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What robot strippers say about sexism, tech and the future

  • Two pole-dancing robots built by British artist Giles Walker perform at a gentlemen's club Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, in Las Vegas. The event was held to coincide with CES International. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) Jae C. Hong

  • A pole-dancing robot built by British artist Giles Walker performs at a gentlemen’s club Monday in Las Vegas. ap photo



Associated Press
Thursday, January 11, 2018

LAS VEGAS — On a recent evening in Las Vegas during the CES technology show, robot strippers offered a window into technology’s gender fault lines, not to mention our robot future. From a distance, the mechanical humanoids on a strip-club stage looked something like real dancers in robot drag. But close up, they were clearly mannequins with surveillance-camera heads and abstractly sculpted feminine chests, buttocks and backs, shimmying and thrusting their boxy plastic hips.

On one level, this was a classic Vegas stunt, a cheap way for the club to cash in on the presence of the world’s largest tech convention. After all, the android dancers weren’t really strippers, since they wore no clothes; in fact, they were barely even robots, since they were tied to their poles and only capable of a limited set of motions.

But they still provided some striking parallels to the much bigger tech show nearby. The robots served a racy but utilitarian function by drawing gawkers to the club, much the way provocatively clad “booth babes” lure CES visitors to wares on the convention floor. And they offered a glimpse of futurism crossed with sex, the sort of thing previously provided by the porn expo that used to overlap with the final days of CES.

“I see robotic strippers and I see half-naked women on the showroom floor promoting products,” said Ashleigh Giliberto, a CES attendee who works at a public-relations firm. “It’s like, aren’t we worth more than that?”

Last year was a watershed moment for women speaking out against sexism and sexual abuse, much of which reverberated through the tech industry.

CES itself has long had a boy’s club atmosphere. Only about 20 percent of attendees this year are women; just two of the 15 keynote speakers at CES are female, as are only a quarter of the roughly 900 total speakers.

The conference took pains to note that it has no affiliation with the strip club nor its temporary robot workers. In a statement, organizers said they do not tolerate “inappropriate behavior on our convention grounds or at official show events.” Unsanctioned events, the statement said, aren’t reflective of CES “or the tech industry at large.”

Yet critics point out that CES doesn’t do much else to create a positive environment for women. For instance, while the convention prohibits sexual harassment and other misbehavior, it doesn’t lay out its policies in a formal code of conduct for attendees.

Neither has it ever instructed attendees, participants and hosts “to not have booth babes, strippers, objectified, sexualized women as part of the ‘entertainment,’” said Cindy Gallop, a former advertising executive turned sex-tech entrepreneur.