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Robot Names: what your robot says about you

Andra Keay, Masters Candidate, Digital Cultures, University of Sydney

Abstract—A collection of robot names from research

competitions over two decades demonstrates the gendering of II. METHOD
non-humanoid robots, identifies version control strategies,
shows projection of the designer’s self and illustrates the
The extensive use of robot competitions in the research
potentially new ontological category of ‘living/not-living’. and education community makes the collection of results
Robots are named for many reasons but, once named, a robot from websites, and other public sources, an effective and
has been categorized, identified and will generate social efficient large-scale method of studying Human-Robot
response regardless of actual function and field. More than Interaction, particularly implicit behaviors, which
2/3rds of all robot names collected reflect biomorphic or lifelike supports the findings of psychological HRI research.
attributes, which evoke mindless or ethopoeic social responses.
Competition robot naming demonstrates casual human
I have analyzed over 100 websites, which contain robot
response to non-humanoid robots outside of the social robotics competition results, to select the most reliable data that
field. Version control strategies in robot names also suggest the covers the broadest range of competition styles and
increasingly important area of robot identity for practical, locations. This sample was then restricted to sites
social and legal purposes. predominantly in English, for practical reasons, regardless of
where the competition was based. More than 2/3s of the
I. INTRODUCTION competitions evaluated were predominantly in English even

