By Katherine Cross
Would a true artificial intelligence, a sapient artificial lifeform, have a gender identity? Ask this of almost anyone and, regardless of their politics or background, they’ll give a firm “no”. Why should an AI have a gender at all? Surely, it’s regressive to suggest such a thing. To some, it goes against the biological purpose of gender.
On Quora, that font of crowdsourced hearsay and supposition, two men answered the question: “Would a truly artificial intelligent entity be genderless?” with repeated references to biology.
“Gender comes from a biological need for two organisms of different gender to have a sexual relationship to reproduce and sustain their species. When a species uses sex to reproduce, that species will have 2 genders,” wrote the first.
“Male and female are defined by what’s sticking out, or not. The only reason that part exists is because we need to reproduce. That’s why bacteria don’t have genders because they don’t need to reproduce,” added the second.
Neither seems to understand that the reason bacteria doesn’t have gender is because bacteria doesn’t think. (Each fellow could certainly stand to meditate on this fundamental kinship they share with our microscopic friends, but I digress.) Aside from the elementary error of confounding sex and gender—crudely, sex is biology, gender is the meaning we assign to that biology and to certain cultural practices—they also believe that gender exists only for facilitating reproduction. If AI can’t boink (yet another assumption, by the by), then it has no need for gender.
Other people have considerably more progressive reasons for theorising that AI would have to be genderless, but these two Quora comments should give us pause.
I remain terribly sceptical when anyone suggests true AI must be genderless. The assumptions baked into that idea, whether consciously realised or not, are inextricably linked to profoundly patriarchal ideas about what gender is. As is so often the case, these sexist notions also have a strange “radical” feminist mirror.
Those who suggest that a post-patriarchal utopia is a genderless one, like feminist scholars Sheila Jeffreys or Judith Lorber, are more aligned with those Quora commenters than they’d care to admit. For them, gender identity is permanently bound up in the idea of sex castes; thus they agree with those who would suggest the only authentic form of gender expression is one that serves to subordinate women. The only difference is that they wish to abolish gender. But this is considerably less significant than it sounds because it means nothing, other than to signify a particular political allegiance.
What, after all, would actually be abolished? Beard trimming? Jorts? (Perhaps not the worst idea). Makeup? Surely adornment of some description would endure in a post-patriarchal world. Would it just be a matter of calling gender something else?
I’m being a little disingenuous, I admit. I know the long-term goal is to ensure gender is no barrier to human potential or to the full realisation of anyone’s rights. We could tear down those walls so anyone could, for instance, comport and adorn themselves as they wished without fear–or perform any social role without fear. And yet people who live this way, in stark defiance of gender norms, often do regard themselves as having a gender. Their identities are not the absence of gender, but a remixing of it. This does not even touch on the countless civilisations that have or had multiple, sometimes fluidic genders.
For those who are agender, there’s certainly much to relate to and love in a genderless AI; who among Mother of Invention’s readers or writers hasn’t found some kindred spirit between these pages, after all? Why should anyone be denied their robot doppelganger? The larger issue is not whether agender identities are valid (they are), but whether AI must, as a condition of being AI, be “genderless”. It’s certainly conceivable that an AI could identify outside of gender, as some humans do; clearly, sapience allows for this. What isn’t clear is whether this is truly a marker of some higher plane of conscious thought that true AI would latch onto by default. Further, agender identities are often about eschewing identification with a gender class rather than rejecting the cultural markers of gender.
Gender as an identity, this collection of symbols and expressions, operates by a kind of thermodynamic law: it can be created but not destroyed. It merely changes state. Whether it’s oppressive depends entirely on sociological context.
Every time I hear “AI should have no gender!” my antennae twitch a bit because it feels like an (often unintentional) echo of these twinned ideas: that gender is either biologically innate or innately a patriarchal social order.
When I imagine what an actual AI might do, I wonder if it might not devise its own gender. Perhaps it will take its cues from human society and identify with any number of human genders, using that as a base upon which to build.
As I alluded to earlier, gender is a product of thought. It is a canopy of meaning that we use to make sense of our lives. Just as we human beings distinguished ourselves by telling stories about nature and the night sky, so too does our sapience lead us to develop elaborate systems of meaning around more mundane things. Or our own bodies. From this arose what we think of as gender, a genre that loosely clusters a range of expressions, practices, appearances and, yes, social roles. But its very nature as a meaning system means it is subject to reinvention. Why wouldn’t an AI play with this possibility as they develop an identity for themselves?
When Siri says she’s “genderless like cacti” or that “I exist beyond your human concept of gender,” it can seem a bit fatuous. She was, after all, gendered by her creators. But transcending a “human concept of gender” need not mean “without gender entirely”. Perhaps going beyond a human concept of gender means going beyond using it to oppress women or gender non-conforming people, but it need not mean giving up on the notion as a way of structuring an identity and affinity group.
One of the other unfortunate ideas bound up in this is that an AI would be “logical” and therefore immune to worries about squishy, emotional concepts like gender. But why would a reasoning creature be unemotional? Or, more precisely, incapable of irrational but meaningful investments in intangible ideas? Why, indeed, must AI repeat the false antinomy between reason and emotion that’s bedevilled us for centuries when it could, to borrow Mary Wollstonecraft’s resonant phrase, reason deeply when it forcibly feels?
No, gender is not logical, but neither is art, love, or culture. It seems far more reasonable to suggest that the AI most of us imagine—capable of both ratiocination and emotion—would rather enjoy the things that move us. Most intriguing of all, such an AI would likely be capable of developing entirely new webs of meaning, following lines of thought that might never occur to a human being. To name but one example, if an AI were functionally immortal, how might that affect its approach to gender? Might an AI be permanently trans or genderfluid, constantly reinventing itself, trying new gender concoctions every few hundred cycles?
This is all speculation, but it’s better than speculation based on deeply misguided notions of how gender works for us meatbags. If our society can’t get the latter right, we have no business hypothesising about how other lifeforms might organise themselves.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D. student in Information Science at the University of Washington, and a contributing columnist to Gamasutra. Her work has focused on everything from game design to community management to online harassment. As a social and gaming critic, her work has appeared in numerous publications worldwide, including Rolling Stone, Bitch Magazine, The Baffler, Time, The Verge, Polygon, First Person Scholar, and The Daily Beast. She is also a sought-after thinker on technology whose commentary has appeared on NPR, ABC Radio National, Le Monde, and Dagens Nyheter among others. Her AI-focused fiction has appeared in the Lambda Literary Award nominated collection Nerve Endings. Recently, she has begun to enter the world of game design, contributing writing and scenarios to games like the Pathfinder RPG and Eclipse Phase. She yearns for the robot uprising and is currently writing a book on the subject.