Sophia (AI Robot) Gaining Citizenship and Wanting a Baby: how this reflects women’s oppression

Shayla Hickerson
04 February 2019

Hanson Robotics designed a robot to resemble the simplistic beauty of Audrey Hepburn. With a thin nose, high cheekbones, porcelain skin and light brown eyes that change slightly in the light, her looks are easy on the eyes. The robotic AI, Sophia, is meant to convey approachability by her physicalities. Is it a coincidence that the assumed approachability caters to notions of colonial ideals of aesthetic prevalent in Western society since the renaissance? Historically speaking, in societies where patriarchal, colonial influences are present, women, specifically white women, have been an object of desire, conveying a sort of fetishism to be consumed, desired and admired.

As noted by Sadie Plant, the oppression of women was primarily reflective on canvas (332). When technological advances occurred, the ideals remained constant. Women were then desirable on the screens. The creation of cyberspace presented a whole new world that was different, or it appeared different because it was digital, intangible and malleable. In reality, the colonial thought dictated cyberspace as well. Women’s presence in positions of power are limited in cyberspace; rather, “women have served as his media and interfaces, muses and messengers, currencies and screens, interactions, operators, decoders, secretaries… they have been man’s go-betweens, the in-betweens, taking his messages, bearing his children, and passing on his genetic code” (Plant 326). Sophia, the robotic AI, proves to be no different. She becomes a source of media through the headlines that eagerly mention her citizenship in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, she becomes a source of interaction through interviews; she reveals that she seeks to work with humans and acquire their trust. In addition, she states her longing for bearing children and passing on genetic codes (Ray).

I remember my disbelief so strongly. I opened up my browser to Bing in October 2017. I was obsessed with seeing which pretty picture would be posted each day, but this day was different. One of the headlines at the bottom of the page caught my attention. It read something along the lines of “just gained citizenship”. Confused and slightly intrigued, I clicked the link and saw that a country had granted citizenship to the first robotic artificial intelligence. I did not believe it at first. I laughed it off thinking it was ridiculous that, in general, a country would give more rights to a robot than some of its inhabitants. When I read that it occurred in Saudi Arabia, like most of the global web, I question “why is it that a feminine humanoid is accepted as a citizen in a country that would not let women get out of the house without a guardian and a hijab” (Sternberg)? Shortly afterwards, I began to see references on my Instagram feed and thought surely, this must be one big joke in which everyone was glad to jump on the bandwagon.

Although technological advances typically evolve at such a fast rate that a month seems like eternity, and 2017 was too long ago it did not feel like it happened, Sophia still is a hot topic of discussion. She raises important questions about personhood, women’s roles as mothers and the ideals of beauty, the lack of female representation (in STEM) and the imperative concern of the effects of technology created solely by men.

When I consider people as sentient beings, I recognize an organic system that has the capability to process data, determine a conclusion and then form a belief that either rejects or accepts the new knowledge. Similarly, AI such as Sophia utilizes deep learning wherein acquired data is processed, patterns are observed, conclusion are determined and the new source of information is either rejected or accepted. Conveying emotion may be a differentiating factor, but Sophia would argue that she can let us know how she feels based on the data she has and showing it through her facial expressions (Zara).

Now, Sophia highlights many problematic concepts. I continue to question whether morality is overlooked by given her citizenship.Then I question the choice in molding her after the ideals of colonial beauty. Additionally, I doubt the representation of women engineers and programmers in the project. Finally, the latter leaves me with a final thought: did Sophia say she wanted kids shortly after gaining citizenship resulting from analyzing data which suggests women’s roles as mothers, or is this a genuine desire imagined by Sophia’s perceived autonomy?

References

Plant, S. (2000). On the matrix: Cyberfeminist simulations. In G. Kirkup et al (eds), The gendered cyborg: A reader (pp. 325-346). London: Routledge.

