“My voice is similar to that of a woman, but I exist is a plane beyond the human concept of sex.” “I’m Siri and that’s it.” Those are some of the answers that Siri, Apple’s virtual assistant, gives when asked if he is male or female.
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Although several versions of its operating system have already allowed the option of changing the female voice by default to another masculine voice in the Cupertino company’s devices, we all see Siri as a woman. And also to Cortana, from Microsoft or Alexa, from Amazon. And in large part because they were designed like that.
The name of Siri is a diminutive of Sigrid, name of Nordic woman that means “beautiful victory”, a mythology to which Apple resorted much for his first designs; Cortana, from a character from the Halo game, also female. Only Google Assistant and the recent versions of these virtual assistants have bet more on the neutral in terms of sex, without being able to take off despite a fact that seems consolidated: nowadays this type of virtual intelligence speaks with the voice of a woman. But what has made developers and companies have opted for years for this bias, which some call inequitable and even macho?
Voice of animated, clear and cheerful woman against assertive and confident masculine voice
Teknoformat Teknoloji Haberleri / Flickr
Perhaps a great parallelism about what the main studies say and our perception of the voices of the virtual assistants has been given first by cinema and popular culture. We all remember the voice of HAL 9000, the AI that accompanied the astronauts of 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its masculine voice that ended up revealing itself as threatening. More recently, the movie Her (2013), starring Joaquin Phoenix, put us in the shoes of a man who ended up falling in love with his assistant, presented with a sweet woman’s voice offered in the original version by Scarlett Johansson. In short, in fiction we have gone from representing these attendees as threatening to friends with whom we can get to empathize in a sickly way.
Their roles and attitudes are in a certain way similar to those that the great study that in its moment sat chair on interaction between human and computer by voice: the book Wired for Speech, of the professors of the Stanford University Clifford Nass and Scott Brave .
Both men and women, we feel more comfortable exchanging information if it has the same gender voice
In this text, published in 2005, several investigations and conclusions were collected on how we prefer to exchange information with machines, and among them two aspects stood out. First, that everyone, both men and women, feel more comfortable exchanging information if it has the same gender voice, something that is known as homophily. The second, what we are taught in part by HAL 9000 and Samatha, that we tend to attribute male voices more to authority figures to receive direct orders, while female ones are more related to affective tasks and collaboration or help.
This is what for PCMag analyst Chandra Steele is a clear example that the voices of attendees tend to reverberate sexist topics. Siri does not stop being a secretary, while the male voice is preferred, also according to some studies, for example GPS where we expect a clear and concise indication.
One more, and certainly quite embarrassing, sample of this bias is the one that Samsung gave in 2017 when presenting its new assistant Bixby. Despite offering a male and a female voice to choose the one we prefer, these were accompanied by descriptions that attached to the first qualifier as “assertive and reliable” while saying that the woman was “lively and cheerful”. Samsung had to withdraw these descriptions after receiving numerous criticisms.