research * the future * culture

How do you know if a robot is female?

Recently, Feminist Frequency recommended vN to its Twitter feed, which caused one follower to ask: “Interesting, how do you know when a self replicating robot is female?”

I had to think about this for a second. Or, more accurately, I had to re-enter the headspace I inhabited when I wrote early drafts of vN. The female characters who had inspired me to write Amy, like Motoko Kusanagi and Rei Ayanami, were unquestionably female. Not because they were chromosomally female (both are, although each has altered DNA). Not because they menstruated (neither did). Not because they reproduced (neither did, although there are multiple copies of Rei floating around, and you could make an argument for Kusanagi and the Puppet Master). Not because they had female sex organs (we’re not really sure they do). But they do look like conventionally-attractive women, and they have traditionally feminine names. And, more importantly, everyone around them treats them like women, and they accept that treatment.

You’re a woman when the world treats you like a woman. You’re a woman when you accept and continue that narrative about yourself.

I mention this because it was the same thought process I went through regarding the perception of sentience, sapience, and “humanity” for the vN. You would be a person when other people treated you like one. You would be considered self-aware when others’ theory-of-mind allowed you to be. It was entirely discursive, because the only other alternative was proving a negative. This is why I mentioned The Velveteen Rabbit in interviews, and referenced it in iD. Because it’s another’s love and respect and regard that makes you “real.” It’s another’s treatment of you that shapes you as a subject. You’re not a human being until the culture allows you to be one.

Maybe I just took this little Heritage Minute too much to heart:

It’s hard to imagine a time when women were not considered, legally, to be “people.” But just as there was once a “Oh, look, it thinks it’s people!” attitude to women (and other minorities), it’s not hard to imagine a similar time for humanoids — where no matter how good they were, how incapable of harm, how well they performed humanity, they’d still be regarded and treated as other, as uncanny, as unreal.

You know. Until the uprising.

  • Madeline Ashby… a science fiction writer, futurist, speaker, and immigrant living in Toronto. She writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and Jason Richman at UTA. You can buy her books here.

    She has worked with Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, The Atlantic Council, the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination, and others. Her short fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her other essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity,, MISC Magazine, FutureNow, and elsewhere.

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    Madeline Ashby's books on Goodreads
    vN vN (The Machine Dynasty, #1)
    reviews: 342
    ratings: 2160 (avg rating 3.43)

    Company Town Company Town
    reviews: 232
    ratings: 1217 (avg rating 3.68)

    iD iD (The Machine Dynasty, #2)
    reviews: 73
    ratings: 439 (avg rating 3.66)

    Social Services Social Services
    reviews: 3
    ratings: 10 (avg rating 3.50)

    A Clock Stopped A Clock Stopped
    reviews: 2
    ratings: 5 (avg rating 4.20)

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  • Madeline 's bookshelf: read

    Designing for Interaction: Creating Innovative Applications and Devices (2nd Edition)Super Natural Cooking: Five Delicious Ways: To Incorporate Whole & Natural Ingredients into Your CookingGluten-Free Girl and the ChefPeople Crossing Borders: An Analysis of U.S. Border Protection PoliciesHalf the Day Is NightThe Magicians

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