The debate about gender and bots is one that doesn’t look like it will die down anytime soon. The hard reality is that bots are here to stay, and the sooner we acknowledge the pervasiveness they will have in normal people’s daily lives, the faster we realize that the conversations we are having about gender and bots right now are very necessary and will potentially augment social reality for future generations.
This question (and its sub-questions) in particular comes up a lot in these conversations: What is a gender-neutral bot and what would it be like? How can you build a gender-neutral bot anyway?
I have no gender
An easy way to answer this question would be to simply point out the many different companies (such as Kasisto and Kip) that have successfully created gender-neutral bots, and the many more who are in the midst of developing them. It is clear that it is possible. Critics however are then quick to point out that gender-neutrality strips bots of their identity, because like humans, gender forms a big part of our/their core identity. Some grumble that yet again, the incessant need to be progressive in issues of diversity has made a mountain out of a molehill and forcibly removed what bits of humanity that would have made bots relatable to us. This is where, I feel, the real debate and hard truths about the long-held worldviews many of us have reveals itself.
To many people, the gender-neutral bot that is relatable to humans is an anomaly, not because they think it’s technically difficult to build one (most of us are not coders, let’s be honest.) but because it is hard for many to wrap their minds around the idea that human qualities are in fact, inherently gender-neutral. In reality, gender-neutral bots are far from devoid of relatable identities. Often, they are given personality traits that are dependent on the tasks and interactions they are designed to have with users. Customer service gender-neutral bots are friendly, patient and inquisitive for example. They are just not assigned a default gender.
Empower users to choose gender
The pervasiveness of gender-neutral bots into the general ‘community of bots’ is an important development. It gives people an opportunity to rethink these associative traits, whether they like it or not.
Breaking generations of social conditioning that have always tagged traits with gender though does not happen overnight. Take for example Kip, the virtual assistant on Slack and Facebook Messenger that assists teams with purchases. The team purposely decided to choose an animal to represent their bot, but found that people assign genders to animals too, perhaps based on gender-trait associations already embedded from years of such social conditioning (E.g. bears are male, and rabbits as female). Nonetheless, empowering users to choose the gender of their bots is a great first step in the right direction because it forces users to think about gender. It also forces developers to focus on building bots with personalities that are professional and personable, instead of ones that rely on cheap flirts to relate to users.
The tech industry cannot change the world alone
While the tech industry indeed has an important role to play in ensuring diversity is promoted through its products, it is also clear that especially in the case of gender and bots, our society still needs to unlearn generations of gender-trait associations in the everyday before we can truly see these developments reflected in the bots people choose. It is a big task, but just the fact that we are already having these conversations inspired by the gender-neutral bot is a testament that perhaps we have started to understand gender-neutrality.
Aisha Schnellmann is a Singaporean sociology graduate living in Zurich. A communications expert in development and sustainability topics, she is a storyteller by trade and is interested in digital healthcare, diversity, sustainability, environment and humans. She is currently the community catalyst at Healthinar, leading its “Diversity in tech” initiative.