AI assistants have fast become both a home and workplace staple. Siri, Cortana, Google and Alexa all have one thing in common – they may be faceless, genderless and sexless lines of code, but their personas are obviously female.
“She's eager to learn and can be downright funny, peppering her answers with banter or a comeback. She seeks familiarity, but her job is to be a personal assistant.” - Susan Hendrich, project manager in charge of overseeing Cortana's personality.
My name is…
Microsoft’s Cortana is named after a female character in a computer game. ‘Siri’ in Norse means “A beautiful woman who leads you to victory”, and Alexa, according to David Limp, Senior Vice President at Amazon, was created to "replicate the Star Trek computer”, and named in homage to the Library of Alexandria.
But why are these names, and the female images they conjure, being chosen for our everyday AI assistants?
An Industry Bias
According to Hanna Wallach, an AI researcher and cofounder of the Women in Machine Learning Conference, only 13.5 percent of those working in machine learning are female. Perhaps this disparity has led to AI assistants heavily skewing female in persona?
“The company put considerable focus on ensuring that Siri’s personality remained friendly and humble — but also with an edge” - Apple
Some suggest there may be an unconscious bias surrounding the stereotyping of a female assistant. Tracey Groves, Founder and Director of Intelligent Ethics, shares her insight:
“The default female voice of the digital assistant reinforces the norm, and our bias, that women are assistants and men are bosses. Try changing the setting on your AI personal assistant to a male voice and watch people's reactions when they hear it. It challenges their unconscious bias that assigns the female role to administrative positions and the male role as the boss. What is that telling us? It's telling us that technology is progressing, but their programmers are not.
Ultimately the default female voice of the digital personal assistant cements our societal norm that it is the role of the woman to serve the man, and that leadership is the sole preserve of the male. It's time to wake up and challenge this inherent bias as we move into a new age of automation - before it's too late."
Welcoming and understanding
Others believe the default female AI persona simply comes down to consumer research. According to experts, a female voice is used because they are considered both easier to understand, and more comforting.
“We believe Alexa exudes characteristics you'd see in a strong female colleague, family member or friend—she is highly intelligent, funny, well-read, empowering, supportive and kind. This is intentional.” Amazon
The Wall Street Journal challenged this assertion, investigating allegations of sexism in AI. Two separate studies found that both men and women considered a female voice to be more 'welcoming' and ‘understanding’. Is this further proof of our global unconscious bias towards the roles of women in the workplace?
In 2013, Siri was made available to consumers in both male and female voices. Google Assistant also has the option of a male voice. Interestingly, Leila Takayama, a research scientist at robotics firm Willow Garage, suggests that “having a choice of voices may lead users to see Siri as more of a technology than a personality.” So, is personality more important than equality to us, as users of AI assistants?
Emma Coats joined Google in January 2016 and writes dialogue for Google Assistant, “I wanted to create this completely well-rounded character, be able to handle questions from any direction and come across as a consistent persona. Humour is also important as well as witty quips”
Whether the use of female voice assistants is an innate preference, or a product of long standing patriarchal motives in society, one thing remains clear: the increase in use of AI based software and virtual assistants will likely continue to fuel this important debate for years to come.