Why India sending female android to space is a problem

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ISRO seems to be celebrating women on “happy” occasions but sidelining them in tough times.

New Delhi: At the end of 2020, a legless female android will be making her way to space. Vyommitra, which is Hindi for “space friend,” will be flying aboard a crew module attached to a GSLV Mk III rocket in an unmanned mission to prepare for the Indian Space Research Organisation’s first human spaceflight mission, dubbed Gaganyaan.

According to the Indian Express, ISRO plans to use Vyommitra to test the crew module and make sure it’s fit for astronauts, who will use it in 2022. “Attaining launch and orbital postures, responding to the environment, generating warnings, replacing carbon dioxide canisters, operating switches, monitoring of the crew module, receiving voice commands, responding via speech (bilingual) are the functions listed for the humanoid,” the newspaper said.

To send an android – a robot built to look like a human – to space isn’t extraordinary. In fact, other space agencies have undertaken such missions in the past. But what’s striking is that Vyommitra is decidedly female; one headline even refers to the humanoid as the “first Indian woman to go to space” – although ‘she’ is only being used to prepare for a mission that will be undertaken at first by men.

Vyommitra is a half-humanoid, her body ends at her torso. In photos of her available on the internet from ISRO’s unveiling, she is dressed more like an air-hostess than an astronaut. She is seen wearing a white and grey suit in one avatar, and a blue silk shirt in the other. Nowhere does she appear in a spacesuit – which of course the (real) men she is making way for will have to wear while in space.

Why did Vyommitra have to be female? Perhaps the most charitable answer is that ISRO is being aspirational: that it really wants to send a woman to space and believes doing so with a legless robot could inspire others to head in the same direction.

If that were the case, ISRO should be taking active steps to recruit more women and include them on ultra-visible missions like Gaganyaan. It has stepped up at times in the past, notably by appointing Ritu Karidhal the deputy operations director of the Mars Orbiter Mission and the mission director of Chandrayan 2; M. Vanitha the project director of Chandrayaan 2; and V.R. Lalithambika as the head of the human spaceflight mission.

However, after the lunar surface component of the Chandrayaan 2 mission failed on Sept. 7, both Karidhal and Vanitha disappeared from public attention and none of ISRO’s official communiquEs included their names or quotes. Even now, what pitiably little information is publicly available of the Gaganyaan mission excludes Lalithambika’s comments.

So with Vyommitra, ISRO is simply continuing its inexplicable tradition of sending mixed signals: celebrating women on “happy” occasions but sidelining them in controversial times, prudently cashing in on the hype when the going is good, and withdrawing into a shell and fronting The Man when the going gets tough.

Indeed, it appears that ISRO has fallen into an all-too-familiar trap with the half-android. Vyommitra could find a wide range of female friends in the AI world, such Siri, Alexa and Cortana – all women, or at least started out as such, though now users have an option to change these tech assistant’s gender in a few cases.

As multiple experts, and even the UN, have argued, even now, people assume that an assistant is a woman. They lurk in the background, keeping track of all the “little things” you need in your day, without advancing sophisticated opinions. They’re even subject to verbal abuse and don’t give it back. Technology developers in particular have played into these stereotypical gender roles instead of trying to subvert or change them.

The feminist academic Helen Hester found that when such assistants were given a male voice, people assumed they were “a research assistant, an academic librarian and an information manager, rather than a personal secretary.” Even in movies, Amy C. Chambers wrote in The Conversation, the gender of a digital assistant influenced perceptions of the assistant’s personality and what it could be used for.

Technology companies have said in the past that they stick to using women’s voices in these roles because people find them more “agreeable”. But all that does is reinforce outdated, regressive and patriarchal notions about where a woman fits in society. “The world needs to pay much closer attention to how, when and whether AI technologies are gendered and, crucially, who is gendering them,” UNESCO’s director Saniye Guler Corat said.

Vyommitra goes one step further than digital assistants. She has not only a woman’s voice but also a woman’s body. And she will go where no Indian woman has gone before only to make sure that Indian men have a safer and more comfortable time up there. If ISRO wants to prove that it really did have good intentions, it needs to give one of the many real qualified women the same opportunity.