What robot strippers say about sexism, tech and the future

Published 8:25 pm, Thursday, January 11, 2018

LAS VEGAS – On a recent evening not far from the CES technology event, robot strippers offered a window into technology’s gender fault lines – not to mention our robot future.

From a distance, the mechanical humanoids on a strip-club stage looked something like real dancers in robot drag. But close up, they were clearly mannequins.

On one level, this was a classic Vegas stunt, a way for the Sapphire Las Vegas Gentlemen’s Club to cash in on the presence of the world’s largest tech convention.

But they still provided some striking parallels to the much bigger tech show nearby. The robots served a racy but utilitarian function by drawing gawkers to the club, much the way provocatively clad “booth babes” lure CES visitors to wares on the convention floor. And they offered a glimpse of futurism crossed with sex, the sort of thing previously provided by the porn expo that used to overlap with the final days of CES.

“I see robotic strippers and I see half-naked women on the showroom floor promoting products,” said Ashleigh Giliberto, a CES attendee who works at a public relations firm. “It’s like, aren’t we worth more than that?”

Last year was a watershed time for women speaking out against sexism and sexual abuse, much of which reverberated in the tech industry.

Boys’ club

CES itself has long had a boys’ club atmosphere. Only about 20 percent of attendees this year are women; just two of the 15 keynote speakers at CES are female.

The conference took pains to note that it has no affiliation with the strip club nor its temporary robot workers.

Yet critics point out that CES doesn’t do much else to create a positive environment for women.

Executives from the Consumer Technology Association, which oversees CES, have promised to “redouble” efforts to add women’s voices to the speaker lineup next year. But those same officials have said they’re hamstrung by a policy that restricts keynote slots to company CEOs – most of whom are men.

Tania Yuki, CEO of the social analytics firm Shareablee and a speaker at CES, said she doesn’t think the show’s organizers are purposely sexist, just trapped in status-quo thinking. The dearth of female speakers and the presence of scantily clad show floor models are more “lazy” than “deliberately offensive,” she said.

The robots are the work of artist Giles Walker, who made them seven years ago after he found two surveillance cameras on a warehouse floor.

“I wanted to do a sculpture about voyeurism and the power between the voyeur and the person who’s being watched, ” he said.

‘Paying my bills’

Walker acknowledged that bringing the robots to the strip club for an undisclosed fee has led the project astray from his initial vision.

“I’m not going to pretend,” he said. “They’re paying my bills and giving me the chance to do other art that I do, which is much less commercial and is much more underground.”

But his androids also point to a future in which robots might not just take on many jobs now held by people, but are also likely to become companions – even intimate companions. Some are already here; high-end sexbots with ultra-realistic silicone “flesh” and artificial intelligence personalities are available online for as much as $15,000.

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