Why Are Female Robots Missing the Backs of Their Heads?
A strange robot trope explained.
Image by Victor Habbick Visions via Getty Images.
In 2005, roboticist David Hanson decided it was time to set the record straight. A concept from the 1970s cast a long shadow over his field: the “uncanny valley,” robotics scholar Masahiro Mori’s argument that representations of the human form can fall into a creepy gulf of almost there realism and provoke revulsion in their beholder. (For reference, see Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in 2001’s The Mummy Returns.) But Hanson, the founder of a company that creates realistic humanoid robots, contested the theory. “We acknowledge that there is still debate regarding whether robots can look human without being frightening,” Hanson and three co-authors wrote in an academic paper. “However, we think there is little to lose by making robots that look uncanny, and much to gain in our understanding of humans and human emulation.”
He offered his newest robot, a replica of sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, as a counterexample: the bot had been exhibited at an AI conference that year with the back of his head removed, revealing a skull full of plastic circuit boards and yellow wires looped like skeins of spaghetti, and had won first prize in a competition for best interactions with conference-goers. A newspaper photo included in the paper shows a blonde, female spectator leaning in closer to the bot, eyes wide with apparent delight.
Thirteen years later, Hanson’s dispute with the commonsense logic of the uncanny valley seems partly vindicated: one of his back-of-the-headless robots is a minor celebrity, boasting an Elle Brasil cover, an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and Saudi Arabian citizenship, the first android to attain this very human designation. But rather than the hirsute Philip K. Dick bot, Hanson’s robot spokesperson is Sophia, built in 2015. According to the company’s website, she resembles both Audrey Hepburn and David Hanson’s wife.
Why do we like to see female robots without the backs of their heads? The trope predates Sophia; the year before, Alicia Vikander appeared as a hot, oppressed android named Ava in Ex Machina, a robotic body with a human face cut off at the hairline, affixed atop a neck and over her ears like a Halloween mask. One subplot on the 1970s TV show The Bionic Woman puts an interesting twist on the trope: lethal fembots, controlled by their mad scientist inventor Dr. Franklin, occasionally lose their “facemasks” in combat and bare the circuitry and lidless eyeballs underneath. (In one episode, the fembots pose as Vegas showgirls.) They’re described as “programmable, amoral…as beautiful or as deadly as [Franklin] chose to make them.”
Harmony, described by as the world’s first talking sex robot, appears without the back of her head in ads; in one very unsexy shot, the “skin” is removed as well, revealing a fluid ivory skeleton, sensors, teeth, and a large, pink swath of gums. Bruce Duncan, the handler for humanoid robot Bina48, refused a request to photograph her without her wig. “We want to focus on her mind, not her body,” Duncan told GARAGE, intimating that there was something sensationalist and profane about the image of an android’s exposed wiring.
Of course, there are male robots missing sections of their skulls—Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, for example; Gunslinger, the android hero of 1973’s Westworld; as well Hanson Robotics creations Diego-San, a childlike bot with cute, exaggerated features, and a male named Han, activated the same year as Sophia. There’s genderless Sonny in I, Robot. But with the exception of the Terminator, these male androids didn’t achieve the same pop culture notoriety, and when Westworld was rebooted as a TV series in 2016, its avenging robot protagonist came back as a blonde woman. There is a ceiling for how frequently we want to see a male android with wires where parts of his head should be; for female androids, it seems, there isn’t.
As Hanson et al. wrote in their 2005 paper, there’s more to gain than lose by making robots appear uncanny—people are fascinated and attracted by androids that approach human likeness but don’t aim to be perfect replica. What matters is the robot’s design, where it fits in a human aesthetic universe. “No ‘valley’ is inherent; anthropomorphic depictions can be either disturbing or appealing at every level of abstraction or realism,” he writes. “People simply get more sensitive with increasing levels of realism.” This appears especially true when the robot is female, and the uncanniness reinforces the fact that she’s man-made, incomplete, and therefore dependent on human minders. And you can imagine which wires need to be cut if she begins slaughtering humans.
In her 1985 essay “ A Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway imagines the cyborg as a new model for feminist politics, the “illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism.” But the cyborg is a traitor to these structures, as Haraway adds: “Illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.” Since the term’s origin, anxiety about robots has really been about moral judgement: a reckoning for the way we handle power and how we treat those considered to be less than human. When Ava escapes her creator at the end of Ex Machina, she reconstructs herself as a human woman, snapping on parts—back of the head included, hidden behind a glossy auburn wig. She walks out into the sun in a white dress. It’s impossible to tell she’s an android, and we have no idea where she’s going.