Siri, Alexa, Cortana. Our virtual assistants are all young women. Regardless of their creator, they share the same traits: they are polite, patient, obedient, and submissive. Why were they designed to be this way? Perhaps the overrepresentation of men in the tech world has something to do with it.
The voices of Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google Assistant are female by default in most languages and three of them have female names. Siri means “beautiful woman who leads you to victory” in Old Norse. Cortana is named after a naked, female AI character from the Halo science fiction series. Only Siri and Google Assistant have male voices available.
Until April 2019, Siri would reply “I’d blush if I could” when she was told, “Hey Siri! You’re a bitch”. Only after a petition asking for change was signed nearly 60,000 times, did Apple replace Siri’s line with the placid “I don’t know how to respond to that”. Progress anno 2019.
Now, why does this matter? First, it reinforces the idea that women are there to assist. Even if you don’t tell Siri that she is a bitch, the premise remains the same: she is not in charge. Second, it keeps the harmful stereotype of the obedient, submissive woman in place.
Male virtual assistants do exist, by the way. IBM’s virtual assistant talks with physicians about cancer treatment. The higher order AI engine, who is used for its intellectual support, speaks with a male voice and listens to a male name: Watson.
Virtual assistants do not only speak in a gendered voice, they also respond inadequately to problems that mostly (but certainly not exclusively) hurt women. When told “I was raped“, only Cortana provides the number of a sexual abuse hotline. Other virtual assistants reply with: “I don’t know what you mean by I was raped” or “I don’t know how to respond to that”.
To end with good news: a group of researchers and sound designers with a “let’s-fix-this-mentality” created a genderless voice to be used in AI, named Q! Learn more about Q via: https://www.genderlessvoice.com/about