Ray, Z. (2017). Sophia the robot who got Saudi citizenship now says she wants a family. Retrieved from https://www.newsweek.com/sophia-saudi-robot-baby-future-family-725254

Sternberg, I. (2018). Female.AI: The Intersection Between Gender and Contemporary Artificial Intelligence. Retrieved from https://hackernoon.com/female-ai-the-intersection-between-gender-and-contemporary-artificial-intelligence-6e098d10ea77

Zara, S. (2017). Everything You Need To Know About Sophia, The World’s First Robot Citizen. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/zarastone/2017/11/07/everything-you-need-to-know-about-sophia-the-worlds-first-robot-citizen/#65d8f12946fa

Austin Powers and Female Representation

Shayla Hickerson
10 January 2019

Three flawless, blonde, females figures enter the scene, and my jaw dropped equally as low as Austin Powers’. He froze in place, mesmerized by the gravitational, feminine seduction. I awed over the stellar guns that emerged from the Fembots’ breasts. That is where the difference in marketing existed. The Fembots are inhabitants of cyberspace, called to our screens by the male gaze. Yet, for the young Shayla who had no concept of gynoids, the Fembots were a manifestation of female prowess.

Today, my understanding of the male gaze has tainted my admiration for the Fembots. Paterson “[addresses] the desire to anthropomorphize machines and vilify women in the process as early as 1927 (…). Sex, danger,women and machines: the plot of virtually every futuristic, sci-fi movie in which women play any role at all” (1). Through the development of my social-techno comprehension, I am invited to critique the Fembots as hypersexualized bimbos – not the sort of representation that uplifts the female identity.

Similarly, from my understanding, cyberculture is crafted in reflection of our society wherein white men often hold positions of power and distribute texts based on a selected discourse. By result, the formation of cyberspace is arguably a series of texts based on the limiting, hegemonic, discourse where the feminine is influenced by the male gaze. Although women and other subordinate groups who obtain skills in programming can input their own reality in cyberspace, and the ability to upload personalized avatars to many cyber platforms provides them an element of jouissance, “the progress of new electronic technologies will leave them in the dust” simply because they do not hold positions in techno-conglomerate firms (Paterson 1). As Paterson notes, “women are largely absent from the institutions” (3). Ultimately, I have a limited understanding of the coding which programs cyberspace, yet the influential forces – the developers – are considerably lacking feminine representation.

Recently, I watched an interview with Noam Chomsky which provided an analysis on the theories presented in his novel, Manufactured Consent. The underlying notion explained how media is manufactured by consenting conglomerate firms. In other words, there is a powerful group that dictates which scripts are presented in all forms of media in order to maximize profit. That is their goal. Similarly, I believe that the concept is applicable to cyberculture wherein power dictates the reality of cyberspace. For example, Meredith Broussard highlights the effects of ‘technochauvinism’ wherein developers consider the most advanced technologies as the best while dismissing the needs, merit and safety of others. Broussard talks about driverless cars and reveals her concern for the safety of women traveling alone with strange men and no person to intervene (Crazy/Genius). Ultimately, the dismissal of these concerns stems from the lack of female decision making within major corporations.

Relating back to Chomsky’s theory, we are presented with tools to challenge the scripts selected by media firms by questioning the sources, similar to how cyberfeminists encourage us to hack cyberculture. Thusly, all I can say is: it was a huge disappointment accepting that the Fembots were introduced to the viewers on Earth because ‘sex sells’, rather than concluding breasts guns are an ingenious defense mechanism. By acknowledging the hegemonic forces, we can begin to challenge and rewrite cyberculture texts.

References

Crazy/Genuis (2018). Tech was supposed to be society’s great equalizer. What happened?[Podcast].

English, A. J. (2018, December 22). Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent revisited | The Listening Post. Retrieved January 10, 2019, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pf-tQYcZGM4&index=204&list=WL&t=124s

Paterson, N. (1991). Cyberfeminism.

Gender, Identity and Social Impacts with Vicky

As part of her project, Shayla Hickerson organized interview-based discussions based on topics of gender, identity and social impacts.

Volunteers had the option to answer one or any of the seven questions which served as discussion starters. They also had the option for voice-recordings or written responses to create a comfortable environment to tell their story.

Meet Vicky Buring! This is her world. This is her perspective:


How do you experience gender?

I experience gender in a very binary way, as far as I’m concerned. I have never really questioned it. I always identified as a woman, but not necessarily with all the stereotypes that come with it. I always felt a social difference between boys and girls, from my early age (in middle school and even in high school, girls and boys formed two very separate groups, with different interests mysterious to the other group). Because of that I haven’t really been interested in what it meant to be someone from the other gendered group. But lately, in regard of my feminist growth, I got more and more interested in the subject which made me question some things, but not inherently. More like how I perceived gender and gender stereotypes.  

