Women And Robots, More Than Just A Pretty Face

The sex robot market is expanding, but women must play a core role in the development of all artificial intelligence to avoid a future designed with a male bias.

Service robot ''L2B2''
Who will design the future?
Laurence Devillers


PARIS — They're called Amelia, Nina or Lola. They are as servile as they are receptive.

Female robots are usually made to play subordinate roles: from the welcoming secretary to the amusing girlfriend through to the perfectly submissive sex doll. But the relationship between robotics and women, and more broadly between artificial intelligence and women, raises fundamental questions about the future structure of society.

With AI and Big Data, we try to model behaviors in order to predict them. Used in chatbots on the Internet or embedded in robots to perceive, decide and act, these models often present biases, linked to the choice of data by the engineer. If robots learn on their own from the data they collect unattended, these biases will reflect those of our society.

The roles of women is a prime example of bias. They appear less often than men in movies, in media and academic congresses, and account for far fewer of the world's corporate executives. The shortage of women in information technology and robotics is a particularly sensitive subject: The majority of professionals working for U.S. high-tech giants are white — and male.

If those who teach computers to act like humans are men, robots will reflect men's world view.

Ileana Stigliani, an assistant professor at Imperial College London, says the clear lack of diversity in the AI and IT industries reinforces gender stereotypes. If those who teach computers to act like human beings are all men, then it is very likely that robots and "sex machines' will reflect men's world view.

A market for sex robots, soon able to react and speak, already exists in Japan and is sure to spread everywhere. A group of British scientists launched a campaign in 2015 against the development of these robots, saying they reinforce a false representation of women and encourage prostitution. The magazine H+, in its April-May 2016 edition, recounts the futuristic vision of two New Zealand researchers who forecast that by 2050, Amsterdam's red-light district will be a business of robotized prostitutes, free of sexually transmitted diseases.

These sexual robots will grow increasingly sophisticated. As they improve, will we continue to have sex with humans? Will sleeping with a robot count as cheating? And finally, couldn't falling in love with a machine, which has no desire or feelings of its own, lead to an emotional deficiency?

We must urgently address these core societal questions, and face the risks they pose. But there is also a great potential in AI and robotics, but our approach must be driven by human wisdom and the rules of ethics.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!