Masahiro Mori, organized by co-chairs Ken Goldberg, UC Berkeley and Minoru Asada, Osaka U. Masahiro Mori’s 1970 article, Bukimi no Tani Gensho, described a phenomenon of unease that is felt as animated beings become more similar to real beings.

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Labelled the ‘uncanny valley‘ in reference to Freud’s concept of the Uncanny (Unheimlich), Mori’s work first appeared in translation in 1978 and proceeded to be broadly adopted in the art world and cultural/social sciences. Astonishingly, Mori believes that robotics only noticed his concept in the mid 2000s, when papers citing the uncanny valley were presented at HRI conferences. Elizabeth Jocum from Aarlsberg U was one of several to speakers to point to the early and deep impact of Mori’s idea in other disciplines, including the arts.

It’s apt that the art world was first to appreciate the Uncanny Valley hypothesis, as Freud himself said that the uncanny is the only thing more strongly felt in art than in life. It’s also a dynamic rather than a static phenomenon, as other speakers attested. Marek Michalowski discussed the impact that animators have had on the field of human robot interaction. After all, animation has been a strong field for over 100 years and is primarily concerned with creating a compelling imitation of life. In the process, animators utilize much more than just the static superficial appearance of a character. Sound, perspective, staging, background, color and timing all enhance or destroy the illusion of life.

Freud’s original concept of the uncanny is also more closely aligned to general anthropomorphism, where the impact is less on the closeness of appearance to human and more on the human ability to ascribe emotion, agency and symbolism to logical, mechanical events or objects.

Mori intended for his theory to be a simple warning for robot designers to consider the possible affect of their constructions, and he calls for robots to be made less life-like or human-like, as he wishes for technology to have positive and not negative contributions to the world.

Robots are already out there in the world, and I think we are frequently unprepared for the range of anthropomorphism that even unlikely looking robots can attract. This is well described in the work of Nass and Reeves in The Media Equation and leads to the ‘new ontological status’ hypothesis put forward by Kahn Jr, Reichardt, Kanda and Ishiguro. Generally speaking, I find that roboticists oversimplify the uncanny valley hypothesis. Mori himself describes it as a clue rather than a theory, so it was refreshing to hear so many great speakers give it much needed dynamism and depth.

This post originally appeared in “Robotics by Invitation – IROS” on robohub.org

Why isn’t my mother a mechanic?

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As a child, my mother had her own overalls. She grew up stripping engines and cleaning carburettors. She was the daughter of a mechanic and master builder. Then she became a librarian.

As a child, I wanted to be an astronaut. I grew up playing with punch cards and radio telescopes. My father was a physicist and astronomer. I built rockets, robots, computers and oscilloscopes with him. Then I became a film maker.

Eventually I returned to the study of rockets and robots but from the perspective of trying to understand why our sciences seemed to be gendered and what happens at the intersections of society and technology.

In Technologies of the Gendered Body, Anne Balsamo wrote “My mother was a computer” to launch a meditation on the gender implications of information technologies as she touches on the changing social status and meaning of occupations. For example, clerking was once a male occupation, now primarily female. And some traditionally female crafts have at times been male only guilds, eg. knitting.

In My Mother Was a Computer, N. Katherine Hayles takes this sentence  as her title; ‘as a synecdoche for the panoply of issues raised by the relation of Homo sapiens to Robo sapiens, humans to intelligent machines’. Hayles takes the gender and status implications of our changing technologies in society and raises them to a discussion on our kinship relations to machines, engaging with Moravec’s ‘postbiological’ future.

I love robots because they teach us what it is to be human. Robotics explores our inner space. Our automatons and artificial intelligences imitate life. So we have to work out what it is we are imitating and every choice we make building an imitation being says something about what we think we are, and what we think we aren’t.  So who we are, as well as our society, shapes our technologies, while our technologies change the world.

Hayles’ trilogy of books, Writing MachinesHow We Became Posthuman and My Mother Was a Computer describe an arc that starts at the binary opposition of embodiment and information, engages with the materiality of literary texts and then extends the ideas of ‘intermediation’ into computation. She takes Latour’s call for a turn from ‘matters of fact’ to ‘matters of concern’ literally, as Hayle’s ‘materiality’ is the  intersection between matter and meaning, or “dynamic interactions between physical characteristics and signifying strategies”.

This is a call echoed by Rodney Brooks and Raffaello D’Andrea amongst others, that we start asking social questions more than technological ones in robotics. By extension, a social question is a business one because if someone needs something then they will value it. Not always as highly as they ought, but nonetheless we’ve had enough ‘build it and they will come’! While there are some technical questions (and some people) who are best in an abstract realm, there are many unanswered pragmatic ones.

The materiality of robotics is my area of study, both in the broadest sense of how do some robotic designs come in to being and not others, but in the minute details of whether or not the materials used in robotics affect the demographics of robot designers.

