Are Women “Made” To Create Robots?

by Kassandra Burd, M.Sc. Cognitive Neuropsychology, University of Kent

With remarkable advancements in technology and robotics in past decades, there is no doubt that technology is the future. Whether it’s the latest iPhone or sentient robots performing human duties, it is evident that a vast majority of men dominate these fields as they are supposedly the masterminds behind the evolution of machine. While it is true that women also work behind many of these technological advances, there is a severe lack of women who join these fields. As an example, out of 444 robot builders representing 24 robot candidates at the 2015 Darpa Robotics Challenge Finals, only 23 of the builders were women, meaning 94.8% were men (Robotics Business Review, 2015). Some may believe that women simply weren’t “made” to create robots, however, there are multiple reasons why women are well suited for a career in robotics; this includes enhanced ability for collaboration, less competitive tendencies than men, multi-tasking strategies, and increased empathy, which can help encourage cooperation with others (Ciprian et al., 2018). How can we make technology a more appealing field for women? Also, how can we exemplify the ones who already have?

One of the women who have made a remarkable contribution to robotics is Cynthia Breazeal, who is Chief Scientist at the company, Jibo. Her role is to help create social artificial intelligence that assists people in their every day lives (Sarkar, 2018). Specifically, these robots are considered familial robots with built-in technology to help recognize family members’ voices to help them with whatever task is needed. Essentially, it plays a role in building connections between family members by coordinating tasks. Another notable woman contributing to robotics is Deanna Hood, who is an electrical engineer focused on the development of robotics that can assist with education and healthcare (Silicone Valley Robotics, 2019). Some of her work includes a robotic companion that is used to help children with handwriting, and a car that can be controlled by the brain by someone who has paralysis. Rarely do we ever read about these women in the media, making it difficult for women to have role models that may serve as an inspiration for them to enter the field themselves. It is apparent that media outlets must do a better job at presenting a spotlight to women’s contributions on a similar level as men’s. What is evident by these examples are the fact that these women are undertaking positive approaches to AI and helping to build a society that would benefit from robotic evolution. Ultimately, they can be utilized in a way that can be advantageous rather than catastrophic and antagonistic.

It is plausible to assume that with more women entering the field, the less we might see more masculine-featured models, making robotics more appealing to women. It would appear that gender plays a significant role in how we perceive robots (Robotics Business Review, 2015). Building robots to fight, run, and do backflips might stereotypically be viewed as aggressive “maleness” that might have severe future consequences; this aggression might be a reason why robotics loses its appeal with women. A couple years ago, a video went viral of a robot that can perform speedy, alarming movements, including jumping on boxes (Gibbs, 2017). The article states that we should “be very afraid,” which ultimately instills human fear of the future of robots.

Despite this dire outlook on the proportion of women in technology and robotics, there are solutions that could lead us towards a brighter future if implemented in both career and education. If we more commonly worked on creating robots with more social, benevolent features that could be employed for the good of humanity, we might see an increase in women developing an interest in entering the field. It is also crucial that girls are exposed to computer science and technology subjects before the beginning of their post-secondary education; this would help girls feel more secure in the currently male-dominated field, and help them gain the required knowledge and skills to succeed (Lee, 2018). Moreover, an increase in female role models in robotics would certainly encourage more girls and women to develop an interest in technology, hopefully leading to further advancements even sooner. The inclusion of women in robotics can be constructive in the sense that it would supply the field with a fresh perspective on future directions (Wynsberghe, 2019). Since men and women experience the world differently, collaboration would be helpful in determining how humans can make productive use of robots, and where to shift the current focus so as to make life easier for those who could benefit from robotic assistance. If we are firm in implementing these practices to encourage women to enter technological fields, it is easy to envision a future where the idea of robots as participants in society is a positive and valuable endeavour instead of one that is threatening to human life.