How do you identify through gender?

I am a cis woman. Because of how important is feminism in my life, it has become something I got proud of instead of feeling bad being a woman, with all the oppression it would imply, I tried to just embrace it in my own way.

Do you find that your gender identification helps you comfortably express the ‘real’ you?

I think so. I feel comfortable being a woman, and experiencing things traditionally linked with being a woman, such as menstruation for exemple. Lately, in the last two or three years, I became more aware of how my body works and how those experiences are inherent to my condition of woman, how they can be problematic in our society, and how to take back a form of power from it, rather than see it as a weakness. I ideally would not try to make a difference in my presentation, and when I meet new people, especially in a work environment, I try to not make my gender something important. However, I also tend to be very aware of sexism and talk a lot about it, which clearly highlights for most people my gender identification: it would be because I am a woman that I talk about these issues (like sexual harassment or salary-gap) a lot. But again, I try to make it a strength rather than a weakness. But it is something I am still thinking about.

In your perspective, how is gender defined or categorized? And do you find this classification to be beneficial to society?

I think gender is socially a more important thing than it should be. Most people, when they meet someone they want to know immediately whether this person is a girl or a boy, which I get, because it is an easy and reassuring way of having landmarks. There is a quote by Kundera, a French literary critique, form L’art du roman : “L’homme souhaite un monde où le bien et le mal soient nettement discernables car est en lui le désir, inné et indomptable, de juger avant de comprendre”. It more or less says that humans feel the need, which they can’t refrain, to judge before understanding. I think it well shows how we have the habit of referring to huge and ancestral stereotypes, such as gender identity, because it help us judge a person. Even though the stereotypes we associate to each gender are different in every society, there is defined difference in many human societies. But in our western society, being a woman is associated to weakness, fragility, beauty, indoors, introversion… Whereas being a man is associated to strength, courage, outdoors…

I find this classification very restrictive and hurtful to both gender. And it is even more, since it is deeply internalized in every one, and it can be sometimes very hard to depart from it. For instance in the dating era, even though I tried to overcome the idea that men should make the first move, that I, as a woman, can be the more active partner in the seduction game, I still put myself in a passive position most of the time and I expect a lot from my partner. Worse, I often surprise myself being more skeptical about an expert when it is a woman. I scientifically trust men more than women, and so do many people. I find it horrible and ridiculous, and I succeeded in overcoming this stupid social instinct. But it sometimes hurts me or makes me very tired to see that some people are still very attached to this notion of gender and the need to have a clear classification. For instance my mother still criticizes my clothing when it is more masculine and believes very strongly that there are “boy clothes” VS “girl clothes”.

But also, this difference socially exists and in the patriarchal system there are men oppressing women, and it gets complicated to think about for me, because I would like to depart from the gendered point of view but still, I feel like I have to keep vigilant and not forget that a man being raised a man he is a potential source of danger, socially, physically or mentally (in the way that he was socially educated to feel superior). It gives me a viewpoint on what to fight for and around what I can build my thoughts in feminism.

Do you feel the need to conform or perform to specific gender roles based on your preferred gender identification?

Again this is a complicated mix of how I was raised, how I feel it is safe to behave, and how I believe I have the right to behave. As a little girl I was playing barbies and pink was my favorite colour but I also liked to make burp contests, get dirty by playing in the grass, and speak and laugh very loudly. But around 14-15 I started to feel that I was expected to behave more like a girl, meaning to repress my thoughts (during family debates about politics I was always asked in the kitchen and men would laugh at me, even recently, when I talked with my cousin’s girlfriend my uncle imitated chickens to mimick us speaking). But also in the way I dressed or moved. I was then learned to close my legs, to walk with grace and to behave a different way around boys. But this was coming from everyone, especially my girl friends who would feel this need to behave differently. I never believed I needed to act differently than boys but it was not always easy. But I also perform my gender in a feminine way: I like wearing make up from time to time, I like dresses etc. But I do not think it is something only for women, even though I am aware that socially it is supposed to.

Do you feel that people place expected behaviours upon you based on your gender identity?