A ROBOT by any other name would be a different robot,

at least in terms of human-robot interaction. A name is
a fundamental classifier, which also indicates attributes of
though teams were globally dispersed. I have more than
2000 names from several competitions with continuous
records reaching back between 9 and 20 years. There is
personality and gender. The number of robots in society is strong evidence of the evolution of a culture of naming in
increasing and it seems that any robot that has any sort of the robotics field. The only competitions that don’t provide
contact with people will be named, sooner or later. I have the names of robots are the team/soccer competitions, where
collected public data on robot names from research more than two robots are competing. In every other category
competitions over the period from 1990 to 2010. This of competition, the names of robots are recorded alongside
research shows that naming is widespread and that once the university, team or designer’s name. Widespread naming
naming occurs within a community, it very rapidly becomes of robots expected only in competitions that featured social
the norm. There is also a gender bias in robot naming. 26% interaction with the robot.
of social agent robots are female compared to 8% of Robotics competitions fall into several categories and my
vehicular robots. Gender bias extends to projected or original intention was to see if there was any correlation
prosthetic identity. Where robot builders were identified by between gender and function. The most socially interactive
name and gender, the high male to female ratio was competitions are conversational like Loebner and Chatterbox
extended to the robots and many robots were given a version or dance/entertainment like RoboCup. Navigation, soccer
of the name of their builder. This supports findings that non- and rescue competitions like RoboCup, MicroMouse and
humanoid robots are likely to be seen as prosthetics or FIRA are widespread and use a range of robot strategies and
extensions of self rather than as social agents [1] but the data styles. Finally, robot combat competitions like Robogames
suggests that even robots with social agency are frequently and KondoCup range from technically challenging to purely
used as extensions of self. 30% of robots in both vehicle and entertaining but are an obvious arena for the production of
social agent competitions have male names, whereas only masculinity as combat is not ‘feminine’.
26% of social agents and 8% of vehicles were female. Very In spite of the increasing focus in robotics on embodiment
little stimuli is required to trigger ingrained scripts in and autonomy, robots in research competitions range from
respondents of all levels of expertise [2]-[6]. All categories disembodied social agents, AI and chatbots, to embodied
of robots also showed evidence of a range of version control remotely operated robots, vehicles and machines. This range
strategies which highlight the difficulties involved in is valuable for research purposes, enabling the development
understanding robot identity. of more sophisticated systems. This study will analyze data
from major university level robotics competitions as being
representative of leading practices in robotics research and
Manuscript received March 17, 2011. Andra Keay is a Masters education.
Candidate in the Digital Cultures Program, working with the Centre for Participant observation of robotics competitions and
Social Robotics at the University of Sydney NSW 2042 Australia, currently research labs indicates that researchers generally do name
researching in Silicon Valley CA USA (phone: 408 464 9391 e-mail:
andra@robotstate.com). robots, which may reflect anthropomorphism, playfulness, or
simply an efficient means to distinguish between robots and relatively static and sub 20%. Robot competitions offer an
communicate about them to others. However, this choice additional window into the construction of gender in the
extends beyond practicality. It is well recognized that a field. Records of robot competitions date back to the
name is the primary element in constructing identity and that Loebner prize in 1991 and a number of other competitions
naming practices reflect gender [7][8], which is a have been running annually since 1992 to meet the needs of
fundamental category of society [9]. the robotics research. Competitions complement peer review
This study draws on research that demonstrates the human publishing, demonstrate progress in basic problems and are a
tendency to attribute human qualities to technological way of standardizing developments across multiple sites
devices [2][3][10][11] and nonhuman organisms [12]-[17]. [36]. The results support the initial hypothesis, that different
Some studies explore anthropomorphism of humanoid and categories of competition are differently gendered. 26% of
nonhumanoid robots from a consumer or enduser the Chatterbox competition bots were given female names,
perspective [17]-[23]. Some studies examine the impact of whereas only 8% of the robots in the Intelligent Ground
the gender of the consumer/user on perception of robots in Vehicle competition were female.
general [18][19][24]-[26]. Many studies also examine the
impact of the constructed gender of a social or humanoid
robot and perceived success and function, in an educational,
health or social setting. Recent research in human-robot
interaction (HRI) considers the prosthetic nature of robotics
where ‘the distinction between the hand and the tool blurs’
This study also draws on the extensive literature of
gender, identity and technology studies in the fields of
Cultural or Science and Technology Studies which have
examined the impact of gender on the role of the researcher,
research subject and research environment [28]-[35][12]-
[15]. Correlations between gendered robots and their Figure 1. Named robots at IGVC 1993 to 2010
function or success within the social context or with the Names have become a ubiquitous feature of robot
researcher’s gender may contribute to understandings of the competitions. This project has collected 1200 names so far
production of gender relations if robots stand in for humans and found evidence of the development of the social
as model (in)organisms [17]. Haraway describes this process convention in the 1990s. The IGV data in particular shows
as to ‘ferret out how relations and practices get mistaken for the transition from no named robots in 1993 to all robots
non-tropic things-in-themselves in ways that matter to the named in 1998. The years in which only a few robots were
chances for liveliness of [both] humans and nonhumans’ named indicate that naming was not important for most
[14][17] teams until a certain critical social mass was reached. From
The ‘naming of robots’ project was partially inspired by 1998 onwards, all robots are named, every single year.
the California birth registry audit by Levitt & Dubner [8], Naming might happen for a range of reasons, functional,
which used public data to develop a deep analysis of the playful, expressive or emotional. A robot name is useful
correlation between name and class, race, gender, education shorthand for describing the robot and distinguishing it from
and life outcome. Levitt & Dubner’s large scale quantitative other robots for communication with others e.g. Little Blue
analysis using data that reaches back over decades supports or Johnny5. A name can be playful or expressive of a deeper
the effectiveness of auditing public data as a research relationship e.g. SexyBoy, Brother Jerome, Jabberwocky or
methodology, which can be applied to human-robot Bearcat Cub. A name can communicate expectations, such
interaction (HRI). Kiesler and Lee et al. have shown the as Speedy or Smart. The names in this audit demonstrate all
importance that naming or labeling has on the creation of of these features.
‘mental models’ with which a robot, computer or device is If there is a social convention or cultural pressure to name
evaluated and which subtly biases all interactions [18][24]. robots, then robots will be named regardless of reason.
Names do not just express the attitudes and associations of
the name giver, although Levitt and Dubner’s study showed
The initial hypothesis for the naming of robots project was the powerful correlation between name and social status in
that the categories of competition were innately gendered, intentional naming practices [8]. Names also generate
which might be caused by or contribute to the continuing expectations and named objects elicit different responses to
gender biases in some areas of STEM, or ‘Science, unnamed objects [2][3][6]. Clearly some robots are named to
Technology, Engineering and Math’. The proportion of maximize the benefit of generated expectations e.g. Smart
women in STEM, particularly in engineering and robotics and Overlord, but the presence of subtle biases is worth
has been the subject of numerous studies. Since the 1980s further study.
the proportion of women in engineering has remained
IV. BIOMORPHIC ROBOTS competition have human/anthropomorphic names or
animal/zoomorphic names. These results support the
argument that greater identification is felt with non-
humanoid robots, through a process of self-extension, rather
than through empathy and anthropomorphism [1][5].


