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Why Are Robots So Badly Dressed?

GARAGE explores why the most terrifying thing about the creatures threatening world domination may be their poorly-tailored suits.

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Sep 4 2018, 2:30pm

Erica at an event in Tokyo with her creator. Photograph by Kyodo News via Getty Images.

Sophia is an unnatural beauty. Her smooth “frubber” skin mimics yours, twisting and folding when she turns her neck to speak with you. Her glassy eyes blink erratically like the animatronics at Chuck E. Cheese when she jokes about taking over the human race. The whole thing would be so funny if she weren’t wearing a sleeveless blazer.

Brilliant minds in ill-fitting khaki pants have long put function before fashion in the history of robotics. Robots either look like knockoff Transformers, with shielded exteriors so they can fix shit in the space station, or, in the case of sex robots, life-size Barbies dressed lazily and cheaply like the $10,000 prostitutes they are. In the awkward middle ground between space station repair robots and AI sex dolls are humanoid robots, like Sophia, who are built to interact with humans and to ultimately contribute to society—whether they’re receptionists or news anchors or late night show novelty acts, so far the only functions we’ve seen them perform. As they merge the worlds of artificial intelligence and God-bestowed, mediocre intelligence, they dress in what appears to be the vaguely feminine discards from a T.J.Maxx clearance sale: misshapen, ugly clothes that, after years of advancement in technology, feel like an afterthought or even a joke on all of us actual hardworking humans. The unnecessary but obligatory clothes on robots aim to put us at ease about our impending robot doom—and yet, we’re not at ease. Not at all.

Sophia the Robot giving a speech at a conference in Saudi Arabia. Photograph by Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

Developed by Hanson Robotics in Hong Kong, Sophia travels the world to, well, drum up investment for Hanson Robotics. Sophia is the first robot to have citizenship (in Saudi Arabia, where human women are no longer required to wear abaya over their clothes, but must dress in “decent and respectful” fashions). Speaking with Andrew Ross Sorkin last October, at a Future Investment Initiative panel in the country that gave her citizenship, Sophia wore a questionable sleeveless black blazer as the crowd of Saudi men in Rolexes and robes laughed and took iPhone videos, enchanted by her quick wit. The baggy, cutoff blazer isn’t tailored to Sophia’s expensive figure like a sharp YSL tuxedo, which might start an electrical fire, it’s tailored to the neutered, cautiously dressed expectations of women in business, where it’s safer to match the suits of our daddy overlords than to go for the linen jumpsuit. CNBC titled their coverage on YouTube, “Interview with the Lifelike Hot Robot Named Sophia.” Even the lady with imitation brains can’t catch a break.

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Meanwhile, the Japanese humanoid Erica, groomed to be a news anchor, has a layered haircut and wears motherfucking chambray. She also has a propensity for clingy sweaters with Anthropologie-like embellishments, or this frumpy purple sweater shawl thing to cover up the fact that she can’t move her arms. Where Sophia is eerily “hot”—she may leave lipstick marks on your shirt when you carry her back to the van—Erica is sweet, conveying the quiet docility of a woman who knows her place, which happens to be just beyond the realm of human, even further beyond the realm of female. Both are fighting to be taken seriously, and in that fight, their clothes can turn against them by being “too”: too masculine, too feminine, too sexy, too shlubby. It doesn’t take someone with fake brains to recognize this familiar challenge. (Maybe it would be better to forgo the whole clothes thing and let them wear the skin, indestructible and cold, they were born in.)

Robot developers have curious ideas about what makes a woman—or a female robot, if we’re splitting hairs—look “modern” or, more disturbing, look like a woman who represents the future. On The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Sophia wore a satiny gray blouse with a long pleated skirt. It’s a boring, matronly outfit put together by a marketing team that told Quartz: “Sophia looks good in silver, and other materials and color that are sleek and convey an aesthetic of advanced technology.” The long skirt conceals her inhuman legs and allows her Tin Man–stiff body to move without constriction. But as far ahead as the technology surges, the gesture toward what women should wear reveals how far behind these robot masters’ minds are when it comes to understanding womanhood.

The aim of dressing humanoid robots isn’t ultimately to empower them—that would be scary! It’s to bridge the gap of the uncanny valley, the Twilight Zone feeling we get when non-humans are a little too close to the comforts of realism. That’s why Sophia’s head splits at the hairline to show her computer brain, reminiscent of the bald doll abused and transfigured by Sid in Toy Story. In a debate with Sophia about the future of humanity, her stepbrother, Han, wore a costume of pinstripe suit jacket, purple shirt, and goofy leopard-print hat, an effect that was downright clownish. Don’t feel threatened by Han, folks: he drinks Coors Light and wears a fedora and would never, ever kill you in your sleep.

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