Bias: Female Digital Assistant Voices

October 17, 2019

It was a seemingly benign choice based on consumer research, but there is an unforeseen complication. TechRadar considers, “The Problem with Alexa: What’s the Solution to Sexist Voice Assistants?” From smart speakers to cell phones, voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, Google’s Assistant, and Apple’s Siri generally default to female voices (and usually sport female-sounding names) because studies show humans tend to respond best to female voices. Seems like an obvious choice—until you consider the long-term consequences. Reporter Olivia Tambini cites a report UNESCO issued earlier this year that suggests the practice sets us up to perpetuate sexist attitudes toward women, particularly subconscious biases. She writes:

“This progress [society has made toward more respect and agency for women] could potentially be undone by the proliferation of female voice assistants, according to UNESCO. Its report claims that the default use of female-sounding voice assistants sends a signal to users that women are ‘obliging, docile and eager-to-please helpers, available at the touch of a button or with a blunt voice command like “hey” or “OK”.’ It’s also worrying that these voice assistants have ‘no power of agency beyond what the commander asks of it’ and respond to queries ‘regardless of [the user’s] tone or hostility’. These may be desirable traits in an AI voice assistant, but what if the way we talk to Alexa and Siri ends up influencing the way we talk to women in our everyday lives? One of UNESCO’s main criticisms of companies like Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft is that the docile nature of our voice assistants has the unintended effect of reinforcing ‘commonly held gender biases that women are subservient and tolerant of poor treatment’. This subservience is particularly worrying when these female-sounding voice assistants give ‘deflecting, lackluster or apologetic responses to verbal sexual harassment’.”

So what is a voice-assistant maker to do? Certainly, male voices could be used and are, in fact, selectable options for several models. Another idea is to give users a wide variety of voices to choose from—not just different genders, but different accents and ages, as well. Perhaps the most effective solution would be to use a gender-neutral voice; one dubbed “Q” has now been created, proving it is possible. (You can listen to Q through the article or on YouTube.)

Of course, this and other problems might have been avoided had there been more diversity on the teams behind the voices. Tambini notes that just seven percent of information- and communication-tech patents across G20 countries are generated by women. As more women move into STEM fields, will unintended gender bias shrink as a natural result?

Cynthia Murrell, October 17, 2019

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