Artificial figures: gender-in-the-making in algorithmic culture

In our 2023 Hancock lecture, Dr Thao Phan will explore how, in the making of AI systems and technologies, gender too is being made.

2023 Hancock Lecture

Event details

This event occurred on Thursday 16 November. A recording of the lecture is available here

Digital assistants with feminised voices, deceptive female robots, all-male research groups: gender forms a fundamental part of how we imagine the systems, fields, and figures we call ‘artificial intelligence’ (AI). While gender unquestionably shapes and structures scientific objects and knowledge, rarely do we consider how these phenomena have the capacity to shape gender in return. In these contexts, gender is often reduced to a predetermined, preformed category; already made rather than something that is constituted through the practice of science or technology making itself.

In her lecture, Dr Phan will examine key figures in AI’s cultural history — from foundational figures like Alan Turing and the Turing Test to cultural and commercial figures like Apple’s Siri and Amazon Echo — and will demonstrate the role the humanities can play in understanding our past and reshaping our technological futures.

Dr Phan will also outline the critical contribution fields like feminist science and technology studies (feminist STS) can make to public debates on AI, algorithmic cultures, and beyond.

Her lecture centres on questions of power, politics, and identity in today’s algorithmic culture. It asks: how are more-than-human systems reconfiguring the terms of all-too-human categories like gender, race, and class? How does gender influence how new technologies are made intelligible, mediating the expectations of a user, consumer, or audience? And finally, how might these encounters with AI reveal the artifice of gender as a system that is tied to the realm of the artificial as much as it is to nature and what we call ‘the natural’?

About Thao

Thao PhanDr Thao Phan is a feminist science and technology studies (STS) researcher who specialises in the study of gender and race in algorithmic culture. She is a Research Fellow in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making & Society and the Emerging Technologies Research Lab at Monash University.

Thao has published on topics including the aesthetics of digital voice assistants, big-data-driven techniques of racial classification, and the commercial capture of AI ethics research. Her award-winning writing has appeared in journals such as Big Data & Society, Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technosocience, Science as Culture, Cultural Studies, and more.

Thao is a member of the Australian Academy of Science’s National Committee for the History and Philosophy of Science and is the co-founder of AusSTS—Australia’s largest network of STS scholars.

About the Hancock Lecture

The Hancock Lecture invites young Australian scholars of excellence to deliver their research in an accessible way for the everyday Australian.

The Academy is dedicated to supporting and celebrating emerging leaders in the humanities. Named in honour of W.K Hancock, the first President of the Academy, the Hancock Lecture invites outstanding scholars at the earlier stages of their careers to talk about their work to a public audience.

54th Annual Academy SymposiumJoin us on 16 and 17 November for our 54th Annual Academy Symposium — Between humans & machines: exploring the pasts and futures of automation as we explore the possibilities and hazards of automation, and the complexities of human-machine relations.

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Acknowledgement of Country

The Australian Academy of the Humanities recognises Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and their continuous connection to country, community and culture.