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The Cyborg, the Surrogate, & the Future of Gender in Robotics

An examination of Donna Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto" and Andy Clark's "Natural-Born Cyborgs" in relation to robotics and popular culture today.
by Kate Elliott on 12 February 2011

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Transcript of The Cyborg, the Surrogate, & the Future of Gender in Robotics

The Cyborg, the Surrogate & the Future of Gender in Robotics
“A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (Haraway 149)
“The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation” (Haraway 150). “The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self. This is the self feminists must code” (Haraway 163).
“Our bodies, ourselves; bodies are maps of power and identity. Cyborgs are no exception. A cyborg body is not innocent; it was not born in a garden…it takes irony for granted” (Haraway 180).

“Cyborgs might consider some more seriously the partial, fluid, sometimes aspect of sex and sexual embodiment. Gender might not be global identity after all, even if it has profound historical breadth and depth” (Haraway 180).
Here, I have created what in film would be called a crosscut sequence. In other words, I have cross-composed text and visuals; snip bits of Donna Haraway’s "A Cyborg Manifesto" intertwined with images from the film, "Surrogates." I have presented, in one way or another, exactly what Haraway would call against— gendered images of an obvious distinction between the real and the unreal, the natural and the artificial. They are detailed representations of the gender binary; even robotic men have thicker, “stronger” spines than women. However, they represent a mixture of human and technology, lending themselves to Haraway’s boundary breakdown between organism and machine, and even more so, to Andy Clark’s concept of “natural-born cyborgs.” As Clark suggests the plasticity of the human mind and the idea of technology as an extension of the self, "Surrogates", on the other hand, demonstrates the potential harm this capability can cause. Though technology seeks to achieve what humans cannot, it also seeks to correct human “flaws,” creating even further a want for dualities and a normalization of those who do not appear to "belong." "Robotic human surrogates combine the durability of a machine with the grace and beauty of the human body" Set in a futuristic world, Jonathon Mostow’s Surrogates portrays a society in which humans live in isolation and interact solely through robotic surrogates. The humans lie in a chair and connect themselves through a device that disables their own actions, which then awakens the surrogate. The surrogates are believed to lead a better, more “real” life than human life itself. They “combine the durability of a machine with the grace and beauty of the human body.” Sounds like Haraway’s cyborgs, no? A Cyborg Manifesto uses the metaphor of a “cyborg” rather than “surrogate” in order to construct "an ironic political myth" that is “a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction (149). Unlike the surrogates, this “cybernetic organism” moves beyond the limitations of the gender binary in a society that functions without categories. Furthermore, the word “surrogate” suggests the removal, or the taking place, of another. “Cyborg,” on the other hand, suggests a combination of one with the other. Andy Clark describes this as “human machine integration” which enables wire-tapping of the brain to control robotic limbs (120). Similar to the humans’ connection with the surrogates in the film, performance artist Stelarc extends “his own nervous system into nonbiological space, while allowing other people’s nervous systems to invade, manipulate, and parasitize aspects of his biological body” (118). The brain and the apparatus are in a mutual conversation that enables voluntary responses. The apparatus voluntarily responds to the brain’s actions and thus, Stelarc has a Third Hand. Stelarc displays technology as a modem of human development, an extension of what we are already capable of. It is not a complete replacement of human abilities, nor is it more capable than humans themselves. Technology is active, and this activity makes it “less like tools and more like part of the mental apparatus” (Clark 7). However, the more we actively interact with technology, the more desire there seems to be to humanize it—to make it not only an extension of ourselves, but to recreate what it means to be “human” altogether. For example, a group of researchers in Japan have developed an eerily realistic robot called the Actroid F telepresence robot. The Actroid F can speak in one’s place, using webcams to watch and mimic one’s facial expressions and movements. Ultimately, it enables the power of “tele-physically” being in two places at once. Instead of one’s parents having to look at a screen when videochatting to see their son or daughter, they could have their child’s tele-present Actroid-self sitting on the living room couch. So, what does this all say about the future of gender? R
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S As an article from Technology Review is titled, “Sure, they're only machines. But the more they interact with us humans, the more important their apparent gender becomes.” The next step in robot development: robot sex. It is only natural for humans to want to humanize machinery. Our brains “are primed to seek and consummate…intimate relations with nonbiological resources” (Clark 6); we are primed to socialize. Most of us may be unaware just how often we assign gender to our “nonbiological resources.” Think of a car, for example. “Her brakes aren’t so great today.” Or, perhaps naming one’s computer, or iPod. The article provides the example of “his & her” domestic robots found in the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog. Naming is a human ritual that, either consciously or subconsciously, attributes a gender. Disney Channel’s movie, Smart House, for example, demonstrates the human abilities and characteristics of technology. A house that does everything on its own, the Smart House takes on the role of the mother for a single dad and his two children. The house comes with a cyber housemaid named PAT or Personal Applied Technology. PAT becomes so real to the family and develops such human emotions that she manifests herself in human form. Though a Disney movie, the manifestation of PAT gives insight into the human need to attribute gender to technology. As Robert Doornick, International Robotics' president and CEO, says, giving our technologies a gender “‘is an essential part of how human beings can choose to be entertained and amused by the machines they will co-habit with.’” When robots become our partners, when they share the same space as us, attributing a “’gender is more or less a choice that (is made by the people) that these robots will cohabit with.’" T
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