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Gender, Technology, and the Law: 'Female Servitude by Design and Default? Gendering AI Virtual Personal Assistants, Law, and Ethics’

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This Gender, Technology and Law session will be animated by Dr. Rachel Adams (IALS) and Dr. Nóra Ni Loideain (IALS) and is entitled: Female Servitude by Design and Default? Gendering AI Virtual Personal Assistants, Law, and Ethics.


The session is free to attend, but registration is required. To register, please follow this linkShould you face any difficulties with your registration, please send an e-mail to Olga Gkotsopoulou (LSTS) or Carlotta Rigotti (FRC).



The prevalence of artificially intelligent (AI)- driven virtual personal assistants (VPAs) is increasing. This is just one of the consequences resulting from the need for, and expanded use of, online technologies for living and working in lockdown during the global pandemic. VPAs function either as an application on a smart phone (Siri, Bixby), a car (BMW Intelligent Virtual Assistant), a computer (Cortana), or as a smart speaker (Alexa, Google Assistant). They are designed, as their nomenclature firmly indicates, as assistants, as devices – or more broadly “things” – whose ontology is to receive instructions and perform tasks on command. 


Perhaps in order to most effectively deliver this characterisation of service worker-as-assistant, VPAs – as this seminar will explore – tend to be designed, marketed, and installed by default, with key female signifiers: a female voice, name, and character. As these digital assistants become ever more prevalent, critical and objective inquiry is needed to destabilise the gendering at play in the design of VPAs and consider the effects such gendering may have on the societies that use them. To put it simply, it is difficult to interpret the design choice of assigning a female voice, name, and character to any digital assistant service/product as anything other than gender biased, whether consciously or sub-consciously.


Remarkably, although there has been some commentary on their societal impact, the regulatory and ethical frameworks relevant to the gendering of virtual assistants have received little detailed critique in both literature and policymaking. In this seminar, we explore how law can respond to these concerns and provide a cause of action for redress and remedy, particularly within EU data protection law (GDPR) and international human rights law.


Speakers' bio:

Dr Rachel Adams is a Chief Research Specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa. Dr Adams has degrees in Jurisprudence (PhD, University of Cape Town), International Human Rights Law (MPhil, University of Cape Town) and English Literature and Philosophy (BA, Royal Holloway, University of London). Her research lies at the intersection of philosophy, gender, technology, law and race. Dr Adams was previously the Senior Researcher for Civil and Political Rights at the South African Human Rights Commission, and completed a post-doctorate at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, University of London. Dr Adams is an Editor of the South African Journal on Human Rights, and the author of Transparency: New Trajectories in Law (Routledge, 2020).


Dr Nóra Ní Loideáin is Director of the Information Law & Policy Centre, Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, University of London. Her research and publications focus on human rights and technology, particularly within the contexts of law enforcement and national security in EU and ECHR law, and AI and gender. Nóra is a member of the UK Home Office Biometrics and Forensics Ethics Group (BFEG), a trustee on the Board of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII), and an editor of International Data Privacy Law (Oxford University Press). Prior to her academic career, Nóra was a Legal and Policy Officer for the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions of Ireland and clerked for the Irish Supreme Court. Nóra’s work in the fields of EU law and European human rights law, has been cited and published by Science, The Guardian, BBC, the House of Lords, and the United Nations.



Gender, Technology & Law Sessions:

This session is part of the Gender, Technologies & Law Sessions, a collaborative initiative of the Law, Science, Technology and Society Research Group (LSTS) and the Fundamental Rights Centre (FRC) at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. The initiative aims at investigating the intersections between gender, technology and law through an interdisciplinary approach. Outcomes of these investigations but also more explorative debates and open questions are presented in a series of seminars, both by internal and external speakers. For more information on the series, see here.