The issue with Alexa: what’s the answer to sexist voice assistants?

You probably have a wise speaker in your house, you most likely work together with an AI-enabled voice assistant pretty usually – and chances are high you’re talking to what appears like a girl. 

Your voice assistant might have even been given a girl’s or feminine-sounding identify, like Alexa, Cortana, or Siri, relying on which model you obtain your sensible speaker from. Certain, a few of these voice assistants could be configured to have a male-sounding talking voice, together with Google Assistant and Siri, however most sensible speaker customers are interacting with digital girls. 

At face worth that won’t sound like an issue – however society’s equating of girls with voice assistants may have some worrying societal implications. 

A feminine voice is the default alternative for sensible assistants, together with Alexa on the Amazon Echo

(Picture credit score: Juan Ci /

In Might 2019, a groundbreaking report by UNESCO recommended that the default use of female-sounding voice assistants in our sensible dwelling devices and smartphones perpetuates sexist attitudes in direction of girls.

The report, titled I would Blush if I May, takes its identify from Siri’s former default response to being referred to as a ‘bitch’ by customers – and criticizes the truth that Apple’s Siri, Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana, are “completely feminine or feminine by default, each in identify and in sound of voice”.

Sympathetic and agreeable

So, why do voice assistants sound like girls? Julia Kanouse, CEO of the Illinois Expertise Affiliation, explains that the businesses behind these voice assistants based mostly their selections on client suggestions. 

She explains: “Analysis exhibits that girls girls’s voices are typically higher obtained by shoppers, and that from an early age we want listening to feminine voices”. 

Certainly, in an interview with Enterprise Insider, the pinnacle of Amazon’s Sensible Dwelling division, Daniel Rausch, defined that his group “carried out analysis and located that a lady’s voice is extra sympathetic”. 

Up to now, so believable – and as Kanouse concedes, the usage of female-sounding voice assistants is clearly grounded in analysis. 

Amazon Echo Dot

Analysis has proven that from an early age we discover feminine voices extra sympathetic than male ones

(Picture credit score: Amazon)

Nevertheless, the alternatives made by voice assistant creators may have far-reaching penalties for ladies at dwelling, and within the office.

“Using feminine voice assistants might reinforce the stereotype that we want to inform a girl what to do, relatively than a person,” says Kanouse.

“Solely not too long ago have we began to see males transfer into what had been historically considered as feminine roles, and, conversely, see girls battle to make sure these roles (similar to flight attendants, nurses, paralegals, govt directors) are seen as greater than ‘simply an assistant’.”

This progress may doubtlessly be undone by the proliferation of feminine voice assistants, in response to UNESCO. Its report claims that the default use of female-sounding voice assistants sends a sign to customers that girls are “obliging, docile and eager-to-please helpers, obtainable on the contact of a button or with a blunt voice command like ‘hey’ or ‘OK’”. 

It’s additionally worrying that these voice assistants have “no energy of company past what the commander asks of it” and reply to queries “no matter [the user’s] tone or hostility”. These could also be fascinating traits in an AI voice assistant, however what if the best way we discuss to Alexa and Siri finally ends up influencing the best way we discuss to girls in our on a regular basis lives?

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Researchers say the usage of predominantly feminine voices in sensible audio system can feed into unconscious biases

(Picture credit score: Google)

One in every of UNESCO’s fundamental criticisms of firms like Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft is that the docile nature of our voice assistants has the unintended impact of reinforcing “generally held gender biases that girls are subservient and tolerant of poor remedy”. 

This subservience is especially worrying when these female-sounding voice assistants give “deflecting, lackluster or apologetic responses to verbal sexual harassment”. 

Whereas Kanouse doesn’t suppose this has led to overt instances of sexual discrimination, she does consider it creates “a degree of unconscious bias”, including that “the prevalence of feminine voice assistants might feed into unconscious biases in opposition to girls within the office and residential, making it harder for ladies to beat these obstacles”. 

Ought to voice assistants be gender-neutral?