Robotics is gendered. While women are more equally represented these days in health, medicine and biological sciences, it is clear that engineering and the physical and computing sciences are still heavily male biased. [insert all the books, articles and reports written on gender inequality in STEM here] This hasn’t changed much over time either. And for the record, this is still the case in politics, finance and business.

I watch this trend up close in Silicon Valley and both the VC and startup worlds are heavily male dominated. It seems as though rapid innovation exacerbates innate biases at a systemic level [insert another book here]. Of course, there are many fabulous women in both startups and in robotics. Of course, some women achieve success, recognition and reward. It’s just that overall, the odds are not in your favor if you are female and you shouldn’t have to work twice as hard to overcome them.

Do you even want to do what so many men do? Maybe some women want different work lives? Maybe some women want different robots?

It’s time to talk more loudly about both gender and biology. I believe that biology plays a strong part in these differences and we risk becoming a society that refuses to talk about difference – because we want to respect everyone’s equality. Our anodyne culture makes it hard to celebrate different mindedness and different bodiedness. This is worrisome, especially as our ability to tinker with our selves increases. Let’s not do a Dr Lawrence Summers here and shoot the message because we don’t like the messenger.

There are many reasons why women are not in robotics and getting them more engaged in school is only one answer. We must simultaneously address improving the pipeline at every point right up to promotion to CEO or Board, better family life balance, more equitable pay (especially in light of women’s higher rate of p/t or interrupted work), more role models, less innate bias and finally, better value given to areas traditionally female, which will in turn allow more women to import their skills and experience into areas which are, so far, traditionally male.

My mother isn’t a mechanic, but she is a maker. She taught me kitchen chemistry and real cooking. My mother made clothing from necessity and then for pleasure. She taught me 3d modelling, design, aesthetics and problem solving skills in the process. When I was young, I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps. I wanted to be a physicist, an astronaut, a test fighter pilot and explore outer space.

I gave up when I entered my teens. There was no career pathway for women in space, no role models, no encouragement. That has changed now, but the deeper lesson I learned was that in the world we have unequal access to technology, by gender or by race or global location. I saw this with the spreading of computer technology and the internet. If you live in some parts of the world, you don’t have access to technology and you can’t shape the building of new technologies and it’s hard to be an innovator.

Maybe innovation needs more makers and fewer mechanics. Maybe my mother was happy never becoming a mechanic. But she never got the promotions or the pay that she deserved. And her skills as a maker are far less valued than those of a mechanic.

My siblings followed in my father’s footsteps and got PhDs in the ‘hard’ sciences. By contrast, my mother and I are just Masters, and masters of the ‘soft’ sciences. But we are also makers. And I believe that the Maker movement is one way of encouraging us to value more varied contributions to science/technology. At every level of expertise,  I would like to see more women making a robots, which in turn may lead to more interesting robotics, a robotics that is useful and appealing to the rest of the world.

This post is part of an International Womens Day wrap over at Robohub – your global source of robotics news and views!

Ada Lovelace Day: Women in robotics

Maykah team at Maker Faire: Alice Brooks, Bettina Chen, Jennifer Kessler who make ‘Roominate’ the DIY electrical dollhouse.

Celebrate women in science and technology today, in honor of Ada Lovelace, world’s first computer programmer. Ada Lovelace Day was started by Suw Charman-Anderson in 2009 in recognition that good role models are crucial to engaging and retaining women in STEM.

I’m going to celebrate Ada Lovelace day by recognizing the awesome things that people are doing to encourage girls to become engineers. Robotics is an exciting area with many amazing and influential women. It’s proven to be an enticing entry point for K-12 students into STEM career choices. I was going to post a list of great women in robotics but an article crossed my desk today talking about one of the subtler difficulties of attracting girls to STEM (science, technology, engineering & math).

Girls decide what they AREN’T going to study much earlier than they decide what they will study (and much sooner than boys do). So, girls are far more likely to limit their possible career choices before they are actually ready to make them. Intervention at college level, or even high school level comes far too late according to Stephen Cooper, associate professor of computer science at Stanford University and chairman of the board of the Computer Science Teachers Association for US K-12 educators.

There is a window of opportunity to excite and inspire girls that is wide open in elementary school and rapidly closing in the middle school years (11-14yrs). Programs such as the First Lego League can be critical interventions. So can after-school robotics clubs but not if  we don’t have proactive gender policies.

Two weeks ago, the robotics after-school program kicked off at my children’s middle school. It was advertized in the school newsletter and the gifted & talented program. The school has an approx equal ratio of boys/girls, around 800 in total. 66 students wanted to join the club. There were only 4 girls and they were all 6th graders (11yrs old) not 7th or 8th graders. This is in a supportive environment where the volunteer coach (me), the teacher and high school mentors are all female!

