IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - December 2019 - 12

first substantive theme, caring, Rhee
acknowledges that "Artificial intelligence and care labor, a feminized
and routinely undervalued form of
labor, have been entangled since
AI's earliest days." Specifically, she
takes up three primary exemplars
of AI-based caring labor, starting
with Joseph Weizenbaum's AI therapist ELIZA, the character of Helen
in Richard Powers' novel Galatea
2.2 and that of Samantha (voiced
by the actress Scarlett Johansson)
in the film Her. These share a common theme: the devaluation of care
labor and the debasement, if not
erasure, of those who carry it out.
In the interest of a broad-based critique, free from the essentialisms
that Rhee believes limits other work
of this type, she is keen to demonstrate that gender is not the only
concept that shines a light on what
is going on in these examples. To
demonstrate this, Rhee describes
the play of race, particularly the
association of caring labor through
AI, with whiteness. When it comes
to the generalized caring voice that
will be heard by millions, companies turn to the "superior" white
voice. She also insists that capitalism, particularly the process of
commodifying human relationships,
sets limits on the entire practice of
caring labor. With that said, Rhee's
is largely a gendered perspective,
best captured in the distinction she
makes between the caring functions
of female-voiced digital assistants,
including Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa, and the authoritative,
rational, expertise of the distinctly
male Watson, IBM's chessplaying,
Jeopardy!-winning, entry in the race
to AI supremacy.
Moving from the theme of caring to thinking, The Robotic Imaginary takes up the relationship of
AI to domestic labor. Following the
research of Paul Edwards on computers and the Cold War, Rhee views

12

ford franchise has not seen a new
addition since 2004, but it lives on
in films like Ex Machina where the
mad scientist creates Ava, the ideal
white female robot for the male gaze.
All falls apart, however, as Ava rebels, but at the expense of Asian and
black female robots whose abuse,
enslavement, and death make Ava's
liberation possible. Rhee also points
to Jennifer Egan's short story "Black
Box" in which female robots are
created to seduce the enemy into
divulging state secrets. As with The
Stepford Wives and Ex Machina, the
outcome is a messy one that reveals
both the humanity and the vulnerability of robots equipped with AI,
particularly those that display feminine tropes.
Rhee aims to find space in The
Robotic Imaginary for emotional
labor, the work of feeling, which
follows caring and thinking labor
as her third central theme. With so
much attention directed to robots
as thinking performers that carry
out logically specified tasks, AI is,
in her view, much too closely identified with this narrow band of activity, typically associated with men.
She lays a foundation for this point
by addressing the significant turn in
scholarship, marked by a series of
books from the 1990s, that argued
for the essential unity of thinking
and feeling. Led by the work of
Bruno Latour (We Have Never Been
Modern), Antonio Damasio (Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and
the Brain), and Donna Haraway
(A Cyborg Manifesto), biologists,
psychologists, and science studies scholars challenged the mindbody distinction. This led to studies
of emotional intelligence and the
creation of new "sociable" robots,
for example Kismet and Leonardo,
which were designed as emotional
supports and sympathetic help ers to those in need of expressive
care. While many of the studies that

AI historically, as inscribed within
a closed world view: "symbolic AI
represented the world as contained,
highly simplified, and impervious to
outside forces and realities." Intelligence came to be rigidly described
as the ability to carry out mathematical operations. Building robots
based on the capacity to carry out
logical operations severely limited
what they could do, as her description of one of the first "spy" robots,
Shakey, whose funding was pulled
by DARPA once the agency recognized its severely restricted ca pabilities. The problem wasn't just
limited computing power, but an operational model that set aside "nonnormative and unfamiliar modes of
knowing and inhabiting the world."
For Rhee, the cultural icon for a dystopian vision of robotics, one that
embodied rigid gender stereotypes,
is The Stepford Wives. Brought to life
in a 1972 novel (the same year that
the Pentagon dumped Shakey), The
Stepford Wives achieved widespread
recognition in a 1975 film. It was
also turned into several made-fortelevision movies and was remade
in a 2004 film starring Nicole Kidman. The Stepford Wives depicts
the closed worldview of postwar
America where men wanted their
women to be beautiful, mindless,
docile, and happy to be living in the
sterile suburbs. The ghoulish plot
sees their husbands resorting to
murder when the wives fall short of
perfection. Ultimately, their "flawed"
partners are replaced with robots
that precisely embody the values
men cherish.
The variety of remakes alter the
plot over time, but the essence of
the satire, how robotics can give a
man the stereotypical partner of his
desires, remains. For Rhee, thinking labor comes to be enclosed in
a narrow world that provides some
comfort and satisfaction, but little in
the way of genuine growth. The StepIEEE TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY MAGAZINE

∕

DECEMBER 2019



IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - December 2019

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