Can Robots Be Sexist?

How artificial intelligence might reinforce and amplify gender stereotypes.

In April of this year, an engineer in China named Zheng Jiajia married a robot he had constructed himself, which resembles a young, slender Chinese woman. While the union is not legally recognized, Zheng carried on as if it were by organizing a ceremony and taking wedding photos with his “bride.” In a country in which men significantly outnumber women, Zheng, 31, said he was tired of searching for a human spouse and dealing with the pressure to marry. This unusual union comes more than seven years after a man in Japan married a digital avatar from a Nintendo game called “Love Plus.” In a ceremony that was broadcast live on the web, the 27-year-old man called the avatar his dream girl and claimed that he felt no need for a human girlfriend.

According to a growing body of research, such deep expressions of affection toward robots should come as no surprise. One study found that participants who viewed images of a human hand and a robot hand being cut with a knife or pair of scissors responded with essentially the same measure of horror and sympathy to both scenarios. Humans are deeply empathetic creatures, and anything we can anthropomorphize—pets, robots, or even the disembodied voice of a virtual assistant like Apple’s Siri—can engender very real emotions in us.

However, our desire to attribute humanity (and even spirituality) to machines reflects the intense complexity of artificial intelligence (AI) and the existential questions that come with it: What does it mean to be human? What characteristics define a healthy relationship with another being? If humans have a soul that is, in principle, independent of the body yet also functionally integrated, then how do we understand robots? …

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