There's a new brand of supermodel in town, and, good news for the fashion industry, hunger-fuelled temper tantrums aren't part of her coding. It's the HRP-4C fembot, who made her entrance down the catwalk at Tokyo Fashion Week last month.
"She" is still perfecting her snooty strut, but that didn't stop her from showing off all the right moves, stopping in front of the audience to utter a few words in soft-spoken Japanese and then bowing daintily, her hands demurely folding and then unfolding in front of her in a move my childhood ballet teachers would have been proud of.
A bold step forward for humanity? Not so much. If the thought of a machine modeling clothes and telling us how to dress and look isn't frightening enough, consider what the scene of the debut indicates about how this technology is viewed, and what we think of when we imagine the possibilities of artificial intelligence. In the 90s, feminist theorists like Donna Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto" grabbed onto the notion of the fembot for its endless possibilities in propelling women away from gender restrictions. But now that we're one step closer to that future, what we've actually created is an opportunity to further enslave ourselves to the worst of our instincts when it comes to gender.
If you're not convinced, check out the comment thread on popular tech blog Gizmodo, on a post about the Actroid. The Actroid is the HRP-4C's counterpart, and debuted, complete with knee-high fuck me boots, several years ago. The comments veer between a twisted version of Vagina dentata and good, old-fashioned sexism:
"Doesn't anyone else here invision the "actroid" above ripping out the heart of her middle aged male victim while simultaneously squeezing his nether-regions to a pulp with her powerful vice-grip robot vagina?"
"I'm not interested until we're sure she's 'anatomically correct,' has programmable fantasies to act out and a switch to turn her off aftwerwards. Wait, make that: a switch to turn her off after she brings me a beer aftwerwards. There'd be no more need for girlfriends, let alone wifes!"
And my personal favourite, "I would definately porkFRIEDrice her."
Thanks boys. Because what's not to love here—the vacant eyes, the pumped up eyelashes, the coquettishly open mouth ready for, ahem, action, and the subservient attitude, shared by both these sisters in tech?
Oddly, the HRP-4C's inventors seem to think they're doing us a favour. Those exaggerated feminine features are meant to mimic manga characters: "If we had made the robot too similar to a real human, it would have been uncanny," quotes one article. Really? I'm having trouble seeing how this isn't already uncanny. She's even been slimmed down from her original dimensions to a more appealing 5"2, 95-lb figure. (All this, incidentally, while international catwalks debate banning overly thin models.)
Despite the catwalk debut, Japan's robotics industry is focused on more practical applications in the future, such as looking after the country's growing elderly population, a legitimate social problem. And who wouldn't want a kindly female hand to soothe them through their final years, rather than a clunky, metal robot? Meanwhile, the Actroid and similar variations teaches, gives directions at conventions, and fills in for reception duty. As tech blog Engadget noted, the HRP-4C's "main purpose is entertainment and to attract crowds much like its fleshy counterparts." And we all know that's been a winning formula for women everywhere. If competing with real models and airbrushed celebrity magazine covers isn't enough, we now have the spectre of a woman conjured into reality on the assembly line, made to spec, and with the promise of an endless supply of replicas to look forward to.
Personally, I prefer the techno future à la Battlestar Galactica, with its female robots—aka Cylons—who are apt to launch inter-species civil war, blow themselves up on suicide missions or network themselves into a computer to save humanity, all in a day's work. Ironically, Battlestar ended its four-season run the same week as our supermodel fembot debuted, with a montage of news clips depicting recent attempts at artificial intelligence. Of the examples they showed, three were typically robotic-looking machines, such as the QRIO (aka the Sony Dream Robot). But the last clip was the Actroid, more fembot than robot. The message was clear—this way lies danger, in case you haven't been paying attention for the last four seasons. But it missed a key difference between robot and fembot. "She" is not quite the gender-blind future world of Battlestar, which has been lauded for its strong human and Cylon female characters. It's a point that was overlooked in post-show commentary, which was generally heavily critical for the overly obvious messaging in that montage. But it also reinforces the sense that there's nothing unusual about fembots, and that gender is a non-issue when it comes to the future of artificial intelligence.
The only feminine duty the fembot is not quite up to yet is sex (was that a collective groan of disappointment from the Gizmodo comment forum?). Question: can a fembot get or give an STD? Can "she" get knocked up? The possibility of sex without consequences is a staple of male fantasy, but for now, men will have to stick to the blow-up doll. So far, we seem to be putting our best efforts in this field towards creating an idealized Eve, complete with (almost) all the requisite feminine skills. Think this fembot will sass back the next time you ask her to grab you a cold one from the fridge? Don't worry, only in your nightmares, boys.