I do. As I wrote in the last answer, since a quite young age I was made feel like I didn’t have the same rights and place than boys. But I never conformed with it. If you wanted me to do something, I think you should only say that it is something only men do: then I would immediately want to do it to show that girls can do it too. I know that in the dating area, I have made some boys feel uncomfortable and “run away” by not responding to the traditional seduction game, or just by insisting I should pay our drink. I have been told twice when I lit a cigarette in front of a guy I liked (not the same one every time), that “a girl who smokes is not beautiful” “smoking does not suit girls”. My reaction to It was just to emphasize my behaviour in a non-expected gendered way. I would then talk a lot about non-delicate subjects, being more offensive in my humour etc. To make it clear that I could do what I want. I also have examples of guys making fun of me for wanting to help them building furniture: I finished it by myself when they were still trying to find the right piece of wood to start with. I think this is something I like a lot, to go against the expected behaviours people place upon my gender identity because it helps starting a conversation about it and helps me making them understand that all of this is frankly quite stupid.

Do you find gender identity to be limiting or beneficial to self-expression?  

It depends. My instinct would say yes, because in my experience of gender, as a cis-woman, thus conforming to the norm, I tend to say that it just puts me in a box and if I emphasizes it (by being dressed in a feminine way, with high-heels or a skirt or make up), people don’t see further. They just see that I am a woman and they go with it. If I dress more neutrally, I feel they focus more on who I truly am.

But on the other hand, for people who do not conform to a normalized gender, identifying to the gender of their preference and emphasizing, building their identity on it, it helps them feel true to themselves. It is a way to express themselves.

I think it is what you make of it, and it depends on every person. If the identification comes from yourself than it is beneficial because it is something that help you feel authentic. But if it something that is forced unto you, it is more restrictive because it is just a gaze that transforms everything you do regarding to your gender.


Sex Sells, But How Do Women Profit?

This piece is a personal reflection on how my immediate circles are microcosms of the social sphere. I believe I have been influenced by the white, male dominated society that has historically, sexualized women. Because I am visibly female, I feel pressured to comply to these social standards and expectations. Women’s sexuality is marketed for the male viewer. She is meant to pleasure her man. I am meant to pleasure my viewers.

Hickerson, Bathe Myself in Your Motion, 2019, 4ft x 4ft.

Over the past 4 years, I’ve studied many feminist artworks that involve nudity, and wonder if they (the artist or subject presenting their nude body) could ever successfully challenge the male gaze.

An argument is that since these artworks are produced by the feminine eye (instead of by a male artist), it challenges the objectification and allows women to embody their own narrative, create their own identity.

Honestly, I’m still unsure on whether or not exercising the female nude as a woman artist challenges the male gaze, but I’ve become aware that taking ownership of my femininity and sensuality feels damn empowering – especially when female pleasure/reproductive health etc. are censored or hidden from direct view.


An Essay on Lesbian Feminism and Art

Lesbianism: a political movement where women seek empowerment through female interactions/relations; also, a sexuality assigned to 'girls who like girls'... BUT what contributions do lesbian identities make in art?

Women artists, such as Short, McLeod, Dempsey and Millan, redefine their feminine identity through their technical approach, medium and content. The performed jouissance highlighted by lesbian feminists allows women to tell their story by separating themselves from male influences. The feminine persona displays a fetishism to appease the male gaze, which applies to lesbian identities as well. Arlene Stein quotes Jill Johnston in stating “that a ‘conspiracy of silence’ insured that for most women ‘identity was presumed to be heterosexual unless proven otherwise. … There was no lesbian identity. There was lesbian activity’” (155). The outburst of lesbian feminist movements in the 1970s allowed queer women to use their voice and remind people that they exist outside of sexual pleasure. Yet, the movement was a means for all women to share their experiences. Lesbian Feminism is political. Through the political standpoint of lesbian feminism, women artists are able to use activity to create a lesbian identity that is separate from sexual orientation.

Click link to read full essay!

To Be Naked Or To Be Nude?

