12/12/2013 11:10 am ET | Updated Feb 11, 2014

Robots Lactate! Humanoid Robots Make Their Debut

Several months ago, I wrote a piece for the Washington Post's Monkey Cage, where I argued that considerable attention must be paid to the physical design of humanoid robots. I argued that those engineers and roboticists creating humanoid robots should be very carful in the decisions to impart physical characteristics that make the robots appear male or female, as they are ultimately gendering what is ostensibly a gender-neutral object. Gendering humanoid robots sends implicit, and sometimes explicit, messages beyond "this is a male" and this is a "female" robot.

Such messages can range from "this is what an ideal soldier" should look like, or this is "what an ideal female" should look like, or this is merely "ideal." For while some, like Laruen Wilcox, might think that my arguments about the physical characteristics of such robots are nothing more than the feared and decried "essentialism," that is not in fact true. The jobs that these robots are being designed to undertake, or the names that they have been given, speak volumes about the more ambiguous gendered relationships between and within masculinity, femininity, technology and politics. In my piece for the Monkey Cage, I pointed out that two robots in particular, DARPA's Atlas and the U.S. Navy's SAFFiR looked to be "male" due to their broad shoulders and v-shaped torsos. I also wondered whether any roboticist designing a "female" robot would give it one of the most widely seen female physical traits: breasts. Today, I have my answer.

NASA has just unveiled its humanoid robot, Valkyrie, for the upcoming DARPA robotics challenge. In two weeks, challengers will enter their robots into a contest to see if they can complete all of the requisite tests in a chance to win a 34 million dollar award. DARPA's main motivation is to create ground "disaster response" robots, where they are able to "execute complex tasks in dangerous, degraded, human-engineered environments." This challenge is directed to ultimately "advance the key robotic technologies of supervised autonomy, mounted mobility, dismounted mobility, dexterity, strength, and platform endurance," as well as making "ground robot software development [and ground robot systems development] more accessible, and lower software acquisition cost while increasing capability." By NASA's own lights, it designed Valkyrie to win this competition.

Valkyrie, as opposed to her DARPA counterpart, Atlas, has breasts. One might argue that those two convex shapes clearly in the upper region of its torso are not breasts, and thus it is an "it" and not a "she," but this is wishful thinking. Indeed, even her name - Valkyrie - is one of a host of female goddesses in Norse mythology that decide which soldiers will live and which ones will die in battle. Moreover, as Nicholaus Radford of the NASA JSC Dextrous Robotics Lab said in a recent interview with IEEE Spectrum "we really wanted to design the appearance of this robot to be one that when you say it, you'd say, 'Wow. That's awesome." Thus, breasts were on the minds of the makers.

Why? What do breasts have to do with designing a machine to execute complex tasks in dangerous and degraded environments? Breasts are designed to lactate. And, as the title of my previous piece points out: robots don't lactate. The physical embodiment of breasts on Valkyrie thus reifies what a "woman" should look like; however, if her namesake says anything about her potential wartime function, she is a subordinate helper, doing the bidding of her male master.

Lauren Wilcox has charged me with simplifying the issue about sex, gender and robotics, and that in reality "the ties between gender and sexed embodiment maybe even more unstable than a lactating robot would suggest; such a future calls for a critique not of 'robot' bodies as if they are other than our own but a critique about the ways our cyborg bodies are being made and put to use." I whole-heartedly agree with Wilcox's conclusion, just not that I've over simplified things. For we must begin with the first appearance of gendering and essentialism: the body. We must then take a critical stance, and ask about the purpose, the story and the values that this confluence of factors tells. In the case of Valkyrie, she is not a "ridiculous" example I've cited in support of serious questions about the role of humanoid robots in warfighting, but the first "serious" female robot produced for a serious task. That this task is deemed "disaster response" is just a cover- for NASA wants to use her on Mars, and it does not take much skepticism to think that her capabilities could be used on a battlefield. For, as her name suggests, she might well chose who lives and who dies in the future.

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