One answer could possibly be to make voice assistants sound gender-neutral – and it is one thing that’s completely doable, as demonstrated by the makers of Q, the world’s first gender-neutral voice assistant

Chatting with NPR, Julia Carpenter, an knowledgeable on human habits and rising applied sciences who labored on the challenge, defined that one of many group’s objectives was to “contribute to a worldwide dialog about gender, and about gender, expertise, and ethics, and learn how to be inclusive for those that establish in all kinds of various methods”. 

To create the voice of Q, the group recorded “dozens of individuals”, together with those that establish as male, feminine, transgender, and nonbinary, though ultimately they selected only one voice, and pitch-altered it till it sounded neither male nor feminine.

You may hear what Q appears like within the video under.

The outcome, whereas maybe slightly extra synthetic-sounding than Alexa or Siri, is a very inclusive voice assistant for everybody – and the objective is to persuade tech giants to undertake Q as a 3rd choice for his or her assistants.

Sadly, this isn’t seemingly – in any case, manufacturers like Apple, Google and Amazon are notoriously inflexible with regards to the design of their merchandise, and we are able to’t see them agreeing to make use of the identical voice as their rivals.

Range is vital

So, as an alternative of constructing voice assistants sound homogenous, may the reply lie in making them super-diverse?

This range doesn’t need to be centered on gender both; why can’t our voice assistants have regional accents? Why couldn’t they sound younger or previous, use slang, or pidgin-English?

The information that the BBC is engaged on a voice assistant referred to as Beeb, which is able to perceive all the various regional accents of the UK, has stoked hopes that it’s going to additionally communicate with a few of these accents. 

Dr Matthew Aylett, Chief Scientific Officer at speech expertise firm Cereproc, thinks this might set Beeb other than the opposite voice assistants available on the market. 

“No different group may boast of the resonance and significance of voice in comparison with the BBC,” he says, explaining that selecting an artificial voice to symbolize the group is “a giant problem”.

The relatively low number of women working in tech fields means they have less input into the design of voice assistants

The comparatively low variety of girls working in tech fields means they’ve much less enter into the design of voice assistants

(Picture credit score:

Discussing manufacturers like Apple, Google, and Amazon he explains that, “in lots of instances decision-makers are selecting a default, impartial, well-spoken feminine voice with out even contemplating that this can be a main design determination”.

And the BBC could possibly be within the good place to problem this. With its encouragement of participation from its huge viewers, Aylett believes that the usage of a various voice for Beeb “may result in some ground-breaking new views on voice interplay”.

Aylett thinks the BBC may even name on this viewers to pick out well-loved BBC presenters and create an amalgamated voice from the outcomes – think about how soothing a David Attenborough / Joanna Lumley hybrid could possibly be.

Nevertheless, Aylett does not suppose that world voice assistant builders will help third-party range from the likes of the BBC, or be “brave sufficient to supply a lot range themselves”. 

Why? Properly, the groups behind our hottest voice assistants simply aren’t that numerous themselves. 

Girls to the entrance

In accordance with UNESCO, Alexa’s sexism downside is basically right down to the dearth of girls within the room when tech firms are designing their voice assistants. 

This is a matter that impacts the complete trade, with simply 7% of ICT (Data and Communication Expertise) patents generated by girls throughout G20 nations; UNESCO says the overuse of female-sounding voice assistants is “a strong illustration of gender biases coded into expertise merchandise, pervasive within the expertise sector and obvious in digital expertise schooling”. 

The answer? We want extra girls within the STEM (Science Expertise, Engineering, and Maths) industries, and that, says UNESCO, requires “recruiting, retaining, and selling girls within the expertise sector” – in any case, how can our voice assistants successfully symbolize their customers if an enormous proportion of these customers don’t have any say of their growth?

Regardless of the reply is, it’s clear that we’d like extra alternative with regards to the voices in our sensible audio system. As Kanouse says, “whether or not it’s a male voice, or gender-neutral, or a mimicked recording of somebody well-known like Morgan Freeman for instance, there are artistic options that these firms may implement that might guarantee we aren’t reinforcing gender stereotypes”. 

She provides: “Making that swap could possibly be a really highly effective assertion from these influential firms”. 

“And wouldn’t or not it’s enjoyable to inform Morgan Freeman what to do daily?”

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