As I mentioned in my Alexa Month 1 post I was intrigued as to why most of the home assistants are ‘female’. So I did a bit of research.
Firstly, when you ask Alexa what gender it is it replies
“I’m female in character.”
We now have a Google Home Mini as well, and when asked the same question it replies
“Well, although my voice sounds female I’m actually AI so I’m neither. Crazy huh”
I was trying to transcribe what was said and so asked again and got a different response. Quite a few different responses actually.
“I eat gender roles for breakfast.”
“I’m all inclusive.”
“I try to stay neutral.”
“Well, I’m actually AI software, so I’m neither. Woah!”
So, these home assistants are not claiming to be female; they just sound female. Does that matter? Does it make a difference that they sound female but aren’t really? I suspect not. It’s a female voice so in most cases we, as pattern matching humans, will label it as ‘she’, and ‘her’. I find it takes deliberate effort to respond to it with a gender-neutral pronoun. (And it also feels a bit rude which says a lot about the anthropomorphising of things with voices!)
I knew that I wouldn’t be the first person to wonder about this. So I had a look around. I first found this article which says
In 2008, Karl MacDorman, a professor at Indiana University who specializes in human-computer interaction, set up an experiment with some fellow researchers. When they had men and women listen to male and female synthesized voices, both groups said the female voices were “warmer.” The most interesting part? In further tests of less voluntary responses, women showed a stronger implicit preference for the female voice. (Men showed no significant implicit preference for either gender.)
Amazon and Microsoft found the same preference for the female voice in their market research. “For our objectives—building a helpful, supportive, trustworthy assistant—a female voice was the stronger choice,” says a Microsoft spokeswoman. Amazon says it tested several voices with customers and internal groups and found that Alexa’s female voice was preferred.
So, we associate helpful, supportive, and trustworthy with a female voice. Which, to my mind, is building on top of established patterns, thus reinforcing them a bit more. And then these bits concerned me
In other bots, ones that instruct rather than take orders, male voices may be preferred for certain subject areas.
Nearly 20 years ago, the late Clifford Nass and fellow researchers at Stanford University found that a male computerized voice was perceived to be a better teacher of computers, while a female computerized voice was preferred for guidance on love and relationships.
So we’ll take a male voice to be taught things, but a female to assist us. This doesn’t sit right with me.
Prof. MacDorman, who is continuing this type of research, says device designers face “an ethical quandary here. Maybe they shouldn’t be reinforcing the stereotypes but challenging them or being neutral on them.”
I’m with Prof. MacDorman on this and that device designers should, where possible, be challenging, or reducing the stereotypes rather than enforcing them.
And then from this article
It is difficult to ignore the sexist origins of these various robots’ names: Apple’s Siri translates as “beautiful woman who leads you to victory”; Amazon’s Alexa is a name given to one of the five main Bratz dolls; Microsoft’s Cortana is based on a hypersexualised female character in the video game “Halo”, and Facebook’s M is rumoured to be inspired by Moneypenny - the epitome of the “sexy secretary” - a woman who panders to James Bond’s misogynistic come-ons in every film.
I asked Alexa why it was called Alexa and after telling me about the name Alexander, Alexandra and Alexandros it said
As for me, I’m named for the Library of Alexandria, which stored the knowledge of the ancient world.
It didn’t say anything about Bratz dolls. So I suspect we can take that with a pinch of salt.
If future generations are brought up with only female versions, how will they treat women? What if, as is the case for many young adolescents, the majority of their interactions with women are with a computer who simply cannot say no?
I spoke to a friend of mine who has three young children, and an Alexa. She said that for the boys (aged 7) Alexa is currently seen as an all-knowing, wise teacher. They can ask it questions to find out football scores or to learn and check things. So, in this case, at this age, it seems like Alexa might be a teacher rather than something to give orders to. It’ll be interesting to see how this changes as they grow up and the voice assistants change around them.
We become sexist just from existing in modern society, a theory called “unconscious bias.” Prejudices then become stronger the more frequently they are encountered.
And this is my main concern. Whether the devices being female is intentionally derogatory, the fact that they are will reinforce our biases. And I think that our biases are strong enough already. We need to learn to challenge them, not make them stronger.
That second article did lead me to discover something fascinating though. It linked to this article which was all about some research done into female voices.
Scientists believe hormonal changes at the fertile time of the monthly cycle may have a physiological effect on the woman’s larynx to which listeners react unconsciously.
American researchers have found that electrical activity in a man’s skin increases, along with his heart rate, within five seconds of hearing the voice of a female at her most fertile.
Digital recordings of women speaking at fertile and non-fertile times of the menstrual cycle were played to males and females, who were then asked to rate them for attractiveness.
A report on the research in Physiology and Behavior showed that both men and women rated the fertile voices as the more attractive. The electrical activity in the skin of both men and women increased by about 20 per cent when listening to the fertile women’s voices, and heart rates increased by about five per cent.
So, a woman’s voice is perceived to be more attractive to men and women when she’s at a fertile point of her cycle. I can’t stop thinking about this. About the way that this could be used, or abused. And then I wondered about who thought this might be the case. So I had another bit of a search and learned that it was this guy who says
My main research area focuses on how the human voice is a medium which disseminates important biological information, over and above intelligible speech.
So the idea that the voice includes other information encoded within it as well as the actual words and tone of voice. Fascinating. For those interesting in learning more his two papers related to this are Physiological changes in response to hearing female voices recorded at high fertility and Women’s voice attractiveness varies across the menstrual cycle.
So, what started off as a question about the gender politics of having a female voice as my home assistant led me to discover that female voices are more attractive when they’re at peak fertility. Quite the journey.
After all of that I think I’m going to try and call Alexa and Google Home ‘it’ rather than ‘her’ and ‘she’. Given a choice, I think I’d change the voice to a male one to counteract the biases I almost certainly already have. So come on Amazon, Google, and other manufacturers, give me an option to choose!