Thor PRO Candii Robo-goat RS3
Hal Amber Jabberwocky H2Bot
Brother Biplanar
Spinster Lion One
Jerome Bicycle
Achilles Anassa 4 Warthog Paradroid
Johnny 5 Creaturebot Moonwalker
Figure 2. Viper and Warthog at the 2008 Intelligent Ground Annie
Vehicle Competition (from IGVC 2008)
Figure 4. Sample of coded robot names from IGVC
Preliminary data analysis shows a high level of animal
Anthropomorphism has been recorded since the 6th
identity in robot names. Surprisingly, this is not solely the century BC when Xenophanes noted that gods and other
province of the least humanoid robots surveyed but extends
supernatural beings bore a striking resemblance to their
to the conversational or social agents. 26% of the IGV
believers. The term specifically relates to the attribution of
competition robots invoked animals as did 12% of the human characteristics or behaviour to gods, animals or
Chatterbox competition chatbots. The assumption was that
objects. HRI researchers point out the limitations of the term
chatbots specifically created to fool humans into believing
‘anthropomorphism’ which has been stretched to include
them human would all be assigned human personality. The animism and zoomorphism [3][21][1]. It has also been used
Chatterbox competition had a surprising number of
to describe features of the robot and features of the social
nonhuman names. This study is coding names into 4
relationship that the robot evokes. It is clear from a variety
categories based on the Bern sex role index [37][3]. Gender
of studies that social relations with a robot have many
is the primary human classifier and studies of pet and
contributing factors and require very little in the way of
vehicle names show that we continue the practice of gender
anthropomorphic, animistic or lifelike cues.
coding in names, however we would expect that in robotics
Nass & Moon describe the majority of responses to
there would be a need for names that are neither human nor media, computers and robots as ‘mindless’ or ‘ethopoeic’,
which comes from the Greek for character representation.
They have shown that people do not actually believe that
their media, computer or robot ‘deserves’ human or animal
treatment but that deeply rooted scripts prompt social
responses to simple stimuli. This ‘mindlessness’ consists of
over-use of human social categories, such as gender or
ethnicity, over-learned social behaviors, such as politeness
and reciprocity and premature cognitive commitment
Figure 3. Summary of robot names collected for analysis [38][3]. Nass & Moon further describe ‘ethopoiea’ and the
The categories applied to the naming project are MALE, mindless behavior that characterizes it as arising from a
FEMALE, UNKNOWN and OTHER, where MALE and variety of cues, such as context, appearance, voice, action,
FEMALE are gendered. The UNKNOWN category captures expectation [3][39].
all names with animal or anthropomorphic attributes that The majority of our social responses to robots are not
aren’t obviously gendered. The OTHER category captures anthropomorphic or conscious. Mindless behavior due to
all names with mechanical or inanimate qualities. In the ethopoeic identification is largely unconscious [3]. People in
Chatterbox competition, 25% of names were UNKNOWN, general are quite clear that they are reacting with a car,
of which 12% explicitly evoked an animal. 19% were computer or robot so their behavior is actually in direct
OTHER or mechanical. contradiction to their conscious beliefs. In this paper, the
This is a surprisingly high number of non-human names term ‘biomorphic’ is utilized to further separate the features
for a conversational competition. It was expected that a high or characteristics of robots from the potential social
proportion of robots in the IGV competition would be interactions. Biomorphic form resembles living objects.
unnamed and that named robots would be predominantly Biomorphism was used to describe an art movement in the
OTHER or mechanical, however, since 1998 all robots in the 20th century, but the term is nonetheless very useful for
competition have been named and only 27% of names are analysis of human-robot interaction, in which the name audit
OTHER or mechanical. 63% of robots in this vehicular shows a significantly high proportion of animal names or
characteristics that are attributed to robots. Biomorphism is personality, humor and popularity in which authority figures
used rather than animism, which implies a level of spiritual might be less successful. Therefore it is likely that
significance. consciously or otherwise, male chatbots were seen as equally
The high proportion of biomorphic names in a vehicular or more desirable than female chatbots.
robot competition supports the findings of Kiesler & Kiesler A high level of mastery is expressed in the names audited.
[5] and Groom et al. [1] that non-humanoid objects are Many robots are named after gods, goddesses and heroes,
named as an extension of self or prosthesis. These studies like Achilles, Artemis, Thor and Anassa, or given titles like
indicate that the naming of robots will trigger scripts for Archon, BlackKnight, Overlord, Moxom’s Master, English
social response. If a robot has a public persona or Tutor, or names that express a significant quality, like
appearance then the choice of names is more than just an SMART, FAST, or Hurricane Annie. There is a gender
extension of the name giver or designer. The name will difference in the level of mastery of names. Male names are
continue to influence the perception of the robot even though far more likely to express mastery, whereas fewer than half
expertise levels minimize conscious effects [5][1]. of the female names do. In the IGV competition, for every
So not only do named robots elicit responses, but Athena and Artemis, there is an Amber and a Candii. Candii
biomorphic naming occurs across all types and styles of rather noticeably sports the sort of reclining nude decals
robots in a loop of ethopoeic or mindless responses. A more usually found on large trucks. How this relates to
number of researchers are developing scales to measure the robots as prostheses requires more examination. Rather than
impacts and effects [21][18][6] of social responses to the robot expressing skill and mastery, which is particularly
technological objects. These questions are at the heart of important in a competition environment, either the need of
Science and Technology Studies or Digital Cultures. Under the designers to ‘subordinate’ the robot is more important, or
what conditions is technology prosthetic, or environmental the robot is standing in the role of social agent, not
or functioning as a social agent [40]? The gendering of prosthesis.
robotics as an industry appears environmental and is
reflected in competition categories [41]. The biomorphic
naming of robots shows gendering is just one of the affects
of technology used as a prosthetic identity.


