Corey Mintz is the author of How to Host a Dinner Party.
We’re supposed to at least be ashamed of our legacy of patriarchal oppression, not celebrate it. And yet, the other week, I received a news release about an automated server that will be on display at the RC Show – that’s the Restaurants Canada trade show. Although the show takes place in Toronto starting this weekend, the release seems to have been written in 1955.
“Meet the Waitress Robot. The Waitress Robot can greet, serve and entertain guests, as well as carry loads of up to 33lbs, and you don’t have to worry about her tripping up or complaining about overtime. Her anti-collision and auto re-charge technology will have her working for up to 10 hours non-stop. With a body made of glass fibre, reinforced plastic, acrylic, rubber and steel, this hard-working ‘Robotress’ stands at 5’5” and weighs 121lbs.”
Yep, they’re really calling it a “robotress” and reminding us that, while humanoid, this machine won’t have the labour rights that make employees so troublesome. Not satisfied with reminding buyers that they don’t have to pay it overtime, or anything at all, the release underscores a contempt for employees by also reminding us that the owner won’t have to hear it complain. The only thing missing is a boast that restaurant managers can sexually harass the robot, which will be an interesting and inevitable court case.
Of course we made this robot slave a woman. When creating an artificial being with no will, to serve us food and drinks, it’s absolutely no surprise it would be given a woman’s appearance, voice and name.
This is one of five humanoid service robots made by Autonetics Universe. One is male, one is androgynous. Three are female, including the Lolita Serving Robot (“Lolita is cute and sassy! Her primary function is to serve your needs”); the Amy Plus Marketing Robot (“Amy is a reliable marketing powerhouse who works 10 hour shifts without blinking.” She also costs US$14,999); and the Beauty Service Robot, who is “durable yet ultra-feminine.”
While not yet really used in Canada, it’s only a matter of time. In China, Alibaba Group has incorporated boxy, faceless robots to deliver food inside the diner portion of its automated Hema grocery stores. Restaurants there have been putting robot servers to work (with limited success) for a few years. The slim waist, painted-on apron and neckerchief shows up again on female robot servers in Zhejiang, China; Multan, Pakistan; and Dubai.
This feminization of mechanical helpers is part of a larger gender bias in tech, manifested in artificial intelligence by digital assistants assigned with female voices. Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana, machines we order to turn up the thermostat, order a cab and play music, are all female.
“Feminism, since the 1960s, has had a growing project of disentangling care work from women’s tool kit of responsibilities,” says Judith Taylor, associate professor in the department of sociology at the University of Toronto.
“Capitalism is going to try to accommodate for that absence by creating female-oriented surrogates that are synthetic,” Prof. Taylor says. She sees the robotress, Alexa and sex dolls as all part of the same continuum of private enterprise finding profit in technological surrogacy. "As women are autonomously turning down positions, technology and capitalism are finding ways to replace them.”
Recently, I received an Amazon Echo as a gift. I haven’t opened the box. Partly because I have no faith in its maker’s respect for my privacy (if I’m going to murder someone, I don’t want a record of what time I asked where to buy corpse-sized garbage bags). And partly because I have heard even an 11-year-old yell at Alexa, as though she’s a dog that’s just pooped on the rug. And I don’t want to join the chorus shouting at this imaginary woman, another impatient diner hollering for a refill of his coffee.
At the high end of dining, human interaction and social artistry are too much a part of the show for clunky robots to explain tasting menus or suggest wine pairings. But the fast-food/quick-service end of the restaurant industry, squeezed by increasing costs of food, rent and labour, can’t wait to replace its work force with machines. At Creator, a burger shop in San Francisco, all the cooking is automated. The faceless machine, which resembles a giant sled made of white metal and blonde wood, grinds beef to order, virtually eliminating waste. It also enables product control, by dispensing ketchup by the millilitre and slicing onions right onto the bun – no human error putting too many condiments on a burger at this joint. As soon as this technology can be customized to make burritos, pizzas and salads, goodbye fast-food cooking jobs.
The next frontier is eliminating the people needed to place food in diners’ hands. That’s what the robotress is for. And in Canada, 71.3 per cent of food and beverage servers are women. So it seems an additional cruelty to dress this robot like a woman, while it’s taking hospitality jobs away from women.
We have yet to reckon with the impact of job loss through automation, AI’s replication of racial bias in criminal justice and the threshold for civil rights (ours and theirs) as computer thinking grows more complex. So, while we’re grappling with these big, unavoidable issues, let’s not throw another log on the fire by dressing up service droids as women, reproducing what Prof. Taylor refers to as the nexus of sexualization and food provision.
“If a new generation grows up understanding that you can say anything mean to a female-oriented robot, it encourages people not to see real women as sentient and deserving of respect,” Prof. Taylor warns. “Particularly for children. I don’t want the association of a female-oriented robot without feelings. I don’t think that’s a way forward.”