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Artificial Eve: The Modernist Origins of AI's Gender Problem

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Two images, two women, two centuries: one black-and-white, the second in color. The first is a still of Maria from Fritz Lang’s famous 1926 film Metropolis (Fig. 1). Made in the Weimar Republic, Metropolis is set in a future dystopia in which Freder, the son of the wealthy City Master, joins forces with Maria, a saintly figure amongst the industrial workers, to overcome the gulf separating the classes. His father, the City Master, catches wind of the rebellion and orders an inventor, Rotwang, to transform a robot into Maria’s likeness to ruin her reputation amongst the workers. Rotwang kidnaps Maria, transfers her likeness to the robot, and Robot-Maria subsequently unleashes chaos throughout Metropolis. Fast-forward 90 years, and we see a photo of Sophia, an invention of Hanson Robotics and the first robot in the world to be granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia in 2017 (Fig. 2). Sophia holds eye contact, makes jokes, and expresses feelings. Like the model Maria, she manifests the ideal aesthetic of a white Caucasian woman. Matters of good and evil aside, the continuity in feminised robots from 1927 to 2017 is uncanny. While Robotic Maria is a deceptive and seductive machine, Sophia is meant to be a productive and pleasant member of society like Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant. My subject is “Artificial Eve,” representations of artificial intelligence starting in the nineteenth century that, I argue, form the basis for our relationship with artificial narrow intelligence—AI that is limited to specific tasks—in comparison to artificial general intelligence (AGI), the popular conception of a future super-intelligence created by humans.



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Discourse (Detroit, 1979): journal for theoretical studies in media and culture

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Pembroke College, University of Cambridge