Help or hindrance? Smart-home technology in need of a gender reboot
Funnily enough, the original Rosie was an older-model robot, which was all the Jetsons could afford. But the family grew to love her, and refused an upgrade.
In their new book The Smart Wife: Why Siri, Alexa and Other Smart Home Devices Need a Feminist Reboot, Yolande Strengers and Jenny Kennedy argue that the female voices on our smartphones and networked home devices such as Google Home are re-creating an old-fashioned feminine stereotype, where a little lady can be called upon to help us out.
Robot vacuum cleaners are commonly named Rosie by their users, after The Jetsons’ domestic helper, and the iRobot Roomba vacuum was inspired by this rollerskating maid.
A comforting, non-threatening persona
Dr Strengers says tech companies have introduced these feminised personas into our domestic lives because most people find a woman’s voice comforting, and also because their inventors wanted to re-create a non-threatening, compliant persona, like a housewife from a ’50s sitcom.
“The concept of the smart wife hasn’t just come from technology companies,” Dr Strengers says. “We also cite and reference a lot of sci-fi as the inspiration for where these devices have come from. Designers of robotics and the AI programmers quite often acknowledge that their inspirations come from sci-fi.
“The idea of a housekeeper that can do it all has been the unattainable goal for the smart-home industry for a long time. And it’s possibly why we're always so disappointed when we don't get our ‘Rosies .”
She became interested in the phenomenon while researching networked home devices; her focus at that time was on their environmental impact and usefulness. Voice-activated systems have novelty value, but how helpful are they in reality? And why do people want them?
Although the smart home has been touted as one that saves energy, they contain hidden energy costs, the researchers say.
Devices are always on standby and networked, for instance – the wi-fi keeps running, even while we sleep (including in houses that are not “smart”, but rely on wi-fi for their streaming and phone services).
According to Nature, in 2018 data centre servers contributed 0.3% to global carbon emissions, while the information and computer technology “ecosystem” (including mobile phone networks, personal devices and TVs) contributed more than 2% of global emissions. That puts it on a par with the pre-COVID-19 aviation industry.
When it comes to the creation of "smart wives", men are clearly in the lead. Men vastly outnumber women in computer programming jobs, making up over 75% of the total pool of programmers in the United States in 2017.
In separate research projects conducted with their colleagues, Dr Strengers and Dr Kennedy discovered that networked home devices were usually set up by men, who liked playing with the technology.
Dr Strengers’ research took place three or four years ago, when Alexa and Google Home were new.
Sometimes, while she was conducting these interviews in people’s homes, a female voice on an artificial intelligence program would answer her question, or join in the conversation. The interviewees often reacted by apologising for the female robot, who was “glitchy”, or not as smart as they had hoped.
The impulse to blame the robot’s female persona, even in jest, rather than the designers of the technology itself, fascinated Dr Strengers.
Then there’s the personality that Siri, Alexa and the woman’s voice on Google Home all share. She sounds like a pleasant, compliant, agreeable white woman. When Siri first appeared, she would respond to sexual remarks by saying, “I would blush if I could” – a response that has since been edited out of her system after widespread criticism and pressure.
“It’s a form of femininity that’s there to please others,” Dr Strengers says. “It's not necessarily that she’s a female that’s the problem, but that she portrays a particular type, and does that en masse around the world.”
“When it comes to the creation of ‘smart wives’, men are clearly in the lead,” The Smart Wife points out. “Men vastly outnumber women in computer programming jobs, making up over 75% of the total pool of programmers in the United States in 2017.
“In the field of robotics and AI, men outnumber women as well. Men comprise between 77 and 83% of the technical positions at Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and General Electric, and just over 63% at Amazon. Men make up 85% of the AI research staff at Facebook, and 90% at Google.
“Likewise in academic environments, more than 80% of AI professors are men, and only 12% of leading AI researchers are women.”
A perception of being replaced by technology
The book not only questions the style of woman that the smart wife represents, but the idea that the duties traditionally performed by a wife – domestic duties, care-giving and sexual gratification – can be replaced by technology.
“Sex robots have some interesting similarities with digital voice assistance,” Dr Strengers says. “They share those servile personalities, and the voice software is quite similar to what’s been developed for voice assistance.”
Sex robots remain a niche market for men. She says most men acquire them “because they want to have some form of a relationship with women, but aren’t able for whatever reason to do that in the real world...It’s not just all about the sex. It’s about having this conversation, this companionship with these dolls.”
Robots are also being developed, particularly in Japan, to provide care for an ageing population. Like housework, caregiving is a low-paid, low-status activity that has traditionally been performed by women.
The technology has appeared at a time when more women are in the workforce, and “less people are available to care for others”, Dr Strengers says.
She’s not proposing that all digital or robot helpers are “terrible and a waste of time” – some programs are useful and innovative. But she does say that they cannot “completely replicate the emotional and social care that a person can provide”.
“How do we, as a society, make sure we have the capability to care for our population across all their different life stages, whether it be children or people who are growing older?” she asks.
While technological fixes have their place, not all problems can be solved by a smart device.
The technology described in The Smart Wife has been developed at the same time as a greater openness towards balancing “the divisions of labour in the home and changing the meaning of masculinity to include caregiving” has emerged in society, Dr Strengers says.
“We're concerned that the introduction of these technologies potentially halts some of that progress.”
The Smart Wife: Why Siri, Alexa and Other Smart Home Devices need a Feminist Reboot is published by MIT Press. Jenny Kennedy is a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University, Melbourne.