How Martine Rothblatt inspired (non)-gender robots

Jewish millionaire futurist Martine Rothblatt is often described as “transgender” even though she self-identifies as transhumanist. This may seem a minor distinction, but when you’re rich enough to commission an artificially intelligent robot version of your wife and loose yourself from the constrictions of biology, it’s not a minor distinction at all.

Rothblatt contextualizes her sexuality with technology rather than historical gender roles because that makes more sense to her.

“There are five billion people in the world and five billion unique sexual identities,” Rothblatt writes in The Apartheid of Sex. “Genitals are as irrelevant to one’s role in society as skin tone.”

While society hasn’t caught up to Rothblatt, some of what she says sounds far less radical then it once did. It’s increasingly understood that someone’s biological sex and their gender are different; that gender is less of a binary concept with ‘male’ and ‘female’ standing sentry on either end and more an interrelationship between biology, internal sense of self, and outward expression of personal perception. But while humans as a whole are slowly coming to accept these terms, technological gender expression hasn’t really become part of the broader conversation. And this is why Rothblatt is such an important voice: We need to talk about robots.

Over the last two decades, the majority of humanoid robots have been gendered in a binary feminine or masculine way. A humanoid in this sense is a robot that resembles a human — it has arms, legs, a torso and a head — and either is explicitly designed to look like a human or has an obvious resemblance to the human form. Even if the robot doesn’t look like Gigolo Joe doesn’t mean it’s not shaped into a form that triggers the human brain to see it as male or female; broad straight shoulders or soft almond-shaped eyes. Robots don’t need a gender to exist, yet the fact that they are continuously gendered remains.

And because robots are robots, this is entirely because of humans.

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