The Gender Bias Of Digital Assistants

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Ever wonder why Alexa, Siri, Cortana, and Google Home speak in female voices? 

Users find them “more cordial” and “sympathetic” than male voices, which enables us to see computers as “helpful” and “caring,” according to this story last year.

This means they’re discernibly subservient and therefore contribute to sexism, according to this recent report by Unesco.

It’s not just the tone of the voices; they react the ways society expects women to behave in awkward social settings, like Siri replying “I’d blush if I could” in response to a misogynistic invective, or Alexa answering a blunt statement like “you’re hot” with “that’s nice of you to say.”

“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,” the New York Times quoted from the report.

Cordial and sympathetic are codes words for obedient.

This bias isn’t unconscious, it’s on purpose because it’s good for business. Imagine if Siri spoke in a booming male voice, and if you said something appropriate to “him,” he told you to zip it and deny you access to your email or maps (or whatever) for 10 minutes.

So much for finalizing that sale. In the terms of tech theology, the point is to enable a frictionless transaction, which is another code word for enabling and encouraging experiences unencumbered by even a hint of morality.

There’s unconscious bias to consider on top of that, as the Unesco report notes that women constitute only 12 percent of AI researchers and 6 percent of those who code it. That means the algorithms that stand in for artificial consciousness come from men, as do most all of their imagined uses.

Robots that do “manly” work don’t get named and usually communicate silently via touchscreens; most of them are identified by function, like Arc Welding Robot or Pick and Place. But robots conceived as servants come with cute names, sound like women, and say things men would expect them to say.

Technology doesn’t create gender stereotypes, people do.

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