Gender and Space Robots (Newsnight)

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Newsnight feature on space robots, Philae and Rosetta Philae is a robotic European Space Agency lander that accompanied the Rosetta spacecraft until it landed on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, more than ten years after departing Earth. There is no doubt that the whole mission is a tremendous demonstration of human ingenuity. However, the topic of discussion was not the technical details of the mission, but the anthropomorphism of machines. I was surprised by how gendered Rosetta and Philae were to the team of researchers. By using gendered models these issues were important. Also, this video below is targeted at young children. What does the anthropomorphic representation of Philae and Rosetta tell us? It tells us that ‘males’  have roles and responsibilities of exploring, learning about systems and danger, and ‘females’ have roles for taking care of and helping the male robots achieve their goals. Here is an animated feature on the comet landing aimed at children.

As an anthropologist there are many ways to reflect on the way in which scientists animate robots and one of the most striking features of this anthropomorphism is the way that gender is inflected in design, purpose and representation of robots. In this animated feature we see Rosetta (the spacecraft), play a supportive role to the robot lander Philae, as ‘he’ heads onto the treacherous surface of the planet, gets out his toolkit, and investigates the planets surface. Meanwhile ‘she’ Rosetta looks on and just broadcasts the information that is found on the comet’s surface by Philae. Even in fictional animated features there’s no getting away it seems from representing males and females in particular ways. Remember, Philae and Rosetta have no human qualities, these have just been attributed to them by the research team, therefore the perceived qualities entirely originate out of the consciousness of the researchers, as it does in the animation. We have to remember than in gendered representations of robots, ‘she’ robots have fewer features, and are often represented as attractive young females, whereas ‘he’ robots can come in a variety of forms, their appearance irrelevant, and can exercise a wider range of functions.

This brings us to the “predetermined” cultural roles that males and females have performed, women taking responsibility for care-taking, affective contact and care of partners, family and children, while males have had the freedom to cultivate their subjectivity in an endless multitude of ways. The machine offers us an opportunity to see human consciousness at it really is. Machines are entirely artificial creations, and hence examining them tells us about what it means to be human.

The segment on space robots is around 35mins onwards. With Kirsty Walk. First shown: 10:30pm 15 Jun 2015

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