Lee Gutkind takes a look at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon in Almost Human: Making Robots Think (W.W. Norton, 2007), a book entertainingly reviewed in this weekend’s Los Angeles Times. Out of which this wonderful clip from reviewer M.G. Lord:
I wish Gutkind had spent more time on an area that I find fascinating: the anthropomorphizing and gendering of robots, which science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein famously explored in his novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. What Heinlein created was a computer that, depending on circumstances, could switch between masculine and feminine identities. Robots are heaps of hardware, not biological entities, yet humans apparently feel more comfortable if they assign them a gender, regardless of the crudeness of the gender stereotype. The institute, for example, has robot receptionists with gendered personalities: Valerie, a “female” who complains about her dates with vacuum cleaners and cars, and Tank, a “male,” who has blundered so often that he has been placed “where he can do no harm,” — in other words, in a job traditionally for women.
Tank, however, gave me the first real evidence that computers might eventually think for themselves. The robot appears contemptuous of the antediluvian gender roles that engineers (and Gutkind) project upon them. “I saw a very pretty blonde student type Tank an intimate message: ‘I love you,’” Gutkind writes, “to which Tank replied, ‘You don’t even know me.’”
I could never get through The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. In fact, I had trouble with all the late Heinlein, pretty much everything after Stranger in a Strange Land. But the question about biological vs. machine identity is indeed fascinating, and it’s also instructive to learn that it crops up even with today’s limited robots. The little round vacuum cleaner robot called the Roomba from iRobot inspires owners to assign gender and names to their machines, a phenomenon the company acknowledges. As robots get smarter, we may find them less alien and more ‘human’ than we thought, if only because we can’t resist making them so.