Artificially intelligent digital assistants are fast becoming part of our everyday life transactions; whether it’s booking a holiday, scheduling appointments, finding the nearest ATM or telling us if it is sunny in Spain.
The likes of Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, and more recently Google Assistant all have very similar job descriptions; to help us perform our daily tasks effortlessly. But their job roles aren’t the only thing they have in common; they are also all assigned the female gender.
Working in the tech industry with a new AI product, Ami, it seems our company also follow this trend. In fact, most automated systems we hear every day bear the female voice; train announcements, automated phone systems, the Sat Nav in your car. It appears most computerised personalities in our lives are women.
So why is the gender representation so unbalanced? AI and robots are viewed as the future of technology, but we have to question if they are built on some rather old-fashioned gender stereotypes. Think of your typical service-facing jobs (teacher, flight attendant, nurse, waitress), where women today are still vastly over-represented. Assigning gender to these AI personalities may say something about the roles we expect them to play. Virtual assistants perform jobs historically given to women. They look up information, schedule appointments, and are largely intended for communication.
It’s unsettling to think this is still considered the natural order in 2018. Could we be worsening the matter by enforcing more gender roles within these non-human entities? By acclimatising ourselves to normalise speaking to our AI’s with such a master and servant diction, we could be reversing any progress made with eliminating a parochial society in the past few decades.
One obvious exception to the pattern is perhaps the most well-known example of AI to date, Siri. In the United Kingdom, Siri is set to male as default as it is thought that us Brit’s respond better to “authoritative” voices. However, the default voice for the rest of the world is actually a female American persona known as Samantha. Apple added the ability for Siri to use a male voice with the iOS 7 update. The name Siri means “a beautiful woman who leads you to victory” in Norse. This is an interesting contrast between UK consumers preferring a male ‘dominant’ voice, and other world users preferring a voice of obedience or subservience from a female as default.
This preference for a less intimidating, softer voice could be why so many AI companies choose to create their Bot’s with a female identity in mind. It is worth considering that a woman’s soft tones can sound more soothing and calming to the user’s ear compared to the lower, perhaps harsher tones of a male voice. However, some may argue that users just prefer their female AI to appear readily available and always of service. So, does the female voice project the perfect servant in the eyes of AI bosses?
In terms of phonetics and intonation, Stanford University Professor Clifford Nass suggests,
“It’s much easier to find a female voice that everyone likes than a male voice that everyone likes. It’s a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices.”
While this is an innate theory, a more historical approach is the idea that early aircraft navigation aids and telephonists were voiced by women, creating a model for future automated assistants to follow suit.
Karl Fredric MacDorman, a computer scientist and expert in human-computer interaction commented, “I think there is a pattern here,” but “I don’t know that there’s one easy answer”. Many of the engineers who design these machines are men, and “I think men find women attractive, and women are also OK dealing with women,” he added.
So, is it inherent sexism from the engineers behind the bots? Or, do we as humans innately feel more at ease with the gentler sounds of a woman’s tone telling us that we have the dentist at 3pm, or that it’s 16 degrees and raining in Mallorca, our holiday destination for next week.
The creation and worldwide use of AI products as our human-like assistants is set to grow at a rapid pace in the next 10 years, and whatever the intent behind it, the clear feminisation of the AI industry seems to be becoming an established identity for the bots.