A Radical Notion: Feminism and the Figure of the Fembot (Part 2 of 7)

II. Techno-Politics and Gender Politics: Conflict in the Fembot

Artificial Intelligence
Image by Alejandro Zorrilal Cruz via Wikimedia

The question then becomes how our attitudes towards technology inform our attitudes towards gender as seen in the figure of the Fembot in popular science fiction literature. The Fembot is a figure composed of equal parts machine and programmed femininity. In each narrative, the Fembot becomes a site for debate, either between herself and her creator or others around her. The way in which this liminal creature is treated as an ‘intelligent’ or ‘conscious’ machine is dependent upon which theories of computer intelligence the author is drawing from. The topic of machine consciousness has been debated most notably by the likes of Alan Turing and John Searle.

Alan Turing postulated that a machine’s intelligence could be proved by passing what he called “The Imitation Game”, what has since become better known as the “Turing Test”. The original parameters of this test involved a human “interrogator” asking questions of two other subjects that he cannot see or hear. One of these subjects is a human being and the other is a computer. Both are trying to convince the “interrogator” through their answers that they are a certain gender, male or female. Turing postulated that the questions of “‘What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?’ Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman?” successfully replaced and answered the original query of “Can machines think?” If a computer could successfully convince the human “interrogator” that it was a human being of either gender, it had proved its intelligence (Turing).

Since its inception, theorists in the AI, or Artificial Intelligence, field as well as in the humanities have hotly debated the “Turing Test”. Many argue that it takes no intelligence to imitate behavior. They argue that any computer can be programmed to perform a task such as the one described above; doing so does not prove consciousness. While Turing argues that “the polite convention that everyone thinks” should be equally applicable to technology, others like John Searle argue fiercely against it. In his essay Minds, Brains, and Programs Searle postulates that the claim that because one “attribute[s] cognition to other people [one] must in principle also attribute it to computers” is so flawed that it is barely worth refuting. “The problem in this discussion is not about how I know that other people have cognitive states,” Searle argues, “but rather what it is that I am attributing to them when I attribute cognitive states to them…it couldn’t be just computational processes and their output because the computational processes and their output can exist without the cognitive state” (Searle). For Searle, the question is one of intentionality. In his opinion, a computer has no acts that are intentional – they are only the response to pre-programmed stimuli and represent no actual thought. Computers are tools, and as tools they don’t have any intentionality driving the work assigned to them by more mentally advanced beings, namely humans.

It is within this discussion that the link between arguments about machine intelligence and the issue of femininity becomes clearer. Throughout history, philosophers have postulated that the female gender does not have the capacity for independent thought. They have been barred from voting, owning property – they have been so disenfranchised that in fundamental ways they have become property at various points in human history. Like the machine they are a thing to be owned for the benefit of the owner. Private whims and pleasures are inconceivable, unless linked to the pleasing of the ‘master’. I argue that this attitude towards woman was and is at least partially informed by the idea that women, just like the property they are being leveled with, have no intentionality. The very concept that they are incapable of the level of necessary thought to make rational decisions based on relevant data is another way of saying that they lack the ability to direct themselves. It is the exact opposite of Turing’s proposal: if we can’t prove that they think, then it’s safe to assume that they don’t.

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Works Cited

Searle, John R. “Minds, Brains, and Programs.” The Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980. Print.

Turing, A.M. “Computing machinery and intelligence.” Mind, 59, 433-460. 1950

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

13 thoughts on “A Radical Notion: Feminism and the Figure of the Fembot (Part 2 of 7)

  1. This is great stuff! Your exposition is shaping up nicely into a good chapter; can’t wait for the next one.

    The arguments from Searle and Turing are wonderful to think about. From everything that I know about neuroethology, Searle’s words seem so foreign to me, as if he thinks that consciousness is something outside of the response-generating parts of our brains. Intentionality is key; I think that once we can hard-code intentionality to machines then his points will become moot, much like how we’ve proven that intentionality in animal models has a strict neurological underpinning. I need to read up on my Searle, but I’d wager he could learn a thing or two from the world of neurobiology.

    But I’ve never heard these principles applied to gender, and that’s such a fascinating idea – how women were subjugated because of a perceived lack of intentionality…it’s pretty remarkable. Tying this in with the classic idea of an intentionless fembot is an excellent parallel.

    Keep it up!

    1. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the work! I’m having a blast writing it, and researching it. AI is a field of particular interest to me, I find it all fascinating.

      The Fembot is such a rich figure, it’s really fun to go in and pull pieces of her out and look at them under a microscope. She is the epitome of Butler’s Gender Performance and so much more.

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