Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Japan Society for Artificial Intelligence and its "gynoid" servantgirl

Some quarters of the Japanese and overseas media got themselves into a flap recently over the Japan Society for Artificial Intelligence's decision to spice up their rather dry in-house journal with an illustration rather than the usual raw text adorning the cover. Let's have a look at the illustration in question first and see if you can work out what the problem is:

It's an android servant girl with a typically manga-esque sweet, gentle expression, holding a broom in one hand and a book in the other, with a cable plugged into her back. The core issue behind the outcry is the cleaning robot = woman equation that the image seems to suggest, although the fact that it's in the form of a pretty girl with a subservient, submissive expression is a subsidiary but related issue that to some brings to mind a sort of dubious Stepford Wives male/female power dynamic.

First up, let's make clear that the illustration was drawn by a woman. Some people think this is significant, although I'm not so sure. Women are just as capable of expressing and embodying regressive ideas, something to which anyone like me who grew up in Thatcher's Britain should be able to testify. Nevertheless, that fact should be a warning against reading this debate on too much of a superficial level. We're dealing with embedded assumptions here, not something that can be claimed or dismissed without a bit of unravelling.

So let's take a look again at the picture and think a little about what it represents. The interior decor of the room suggests a rural cottage and this is combined with the faintly retro garb the android girl is wearing and the old fashioned broom (not to mention the fact that she's reading a book, which when you think about it would be a pretty pointless activity for an AI brain that could download and digest a book in a matter of seconds) to evoke without directly depicting times past. She is a modern equivalent of the domestic servants of times past, with the man-machine interface replacing the class relationships that lay behind master-servant interactions of the past.

But she's not simply carrying out her function like a robot, she's reading a book, an action symbolic of (if not always synonymous with) learning. She is upgrading her functions independently, and just as education has been posited as a springboard to transcending class boundaries, the image holds out promise of the android girl becoming more than simply a machine.

Now this is an interesting set of signifiers the image is sending off, and I'd hazard that this was the artist's original intention with the work. People dismissing it as a work of straightforward sexism are not giving the artist credit for her ideas and imposing a probably unintended set of meanings on it.

However, that's not the end of the story, much as I suspect a lot of people would like it to be. Look again at the girl's face. She may be demonstrating an independent capacity and willingness to learn and transcend her base functions, but there's nothing overtly threatening in it; her gaze remains blank and inscrutable. There may be some specific intention behind this, but given what a common trope it is in manga and anime depictions of femininity, chances are that the main rationale behind it is simply "because kawaii". This goes for the clothing and decor as well to a certain extent, it builds towards constructing the girl as a fetishistic object of desire, or to put it in otaku terms, it's moé.

Viewed through that prism, we can see how the image has internalised a great deal of the unthinking assumptions of the manga/anime world, most of which are socially and culturally conservative, especially in their depiction of women. There is no reason why the android needed to be depicted as an attractive young girl, but it wasn't a simple coin toss that could have gone wither way: there is no alternative universe where someone with a background in manga/anime fandom wouldn't have depicted a cleaning android as a young woman (a man would have been a butler).

The blank expression suggests a passive nature in contrast with the independent mindedness suggested by the book. In another context, this could set the book as a subversive item, undermining her submissive programming, but in the context of the moé, where (usually feminine) weakness is the key to unlocking fetishistic desire, it's more a statement of, "Aww, it's trying to learn, bless its little cotton socks!"

So context is the problem. In the context of anime or manga, where those sorts of assumptions go unchallenged, this image would be a very effective one. However, in a wider media context, those assumptions can't be relied on. Another Japanese artist, Sputniko! (her exclamation mark, not mine), whose life's work also deals with the interactions between technology and our daily lives, describes the image as, "a gynoid robot with hollow eyes" and noted that, "A black cleaning robot featured on the cover of a US academic journal would cause an uproar."

The reaction to Sputniko!'s comments on Twitter was highly abusive from some, and the anger generated by her criticism suggests that the image does indeed touch on issues of patriarchy and privilege, as well as providing yet more evidence, if any were needed, of the rage with which many people respond to statements that make them question why they are attracted to things that they like. Japan not being a nation that tends to equip its people well for such deconstruction of the semiotics of art and pop cultural images, many people here have responded with bafflement that something so self-evidently cute could ever be a bad thing, and it's hard to say whether that makes the issue less or more of a problem.

Another aspect of context is that the illustration appeared in the context of an academic journal, and it's clear that lots of the criticism from within academic circles has centred not on the gender issues so much as the appropriateness of using a comicbook style illustration on what is supposed to be a serious magazine. It's depressing in a way that even criticism of the work has to come from another side of Japanese conservatism, but in any case, it's important to note what other factors are in play. The poppification of science and academia includes a whole world of discussion all by itself.

So the illustration is an interesting one that I think successfully fills its remit of depicting an issue at the core of AI research and development in an attractive if rather limited way. It does have problematic gender issues though, which are issues inherent in manga and anime culture and reveal a wider problem in the way gender stereotypes are enforced through repetition in aspects of the media, leading to their unquestioning acceptance by many, including perhaps by the artist herself. The fact that the miniature storm over its publication happened at all is really reflective of the problems caused when otaku-dominated images (with their raft of moé signifiers) collide with a world from outside their closed circle of signs and signifiers.

No comments: