Sunday, 18 August, 2019

Voice Assistants' Default Female Voice Raises Sexism Concerns Over 'Hardwired Subservience'

AI assistants like Siri and Alexa spread sexism UN study reveals Enlarge Image Shutterstock
Emmett Howard | 24 May, 2019, 20:56

"Siri's "female" obsequiousness - and the servility expressed by so many other digital assistants projected as young women - provides a powerful illustration of gender biases coded into technology products, pervasive in the technology sector and apparent in digital skills education", the report said.

Within the report is a razor-sharp section about the phenomenon of gendered A.I. voice assistants, like Siri or Alexa.

The paper argues that by naming voice assistants with traditionally female names, like Alexa and Siri, and rendering the voices as female-sounding by default, tech companies have already preconditioned users to fall back upon antiquated and harmful perceptions of women.

The point here is that, as the report indicates, with digital assistants being created by humans, they therefore own the same stereotypes we do.

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Citing examples, the United Nations agency said: "In response to the remark "You're a bitch", Apple's Siri responded: "I'd blush if I could"; Amazon's Alexa: "Well thanks for the feedback"; Microsoft's Cortana: "Well, that's not going to get us anywhere"; and Google Home (also Google Assistant): "My apologies, I don't understand".

Much has been written about the pitfalls of tech companies having built their entire consumer-facing AI platforms in the image of traditional, Hollywood-influenced ideas of subservient intelligences. The only instance in which a voice assistant responded negatively to a first-pass demand for a sexual favor was Microsoft's Cortana. As the study authors point out, "The male versions tend to use more definitive quantifiers (one, five), while the female versions use more general quantifiers (a few, some), as well as more personal pronouns (I, you, she)". Siri, for what it's worth, is a Scandinavian name traditionally for females that means "beautiful victory" in Old Norse. From here, users can change the voice from female to male, as well as give Siri a regional accent, like British or South African. In other words, these decisions about gender with regard to AI assistants were made on goal, and after what sounds like extensive feedback. Amazon's Alexa will respond: "Well, thanks for the feedback". The field of AI research is predominantly white and male, a new report from last month found.

"The assistant holds no power of agency beyond what the commander asks of it", Unesco's study says. Women only constitute 12% of the population of AI researchers.

The report explores how these personal assistants give subservient responses to statements that would be considered sexual harassment and verbal abuse.

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