Exhibit Raises Provocative Questions About Female Robots

These days female robots seem to be appearing everywhere in television, video games, and movies ranging from Her and Ex Machina to popular TV series like Westworld. Many of them reflect men’s idea about “The Perfect Woman.” Should women worry? Will these artificial ladies someday seem preferable to real women? Are there important changes underway?

These are some of the questions raised in the exhibit “Picturing Female Robots and Androids” now on extended view at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, New York through October 22, 2017. The exhibit, based on my book My Fair Ladies: Female Robots, Androids, and Other Artificial Eves, showcases images of robots, androids, dolls, and mannequins. These female replicas often have the effect of the uncanny: they startle us, making it hard to tell what is artificial and what is real.

People have always been fascinated by the idea of creating lifelike human beings (think Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein), but in the exhibit, we see how images of female robots have been evolving, reflecting our changed views of women themselves. Men are still creating idealized robots in the image of “The Perfect Woman,” but many of the old stereotypes are rapidly falling away.

The images range from obliging, cheerful creatures, with no mind or ideas of their own (like the sexy and obliging Stepford Wives who love to cook and clean) to today’s powerful female film robots like Ava in Ex Machina and Dolores in Westworld who want their independence and freedom. A video game character like Orisa in Overwatch is a powerful tank that is capable of wielding lethal weapons. Children’s dolls are changing too. Mattel’s Fashionistas line of Barbie Dolls more accurately reflect what real girls actually look like with their diversity of body shapes and skin tones.

Some of today’s female robots have uncannily lifelike facial expressions, and are being designed with artificial intelligence, so they can have rudimentary conversations. The exhibit is in a family museum so no adult entertainment dolls here---but several of the female robots that are pictured in the show continue to raise provocative questions.

Are these new robots and androids a marvel of science and technology, or do they pose a serious threat to our idea of what is human? Will female robots and dolls that are beautiful, always compliant servants cause some real women to be concerned? Will ultra-lifelike young female robots be our future caretakers, teachers, companions, and even spouses?

So far robots with artificial intelligence haven’t been developed enough to pose a real threat, but as the exhibit’s colorful images suggest, we may be on our way to a future world where women—and men—find themselves in real competition with artificial beings.

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