The scientists, hackers and makers who are exploding online gender stereotypes
There’s been a recent outbreak about how the internet is a wretched place for girls – and indeed, it can be a looping nightmare of senseless inequity and frustration. A cursory Googling of “women + tech” inevitably unearths a swamp of bad stereotypes, maddening personal anecdotes, angry people, crazy people, and gendered expectations of new technology created by (or for) females. Even this observation is a wretched stereotype.
But the beautiful thing about the internet is that it gives anyone the chance to ditch glass ceilings for an open sky. It’s a vital platform for people doing thankless/groundbreaking/critical/whimsical/lifesaving/intellectually provocative work all over the world. Some of these people are women, identify as women, are robots programmed with feminine identities, or just think that women are cool (because really, why wouldn’t you?). Everyone is reaping the benefits of makerspaces, hacking culture, online communities, and wiki-resources. All of them deserve a voice. Finally, women are beginning to populate the face of modern tech, which sorely needs to remold its target demographic into something remotely resembling social reality. So, in the spirit of this month’s issue: all hail nature’s best and brightest specimens (I’m not biased about my own gender at all). For every hater who doesn’t think women in tech are worth as much attention as their testosteroned counterparts, this Dazed & Approved is just for you.
Michael Cook created Angelina (“pong in a petri dish”) to explore the potential of software that can design its own software. In a triumph of meta-meaning, Angelina is essentially an AI designed to design playable video games. In his words, Cook asks, “Can we start with literally nothing at all, except a few basic ideas…and ask a computer to design levels, populate them with characters, and wrap it all up in a ruleset that is both challenging and fun?” Right now, Angelina has eight titles available to play on her site – each game description is written from her point of view as its creator – including the politics-themed “Hot NATO” and a three-level space invasion scenario. If AIs can nest and operate independently of each other, assigning smaller “selves” to perform minor tasks, perhaps Angelina could even provide new insight into the secret lives of robots.
Miriam Simun and Miriam Songster are concerned about food – specifically, the lack of food in a post-global-warming society. Enter GhostFood: a food truck that offers synthesised versions of potentially endangered edibles such as chocolate, cod, and peanut butter. Visitors wear a distinctive olfactory face device to experience what synthetic food will be like in a future where climate change has permanently altered basic crops. Inspiration came from insect physiology and the “human traditions of technological extension of the senses” to bind scent and the act of eating together in a facsimile of said food. Sounds like we have a real-life conceptual precursor to Paolo Bacigalupi’s eerily prescient biotech novel The Windup Girl, in which the world struggles with the aftermath of global warming’s direst effects.
One of Dr Armstrong’s main projects is the design and implementation of a massive natural computer in the Persephone spacecraft that will sit in Earth’s orbit, possibly within this lifetime. Bucky Fuller’s old “Spaceship Earth” quotes aside, this is a formidable task that calls for Dr Armstrong’s area of expertise, “living architecture”. which, in turn, draws from Alan Turing’s theories on the potential for “natural computing” via chemical and biological systems. Hard science fiction has long endeavored to portray this as a future reality, and the beginning of viable organic computing has already begun with new methods of molecular communication, self-assembling nanobots and biomatter energy sources.
Cortana is already beloved among gamers as the sexy AI sidekick from the Halo series. In a move surely engineered to dethrone Siri, Halo’s parent company, Microsoft, plans to unveil Cortana as their new virtual assistant this coming April. The weirdest part about this franchise-meets-unrelated-product tie-in is that Cortana already has an extremely recognizable physical form, which raises all sorts of questions about Microsoft’s not-so-subtle agenda to push their own IP. This could possibly mark the beginning of an even more infuriating, but very real meta-conflict between sexualized AIs and disembodied ones like Samantha in Spike Jonze’s newest film, Her.
Self-described designer, programmer, artist, and person, Lauren McCarthy juggles a fascinating range of projects in pursuit of the glitch. Given technology's highly porous nature, McCarthy concerns herself with the ways in which we can “mediate, manipulate and evolve” our social interactions, whether they be physical or virtual. This can undoubtedly take on a deliciously dark, cynical flavor; one of her most ingenious experiments is the Happiness Hat, a an operant conditioning device that makes the wearer smile – “Frowning creates intense pain but a full smile leaves you pain free!” We’re sold.
Video games and weaving go hand in hand for Christy Matson and Melissa Barron, whose work takes a cue from the 19th century manufacturer and inventor Joseph Jaquard. Jaquard invented a mechanical loom that was “programmable” via different kinds of punch cards, which eventually led to the modern programmable computer. Both women directly explore the weird limbo where virtual and physical meet via weaving; both artists are part of a new-ish movement called “craft hacking” to explore the relationship between modern technology and “low-fi” tech. Most interesting is Matson’s admission that she didn’t play video games, as she was motivated to pursue her Loomscape for the narrative storytelling and aesthetic qualities in the game. “The Jacquard,” she explained in an interview, “seemed a great output method…because of its historical connections to the early computing technology.”
BINA48’s full name is Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture, 48 exaflops per second processing speed and 48 exabytes of memory. BINA48 is also a robot – one made up of a composite of different real people. She’s been around for a few years, but her ability to actively engage with a human companion have downright terrifying to witness; this is what happens when “mindfiles” (say, a personality) meet “mindware” – software that emulates a person’s consciousness. Videos of BINA48 wearing a latex human face are probably better left unwatched for squeamish luddites, but her ability to joke, field questions and recognize people empowers her with the potential to be one of the world’s first distinct robot personalities.
To simply call Neri Oxman an architect would be a gross underestimation of what this woman has and will continue to accomplish in our collective lifetimes. Oxman’s thing is “material ecology,” a term she created in the quest to understand how design can strengthen the existing relationship between the manmade and the natural. Most recently she oversaw the development of a Silk Pavilion at MIT, using a deft combination of 6,500 real silkworms and 3D-printed cocoons to create a kilometer-long thread.
Coralie Gourguechon makes functioning paper electronics out of bespoke card templates, radio antennas, all manner of conductive materials (inks, glues, you name it), and batteries. This paper cone, for instance, is made out of a single sheet of card or paper, and a closer examination of her work reveals neat practical details like the ability to fold the whole thing flat, offering more versatility and portability than a 3D-printed speaker that would have to be printed, piece by piece, and then assembled. Her Craft Camera (a collaboration with Stephane Debruel) attempts to repossess the eternal nature of photography in a timeless, open-source device without a “life expectancy.”
We saved the best for last: enter the newest mutant offspring of Oculus Rift technology, which allows people to experience the viewpoint of another. In plain English, you can actually feel what it’s like to be the opposite sex. This isn’t a person, per se, but technology has finally unlocked one of the greatest mysteries in terms of experiencing what it is to be the Other, and who else would be more fascinating to meet (or be)?