June 05, 2015      

Where are the females?

The DARPA Robotics Challenge ?Finals? 2015 is going on this weekend in Pomona, CA, and of the 444 robot builders representing 24 robot entrants only 23 builders are women. ?An alarming 94.8 percent of the participants are men,? says the Washington Post.

In fact, eleven of the 24 teams are made up entirely of men. The University of Tokyo, for example, has 43 members and zero women.

One of those all-male teams, Carnegie Mellon?s team TARTAN (with 23 members), hails from a world-renowned robotics university where, according to startclass.com, there are over 12,000 students (nearly six thousand are undergrads) sporting a male/female gender diversity of 63 percent to 37 percent.

Not even a token female on a robotics team from a school with over 4,000 women? Could that be a problem? Even NASCAR pit crews now have women tossing around 60-pound tires. But that?s about flashy race cars, and they?re wildly appealing to both men and women.

Should human interaction with robots be more balanced?

When it comes to robots, might a large part of the problem center around the fact that robots are too male looking and acting, which might not appeal to women? Is the DARPA Challenge the problem in microcosm?


Sure, we are all well aware that the challenge is all about disaster robots and the manly pursuit of dealing with catastrophe. Therefore, the rationale for all of the DARPA Challenge robots sporting a lineage with looks that appear to descend from those of Chappie might seem appropriate

However, being ?too male? might well be a telltale sign as to why there are too few working women whose careers are that of roboticist, as well as a sign as to why too few female undergrads seek a vocation in robotics.

Male builders of anything, generally speaking, build manly-looking things and build them in a manly manner with manly-looking tools. For women, all this maleness might be a huge turnoff. To wit, females avoid robotics.

That may be a little too convenient to explain any female aversion to signing up for a life of robotics, but there?s a lot of validity to it as well.

If then males build maleness into their machines?consciously or subconsciously?what would a team of 20-odd females build into theirs? Probably, femaleness. More importantly, if such femaleness were as popular and pervasive as maleness in robots, would that femaleness draw in more women into robotics?

Robots as heroines

Slate?s Laura Dattaro took a closer look at gender in robots with her Bot Looks Like a Lady: Should robots have gender? and came away with some interesting insights.

She made a stop at NASA where two robots have been built that were planned as non-male: one was Robonaut, intended as a gender-neutral machine; the other was the $3-million Valkyrie, purposely built as a ?strong, utilitarian female robot.?

Valkyrie, which came in tied for last place in the DARPA prelims, had a 35-person team that included five females.

Nicholas Radford, the former NASA roboticist and lead engineer for both Robonaut and Valkyrie said: ?People inevitably would assign a gender to the robot,? and 99 out of 100 times refer to either of the robots with a ?he? pronoun.

?Gender is a deeply fundamental part of how people understand and respond to one-another,? wrote Cynthia Breazeal, MIT professor as well as founder and chief scientist at Jibo, manufacturer of the personal/home robot by the same name.

In her Persuasive Robotics: The Influence of Robot Gender on Human Behavior, she makes a case for gender in robots: ?Though its role in persuasion is complex and in some ways evolving, it is clear that if we are to introduce robots into our social environment, we must consider gender and its implications in that process.?

Implications that Dattaro also takes up: ?In the not-too-distant future, robots will be social beings upon which we can heap all kinds of preexisting social constructs. Already, robots are helping with tasks like caring for the elderly and teaching?both fields traditionally associated with women.

?Research on human-robot interactions is revealing that gender plays a big role in how people perceive, communicate with, and treat robots, much like it does with humans. And a lot of what we?re bringing over to our technological companions of the future is old, tired stereotypes.?

Will females associating with female robots be more or less disposed to take up the life of a roboticist?

The answer appears to be ?more? disposed, yet it also appears that it will take more female robots getting built and then appearing on big stages like the DARPA Challenge to really push things over the top.

When social robots rule


One female who has followed that trajectory is Georgia Tech?s Andrea Thomaz, a Popular Science Brilliant 10 in 2012. So where did Thomaz hang her roboticist?s hat: she directs Tech?s Socially Intelligent Machines Lab., with her decidedly female-friendly robot, Curi.

The more women that enter the field, the more chances there are for heroines to appear and female mentoring to take hold. Women like Google?s Leila Takayama, who mentored Steffi Paepcke, now co-founder and Lead UX Designer at the Open Source Robotics Foundation.

?Without a doubt, it was my experience as Leila?s research assistant, her advice and encouragement, and the challenges she emboldened me to take on, that opened my eyes to how I could make a place for myself in the world of robotics.?

Of course, with so few women in robotics today, finding a Leila Takayama or an Andrea Thomaz can be downright impossible.

More female robots could be a mighty help in that direction says Radford. He sees Valkyrie?s gender as ?a big opportunity to reach out to the women and girls who could one day build their own robots.?

As proof, he points to one person he knows who particularly appreciated Valkyrie: his 7-year-old-daughter. ?She absolutely was in love with this robot,? Radford says. ?It was a major source of inspiration for her. She talked about it all the time. She drew pictures of Valkyrie.?

If enough female robots are built and enough little girls find heroines in them, future DARPA Challenges may one day look a lot different than they do today.