Should AI Assistants have Female Voices?

amazon alexa whiteDepending on your perspective, we either live in a golden age where as a society we’re questioning all assumptions about race and gender identity or, perhaps, we’re overanalyzing everything and all too ready to play the victim card. Mostly I’m in the former camp and am always seeking to gain additional enlightenment and perspective: Old dog, new tricks and all that.

Still, what’s to be made of the recent UNESCO report that posits that by using female voices, AI assistants like Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri and Google Assistant perpetuate negative and subservient female roles in society? it starts with some really interesting background on where all these names came from:

Today and with rare exception, most leading voice assistants are exclusively female or female by default, both in name and in sound of voice. Amazon has Alexa (named for the ancient library in Alexandria),18 Microsoft has Cortana (named for a synthetic intelligence in the video game Halo that projects itself as a sensuous unclothed woman),19 and Apple has Siri (coined by the Norwegian co-creator of the iPhone 4S and meaning ‘beautiful woman who leads you to victory’ in Norse).20 While Google’s voice assistant is simply Google Assistant and sometimes referred to as Google Home, its voice is unmistakably female.

More interesting is the following commentary: “To justify the decision to make voice assistants female, companies like Amazon and Apple have cited academic work demonstrating that people prefer a female voice to a male voice.24 This rationale brushes away questions of gender bias: companies make a profit by attracting and pleasing customers; customers want their digital assistants to sound like women; therefore digital assistants can make the most profit by sounding female.”

Why yes, companies that produce AI assistants are all commercial ventures and generally seek to maximize profit for any venture they attempt.

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Nonetheless. Nonetheless there is an interesting idea in this research too: Does having a female assistant reinforce that women are helpful, or that subservient women are helpful? I’m definitely in the camp of changing my voice assistant’s accent (Siri, for example, is Australian on my iPhone) but do I switch gender to have a male voice? No, I don’t.

Maybe we’re reading too much into everything and that this is just another example, but maybe not. What do you think? If you’re female do you prefer a male voice assistant or robotic voice and if you’re male, do you prefer a female voice? How much would you be put off if these companies randomly choose a default male/female voice every time someone went through the initial configuration of the device?

I think making users choose instead of defaulting to a female voice would produce some very interesting data, that’s for sure. And more for that? Well, maybe. Maybe not.

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