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  • Artificial Eye:The Modernist Origins of AI's Gender Problem
  • Allegra R. P. Fryxell (bio)

Thinking machines will have to be nourished not just on radiation but on irremediable gender difference.

—Jean-François Lyotard, "Can Thought Go on without a Body?" (1988–1989)

Sex times technology equals the future.

—J. G. Ballard, Re/Search 8/9 (1984)

Two images, two women, two centuries: one black and white, the other in color. The first is a still of Maria from Fritz Lang's famous 1927 film Metropolis (figure 1). Made in the Weimar Republic, Metropolis is set in a future dystopia in which Freder, the son of the wealthy City Master, joins forces with Maria, a saintly figure among the industrial workers, to overcome the gulf separating the classes. His father, the City Master, catches wind of the rebellion and orders an inventor, Rotwang, to transform a robot into Maria's likeness to ruin her reputation among the workers. Rotwang kidnaps Maria and transfers her likeness to the robot, and Robot-Maria subsequently unleashes chaos throughout Metropolis. Fast-forward ninety years, and we see a photo of Sophia, an invention of Hanson Robotics and the first robot in the world to be granted citizenship [End Page 31]

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Figure 1.

Replica of the character Maria from Fritz Lang's film Metropolis (1927). This image is freely available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

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Figure 2.

Hanson Robotic's Sophia. ITU Pictures.

[End Page 32] in Saudi Arabia in 2017 (figure 2). Sophia holds eye contact, makes jokes, and expresses feelings. Like the model Maria, she manifests the ideal aesthetic of a white Caucasian woman. Matters of good and evil aside, the continuity in feminized robots from 1927 to 2017 is uncanny. While Robot-Maria is a deceptive and seductive machine, Sophia is meant to be a productive and pleasant member of society like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant.

My subject is "Artificial Eve," representations of artificial intelligence (AI) starting in the nineteenth century that, I argue, form the basis for our relationship with artificial narrow intelligence—AI that is limited to specific tasks—in comparison to artificial general intelligence (AGI), the popular conception of a future superintelligence created by humans. In this essay I use AI to refer to task-oriented AI, since AGI has yet to be realized. Although the gender gap in AI is often discussed in terms of women's unequal representation in AI-related industries and the need to encourage women and girls to "learn to code" and study STEM subjects, our digital worlds are increasingly shaped by gendered technologies that reify heteronormative gender roles and objectify women in the process. This essay presents a journey through the gender "work" performed by representations of artificial life—starting in the industrial economy of nineteenth-century Europe and continuing through the electronic and digital economy of the present—to illustrate how the feminization of sex robots (sexbots) and virtual assistants is part of a historical narrative in the West that foregrounds the entangled relationship between women's bodies and technologies. I argue that the correlation between AI and femininity (Artificial Eves) is a constitutive feature of nineteenth-century modernity that continues to shape our interactions with AI today.

Both Maria and Sophia bear more resemblance to what cultural critic Mark Dery calls "mechanico-eroticism" than the character Adam in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1822).1 At the start of the film, Maria (figure 3) is a paragon of female maternity and beauty, while Sophia's blue eyes, petite nose, perfect eyeshadow, and mascara-laden eyelashes suggest that womanly perfection can be programmed, constructed, and performed by advanced technology. The parallel between early twentieth-century representations of AI such as Maria with presentations of mechanized life forms in the present such as Sophia suggest that the origins of our cultural imaginary of AI transcends the immediate present. While Nicole Karafyllis and Allison Muri have recently called upon critics to consider the relevance of early modern "archetypes" for the metaphor of the cyborg and discussions of biotechnology, I want to foreground the increasingly intimate relationship between...