The high level of prosthetic or ‘self extension’ naming
extends to competitions with a focus on social actor robots,
as evidenced by the higher proportion of male names than
female names in both the IGV and Chatterbox competitions.
Figure 6. Cornelius and Candii at the Intelligent Ground Vehicle
Competition (from IGVC 2008)
Studies done into virtual worlds and avatars suggest that
gender difference is no boundary to self-extension but leads
to simplified, stereotyped avatars [41]. Robots with the
designers of the same gender tended to exhibit a higher level
of whimsy and subtlety in the naming. The role that the
Figure 5. Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition (IGVC) data social response to robots in research, design and education
shows low proportion of female names robots plays in creating the cultural environment needs
The Harvinatorbot, which incorporates the designer’s further study. Robotics is a clearly gendered field.
name, is clearly self-extension rather than social agent. The However, the continued existence of a large number of
expectation was that there would be a high proportion of UNKNOWN or OTHER names seems to defy a human
female names in the Chatterbox competition due to tendency to categorize everything by gender [9][3].
stereotypes that females are better talkers and more pleasant Although closer analysis might indicate that more of these
and personable. In fact, male names were slightly more names are gendered than I have coded, as some linguistic
prevalent at 30% compared to 26% chatbots with female studies show that we attribute gender to English words based
names. This might correlate to psychological literature, on other cues [42][39] and cultural studies theorists posit
which says that males are considered to have greater that the unmarked term is by default male [43]. It is the
authority and be more believable when giving assessments, liminal or fluid quality of these names that is interesting.
which would indicate that the chatbot name givers were Creaturebot, Hex and Gamblore might be either gender or
using conversational strategies invoking authority and they might continue to refuse categorization. The openness
judgement in order to be believable. However the of naming a robot as an ‘other’ is potentially transformative.
Chatterbox competition also assesses qualities of learning,
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