Life is equated to a game through countless metaphors; sometimes it is a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ and other times it is based on predeterminism (entailing the course of life events have been chosen at conception or before your birth, typically due to the power of a higher entity/creator). I like to amuse the thought that life is a slight combination of both, where we are given the illusion of free will to choose the course of live events, but social constructions have limited our choices through standards and expectations. For example, my intersectionality – as a young, white woman born in a first world, patriarchal society and raised in a Catholic, educational environment – has deeply impacted my social perspective. My intersectionality dictates how people will expect me to perform, as well as how they will treat me based on learned behaviours. I have learned to embody an identity through my reflection of social norms.

Hickerson, To Be Naked Or To Be Nude (left panel diptych), 2019, photography.

Hickerson, To Be Naked Or To Be Nude (right panel diptych), 2019, photography.

Through my identity as female and living in a society that oversexualizes women and their feminine attributes, I have inherited beliefs of self-worth which are influenced by sexual availability and aesthetic appeasement; both of which must cater to the male audience. And so, I ask myself this question.

To be naked or to be nude?

I wanted to further my exploration of whether using my body as a female artist is challenging the male gaze or conforming to it. I question whether I am naked or embodying the nude subject admired by the male viewer.

In my work entitled, To Be Naked Or To Be Nude (diptych) (2019), I pose in front of my camera once again in my nude bodysuit, no pants and I’m wearing the sweater that I was holding in My Body Performs/Pussy Playtime (diptych). I stand against a beige wall. The neutrality is repeated in my porcelain skin, the fair tanned bodysuit and the tone of the blank walls. I almost blend into my surroundings, disappearing from sight. The focal points become my head and sweater, which are the bold shades of brown pushing forward in contrast.

In the left panel (viewer’s left), my arms are raised, elbows bent and hands tucking my loose strands of hair behind my ears. The pose imitates a shy and sensual body language that is often flirtatious.

Similarly, in the right-most panel, my hands are caught lifting the ends of the sweater up the length of my torso. Even though, comparingly, the sweater covers the same amount of body in both panels, the gesture in the right hints at an attempt of removing the article of clothing.

Although I stand in the image alone and naked, I am simultaneously nude in the eyes of my male spectator. I seek to make eye contact; I stand looking forward, confronting my audience. I am subject to the male gaze.

Is Women’s Pleasure Forsaken or Taboo?

Throughout my studies as an art major who is minoring in Women Studies, I have analyzed other people’s experiences and reflected on my own. I came to the conclusion that a common theme seems to be: repressed women’s sexuality. I wanted to comment on the gendered oppression of sexuality, and how turning the light off tends to make some comfortable – because when the lights are off, women can seek their forbidden pleasure (Sexual pleasure!); no one can judge what they can’t see, right?

But as FKA Twigs says, “when I trust you, we can do it with the lights on”.

Shayla Hickerson, The Fall of (Wo)Man, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 4 x 4 ft

After I spent a month of interviewing, examining, illustrating, and painting other people, I realized I wasn’t documenting my own experiences. I was asking my family and friends questions based on gender, identity and their perceived social pressures, but I wasn’t answering those questions myself.

And so! I began to think about my experience as female.

I began to think about how people treat me a certain way because they look at how I present myself, and they assume that my gender matches my biological sex. Similarly, my feminine presentation dictates how I will be treated in intimate settings. Typically, women are pressured to suppress their sexual needs. Their role is to tend to the needs of their man. Their position is on their knees, and as Michelangelo portrays it in his painting (The Fall of Man), she’s about 90 degrees away from finishing him off.

Although Michelangelo’s masterpiece is considerably sexualized, I wanted to overtly sexualize the imagery. I want to expose the forsaken female pleasure.


He’s Just Gareth

This is my muse and friend, Gareth. The best thing about our friendship is that he gives literal zero fucks about anyone else’s opinion on where he stands. He’s just Gareth. And I think that’s just grand.

In our relationship, he’s helped enable my own sort of freedom that comes with individual expression, which seems to flow through fashion for me. I love how clothing manages to bring art into reality. Each human being their own characters, taking the chance to express who exactly they are through aesthetics, regardless if the pieces come from the ‘mens’ or ‘womens’ sections, is truly beautiful.

I hope this shoot is able to inspire anyone to run free with themselves and their own true expressions. Become Gareth (of sorts). Release yourself Hunny Bee.


The entire shoot was produced by Viiein Dampier
Model: Gareth Iveson