Emotional labour for AI

A couple of days ago a realisation suddenly popped into my head. Both of the engineers who were responsible for KITT in the original 1982 Knight Rider were women: Bonnie Barstow (Patricia McPherson) and April Curtis (Rebecca Holden). And I thought “wow how progressive” and then I realised that those women were essentially KITT’s care givers. His moms. While they were responsible for his technical upkeep, they also were responsible for his emotional well-being.

Bonnie Barstow at work on KITT in Knight RiderBonnie Barstow at work on KITT in Knight Rider

They performed emotional labour for an AI.

Science fiction was not really being progressive here. I think there was the simple realisation that AI would require emotional care and attention. Having male characters perform this role would have felt weird to mainstream (malestream?) audiences because of society’s expectation of these responsibilities being feminine.

I recalled Dr. Susan Calvin from Isaac Asimov’s Robot stories (and the Will Smith I, Robot movie). She was a “robopsychologist”, responsible for figuring out anomalous behaviour of the robots in the stories. While she is technically skilled, it is her ability to understand the behaviour of the robots which is valuable.

I thought about HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are no real female characters in this film at all … a film in which one of the main characters is an AI that has an emotional break.

Dr. Frank Poole (played by Gary Lockwood) playing chess against HAL in 2001 A Space OdysseyDr. Frank Poole (played by Gary Lockwood) playing chess against HAL in 2001 A Space Odyssey

In the sequel 2010: The Year We Make Contact, Dr Chandra is responsible for getting HAL back online and understanding his behaviour. Although male, his character definitely can be read in a feminine fashion and he is largely treated as an outsider by his more “manly American” colleagues in the film. Dr Chandra could easily have been played by a woman.

So in the real world, in a society in which people are raised to believe that care-giving and emotional labour are “female” responsibilities, I wonder what will happen to the largely male-dominated field of software and AI engineering when we actually achieve self-aware sentient AI. I could imagine a few generations of emotionally stunted AI before women begin to dominate the field.

Will AI engineering become “women’s work”?

Will we end up with an situation like in librarianship, female dominated at the rank and file but with senior positions almost entirely occupied by men?