Have you ever noticed that Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google Assistant all default to a female voice? Of course, you can choose to hear a male voice, but the first three have conventionally female names. If you use these services, much like a personal secretary at your fingertips, they make your life easier by arranging your schedule, answering your questions, making your calls. Virtual assistants are being gendered as female. It’s no coincidence.
In 2019, researchers created an alternative meant to challenge the gender bias in AI assistants: a gender-neutral voice option called Q. Julie Carpenter, one of the developers of Q and research fellow for the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group, spoke to NPR: “There is a history of research that shows often that people might prefer to hear a female-sounding voice in some situations, particularly when the tasks associated with that voice are assistive.”
Coming as no surprise to gender theorists, people prefer a male voice when the voice is giving commands, like the voices giving instructions in subways or voices associated with security robots. These are textbook gender stereotypes; all being reinforced by seemingly benign technology.
A collaboration between Copenhagen Pride, Virtue, Equal AI, Koalition Interactive and thirtysoundsgood, the Q project recorded the voices of many people who identified as male, female, transgender or nonbinary. The developers determined a sweet spot that exists between
145-175 Hertz, a range which listeners perceive as neither fully masculine nor feminine. Then 4,500 people were surveyed about potential voices for Q, and one stood out as particularly ambiguous.
According to the Williams Institute, 1.4 million adults in America identify as transgender, and a swath of that population identifies as non-binary, an identity that implies one does not fit within the strict categories of male and female. Many US state governments have even begun to recognize non-binary as a valid gender identity for driver’s licenses and other documentation. So, it seems natural that the tech industry follow suit by acknowledging that these identities exist and using AI that is inclusive for all. WIRED puts it well: “Q, then, can now literally give a voice to the voiceless in modern technology.”
As many have explored, all humans have implicit biases. As humans design AI, this social bias, The New York Times points out, “can be reflected and amplified by artificial intelligence in dangerous ways, whether it be in deciding who gets a bank loan or who gets surveilled.” It can also reinforce outdated stereotypes and a gender binary that excludes many people.
Some have questioned how realistic gender-neutral AI is, but this seems like a surprisingly negative outlook for an industry that is, in its essence, innovatively pushing boundaries. Challenging conventions in every way, a genderless AI voice like Q makes perfect sense. Hopefully, it’s only a matter of time before this technology is embraced by the industry.