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R2-D2 is a Dude, Right? And Other Musings On Gender And Technology

By Lord Castleton | Think Pieces | June 5, 2015 |


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The world is rife with the imagery of a future of technological immortality that we’re almost close enough to touch. The Ex Machina’s of the world just don’t seem that far away anymore.

Take the body itself. Scientists first figured out how to grow prosthetic ears on the back of mice …

…and then moved to a more complex method of using a 3D wire array, but we’re growing ears successfully. How long before we have the capability to grow limbs and organs and brains?

And how long will it be before you can upload your consciousness to a computer, and then download it into a new, younger lab-grown body?

Last week an Israeli professor made a comment that sounded a little like Elysium to me. He said:

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That doesn’t sound all that crazy to me. That’s something I nod my head to and say “yeah, sounds about right.” When low income characters from sci-fi movies would replace an organic arm for a mechanical one so they would be more efficient as a worker, I would say “yeah, sounds about right.” When characters would have their vocal cords augmented for leadership or diplomacy or sensuality I would say “yeah, sounds about right.” And if you tell me, as that professor claims, that the cybernetic advances will be limited to the ultra-wealthy, well that sounds the most correct of all.

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I grew up in a world of New England private boarding schools and let me tell you, an incubatory Elysium has been happening for centuries. Look at this graph. That 1 percent line is like a joke. This looks like a joke graph.

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And physical augmentation? That happens every day. Plastic surgery, implants, spray tans, hip replacements, pacemakers. Have you used a Crest Whitestrip? Congrats, you’re part of the world using technology to alter their physical structure or appearance. That’s old news. Only the level of technology is what’s changed. Just look at the difference between prosthetic legs now as opposed to the post World War II era. People had peg legs back then. Like Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of rum style. Now, there’s a valid conversation about the advantage that athletes with prosthetics have. It’s amazing how far we’ve come in a relatively short period of time.

No, I completely buy the rich vs poor part of it, and I buy the augmentation part of it. It’s the two-hundred year timeline that feels new.

But is it even that long? Everything may even be closer than most of us realize.

Read this great article at Wait But Why on the artificial intelligence revolution when you get a chance. You’ll see why we may be right on the cusp of a vast technological AI explosion.

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But all of that was just a lead in for the big question: which is whether or not R2-D2 is a male. A dude. An hombre.

See, I’ve always just seen him that way. Is that wrong? Him and C3PO just always seemed like a couple of dude robots hanging out together. If R2 was a female, would that change the dynamic? Moreover, does it matter?

How is gender identified in a cybernetic/robotic/computer entity designed (or self-designed) without reproductive organs or gender-relative identifiers? Is gender something a more advanced species will ultimately evolve out of?

The illustrious Brian Byrd of Pajiba fame enjoys poking fun at me for including a “gender” column in the Pajiba Favorite Five at all. How troglodytic of me to reduce a character to something as archaic as gender tag. Pish posh! For me, I just like more data. It was an additional piece of information I could get for the price of the time it took me to google shit I didn’t know. That’s it. And now I have a new data point. To me it’s interesting if we do the Pajiba favorite five and the top ten characters are all men. That says something about us (if that’s true). It says something about society. Likewise, the opposite may be true. It’s a talking point. It’s something to discuss on these boards that I’ve come to feel very fond of over the last several years.

So, when I was compiling the list, I ran into some interesting gender choices. GLaDOS from the video game Portal and Portal 2, for example. Like R2, that’s a robot. A droid. A silicon based life form. But does that make her/him/it genderless? In my estimation, no. Because GLaDOS has a computerized female voice. I think she’s meant to be a girl.

Likewise, HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Oddyssey. That’s another version of self-aware computer. In this case, HAL has a male voice and I’ve always considered him male, even though he’s just a computer, and could just as easily have had a female voice.

Would that have changed anything in the film? Can you hear the female “just what do you think you are doing, Dave?” in your head without it changing the meaning? Does the fact that a biological male character is transgressing against a ‘female’ life form add an additional layer of invasion to the scene, especially in light of the recent Game of Thrones backlash and yesterday’s George R.R. Martin “explanation?”

I don’t know, truly.

But that brings us back to R2. No synthesized human voice to indicate gender, just a series of tweets and whirrs and beeps. In some ways this unstated genderless identity has left him to just be awesome. Existing in (it’s- I wrote ‘his’) own space in the universe. Free from the conventions that gender burdens all of us with. Free to just come through like a bauce over and over again.

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