Pygmalion Displacement: When Humanising AI Dehumanises Women

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We use the myth of Pygmalion as a lens to investigate and frame the relationship between women and artificial intelligence (AI). Pygmalion was a legendary ancient king of Cyprus and sculptor. Having been repulsed by women, he used his skills to create a statue, which was imbued with life by the goddess Aphrodite. This can be seen as one of the primordial AI-like myths, wherein humanity creates intelligent life-like self-images to reproduce or replace ourselves. In addition, the myth prefigures historical and present gendered dynamics within the field of AI and between AI and society at large. Throughout history, the theme of women being replaced by inanimate objects (e.g. automata, algorithms) has been repeated, and continues to repeat in contemporary AI technologies. However, this socially detrimental pattern in technology — what we dub Pygmalion displacement — is often overlooked, whether due to naive excitement about new developments, or due to an unacknowledged sexist history of the field itself. As we demonstrate herein, Pygmalion displacement prefigures heavily, but in an unacknowledged way, in the original Turing test, the imitation game: a central thought experiment, foundational to AI. With women, and the feminine generally, being both dislocated and erased from and by technology, AI is and has been (presented as) created mainly by privileged men, subserving capitalist patriarchal ends. This poses serious dangers to women and other marginalised people. By tracing the historical and ongoing entwinement of femininity (from a patriarchal perspective) and AI, we aim to understand, make visible, and start a dialogue on the ways in which AI harms women.

Ryan Watkins