Siri, Alexa and Co .: Why Language Assistants are Female | TechBook

In times of the #MeToo debate, the fight against sexism has long since reached the world of technology.Directly with the appearance of the first language assistants came the criticism that this kind of technical progress would reinforce sexist stereotypes.

History of the predecessors

First difficulties already arise in the name: Translated from Norwegian Siri means something like “a beautiful woman who leads you to victory”.Cortana comes from the video gameHaloas a provocative hologram.Alexa is a reference to the library of Alexandria, from the city of Alexander the Great.The Google Assistant does not use a human name – and yet: No matter what they are called, all of them are voiced with female voices.

Originally identity- and gender-free computer language is thus “gendered” – just because it fulfills a certain task.

Siri started out as a model of competition only as a woman, but added an option for the male voice years after launch, though the female voice is still the standard. It may be easy to imagine that the reason for choosing female AI votes was based on sexism – men dominate leadership and development positions in Silicon Valley – and certainly this factor plays a role, but there is more behind it.

Because Siri is far from being alone on the floor: Microsoft Cortana and Amazon Alexa still have no male votes and the Google Assistant is the factory setting is still female. But why is that?

Female voices sound more pleasant

Survey on Siri, Alexa & Co

Survey on Siri, Alexa & Co | Photo: Statista

For the modern systems real voices are used, which are then technically assembled to ever new sentences.“Our studies have shown that there are benefits and trade-offs for both gender positions,” said a Microsoft spokesperson. “We have done extensive research and found that a female voice conveys a certain warmth, which is connected with helpfulness. We were looking for a helpful digital assistant and made the choice based on this research. “

Amazon conducted similar market tests in which candidates also favored a female voice to speak with them, which is why they chose Alexa. Google, by contrast, has not assigned a gender to the name of its voice AI, the company simply called it Google Assistant. Nevertheless, she still has a recognizable female voice.

Assistant voices traditionally female

In the history of technology and pop culture, the female voice has a certain tradition. Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with the role of a computer system in his role in the movie “Her” (2013), spoken by Scarlett Johansson.The telephone time announcement (yes, there is still) is female until today.

The Berlin researcher Judith Meinschaefer explains this from the perspective of science: “Women’s voices are more understandable than male voices.” That’s because the vocal folds swing faster. The frequency of the signals is higher. However, it is not a matter for Meinschaefer as a scientist, dcomputer systems push women into an assistant role. However, you have a presumption as a woman: It is probably because of the fact that men are more enthusiastic about technology, and it may fit in their world view. Technically, it would not be a problem if male voices were used, says Meinschaefer.

Voice control is becoming increasingly popular

With more diversity against old-fashioned role models

“Language assistants are the digital maidservants of our time,” explains Holger Schulz.  Sound researcher at the University of Copenhagen. When Deutschlandfunk culture, he expressed critical that the female voice is forced back into the role of an assistant.

Miriam Meckel, Professor of Communication Management at the University of St. Gallen, also points to a series of studies that confirm that female voices are perceived as more pleasing than males. Therefore, the default setting for all language assistants is female.

For Meckel the problem lies in the fact that they assume a service function, which is thereby combined in everyday use with female. “As children increasingly grow up in dealing with Alexa and Co, this can have an impact on the understanding of gender roles in a society,” explains the author, who is also the founding publisher of the digital magazine “ada”.

ALL Siri commands at a glance

This problem has been shown to be particularly drastic on the example of sexual harassment, according to Meckel. “In fact, the language assistants have to listen to a lot of that.” Meanwhile, manufacturers were working to find the appropriate and not inappropriately polite answers. “If you make Siri an immoral offer today, you hear:The answer is no. “

This shows, according to Meckel: “Also in the communication and interaction with software systems are handling rules important. We do not just learn from people, but now also from machines. “

Symbol of diversity

It is important to give consumers options when it comes to the votes of artificial adjutants, because different cultures or demographics usually have different preferences when it comes to personal assistants. Apple does a good job of allowing people to choose different languages, accents, and gender votes. For example, you can have a male voice with an Italian dialect or a female voice with a French accent. At Amazon alone, 10,000 people work only to improve Alexa and teach different dialects and colloquialisms.

TECHBOOK has also found robots with male voices with some research. Worth mentioning are, for example, IBM’s Watson and “Dom”, the virtual order assistant of Domino’s Pizza. In addition, there is for the Club of the billionaires exclusively Mark Zuckerberg’s own AI assistant Jarvis, spoken by acting legend Morgan Freeman.