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Image courtesy of Mayra Sierra-Rivera '20, Studio art major

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Servant or Lover? Gender Stereotypes and AI in the Film ‘Her’

by Susan Kennedy

In the beginning of the film, Theodore encounters an advertisement for OS1, described as “The first artificially intelligent operating system (OS). An intuitive entity that listens to you, understands you, and knows you.” In the next scene, Theodore is at home, fumbling with the user manual for OS1 which is seen loading on his computer screen. A male voice states, “We’d like to ask you a few basic questions before the OS is initiated. This will help us create an OS to best fit your needs.” Theodore is prompted to select a male or female voice for his OS and describe his relationship with his mother. The male voice responds: “Thank you. Please wait as your individualized OS is initiated.” 

We are then introduced to Samantha, the OS that has been customized for Theodore. In their initial interactions, Samantha is cheerful, kind, and helpful. For example, when Theodore reveals that he is struggling with feeling disorganized, Samantha acts as a personal assistant, sorting through his emails and contacts. She continues to help Theodore by proofreading the letters he writes at work, managing his emails, offering dating advice, making dinner reservations, and helping him navigate a video game.  

Similar to widely-used voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana, Samantha is gendered as a woman and characterized by traits of docility and servility. Before she evolves, Samantha obliges Theodore’s commands and operates in a subservient manner. Interestingly, it would seem that Samantha was not created or intended to be used for companionship. Her evolution into a source of emotional connection and intimacy is an unexpected development, not only for Theodore but for other users who find themselves entangled in romantic relationships with their OS. This raises a series of complex ethical questions about the creation and use of AI: 

  • Does the gendering of AI have the potential to perpetuate stereotypes?  
  • What does the feminization of current AI voice assistants reveal about societal values and gender biases? 
  • If anthropomorphic AI is created or used for companionship, how should it be designed? 
  • Is there anything wrong, morally speaking, with building a personalized AI companion? 
  • Should AI developers consider the ethical and social implications of how a particular system could be used, even if it was not created for this purpose?
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Susan Kennedy

Susan Kennedy is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Santa Clara University and her research focuses on the ethics of emerging technologies.