Based on my previous experience building female participation, I will take extra care to put the girls in a team with friends, to encourage them to bring friends along and to nip in the bud any undermining behaviors. But it still makes me sad.

That’s why I’m going to cheer myself up and celebrate Ada Lovelace day by recognizing some of the awesome things that people are doing to encourage girls to become engineers.

Roominate: A toy that inspires girls (or anyone who likes building houses) to build circuits and make their house come to life! Roominate was started by 3 young women at Stanford and thoroughly tested on children at the Exploratorium.

 

Goldieblox: A construction toy and book series, Goldieblox might be for young girls but there still aren’t enough interesting girl toys out there according to founder Debbie Sterling and Riley.

 

Lilypad Arduino: Microcontroller board designed for wearables and e-textiles by Leah Buechley and Sparkfun. It can be sewn to sensors, power supplies and actuators with conductive thread.

 

Cubelets: A modular construction toy, and CMU spinoff, that appeals to both young and old with their very tangible interface.

Scratch: A programming language and education community designed at MIT to encourage everyone to create and share interactive stuff. Scratch can be used with game controllers and sensors and can also be used to program motors, including Lego.

 

Minecraft: A virtual building game, you can build anything you can imagine. At night monsters come out. My middle school girls love it.

 

I also hope that initiatives like Robot Garden – our soon to open robot hackerspace – will appeal to a wide range of the community. We have carefully selected the name and our ‘brand’ to be as inclusive and inspiring as possible.

How Women In Tech Are Losing From Top To Bottom – Forbes

Silicon Valley 

Is a lonely road to blame for the dearth of women in tech?

According to a new survey the number of women in senior technology positions at U.S. companies is down for the second year in a row.

The survey, published by U.S. division of the British tech recruitment group Harvey Nash, attests that just 9% of U.S. chief information officers (CIOs) are female, down from 11% last year and 12% in 2010. According to Reuters, 30% of the 450 American tech executives polled said their IT groups have no women at all in management positions. What’s more, when the same group of executives was asked whether women were underrepresented, roughly one half said no.

Which, I concede, is all bad news for women. To the boy’s club of CIOs in America, women aren’t around and nobody seems to have a problem with it.

But I do. I think it’s wrong and bad and exactly the attitude that’s keeping women from earning anything close to our brothers, boyfriends and husbands. But that’s not what this post is about.

This post is about whether surveys and research like this are bad for women in another way: whether they’re looking at women in tech with a set of blinders on. Determined to find some good in the ongoing conversation about the black hole for women that is the tech debate, I set about looking to prove that this latest research was misrepresenting women in technology by only looking at a particular group of companies at the top.

Unfortunately, as Bob Miano, President and CEO of Harvey Nash USA soon filled me in on, I was wrong. His isn’t a study that looks only at the 500 most profitable companies in America, but rather a sampling of over 450 companies that range from Silicon Valley startups to “a large computer software company with three letters in its name.” And of these companies, fewer than 40 chief information officers were female.

In terms of women at the top, at least, the reports of decline are verified. But what’s worse, where I had hoped that the recent blizzard of startup activity might be helping to change the ratio in favor of the fairer sex, Miano says the opposite is true. He blames the decline in women in tech roles on the uptick of startup companies, which he says tend to be less interested in diversity than many of his older, more established clients who often put major emphasis on recruiting female talent.

But as a woman who covers women for a living, I know anecdotally that this research is not indicative of the number of girls, women, ladies I meet every week who are kicking tech’s butt in the startup world. I look at companies like Joyus and Fab, both highly funded ventures with women leading their tech teams. I look at women like Caterina Fake, Allyson Kapin and programs like Black Girls Code and Women 2.0. I look at numbers that say women are starting businesses at 1.5 times the national average.

This is an issue that has plagued us for too long, says Tara Hunt, CEO of Buyosphere, “Even though we’re seeing an increase in the numbers of women enrolling and graduating college with technical degrees. And even though there is an upswing in women joining and launching startups, we are quite far from parity. The more women we see in high profile technical roles at these companies, the more young women will be inspired to pursue a career in technology.”

True, despite the fact that women have reached senior positions at Facebook, Xerox, Oracle and other large companies, they’re hardly the norm.

Women In Tech Infographic | Women Who Tech

Can Tech Companies Continue To Innovate With No Women At The Table? | Fast Company

Can Tech Companies Continue To Innovate With No Women At The Table?

BY Allyson Kapin | 05-08-2012 | 10:17 AM

This article is written by a member of our expert contributor community.

Women dominate social networks, according to the latest Nielsen report. This is not news. Women have been ruling social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and social gaming platforms for the past few years. Women also bring in half or more of the income in 55% of U.S. households. And women ages 50 and older control a net worth of $19 trillion and own more than three-fourths of the nation’s financial wealth, according to MassMutual Financial Group. Simply put, women are influential and drive the economy.