Whether you talk to Alexa, Siri, Cortana, or Google Assistant, you'll notice a similar theme in the default artificial intelligence you're tasking. Lee Suckling explains.
"Hey, Google," I'll shout over the hum of the kitchen extractor fan. "What's an alternative to saffron?"
In a docile and obedient female voice, my Google Home will tell me that turmeric is my best bet. She sounds like a combination of newsreader, mum, and sexy robot. She is obliging. She is calm. She is submissive.
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Whether you talk to Alexa, Siri, Cortana, or Google Assistant, you'll notice a similar theme in the default artificial intelligence you're tasking. It is a she. She is breathy and sultry, akin to an Angelina Jolie or Scarlett Johansson prototype. She is not pushy or belligerent but still smart and sassy, like Hilary Barry. She is compliant and forever optimistic, as per the Betty Draper model of domestic goddess.
In short, she was obviously designed by men, to appease other men. She's a trope of their antiquated male fantasies; an audible version of who they would have plastered on their bedroom walls as teenagers.
So I've changed my in-home AI to the voice of a male robot. I am uncomfortable having a female slave in my house. It doesn't matter that she's a droid. I don't care if she's a bot; a compendium of computer-generated sound bites; a Silicon Valley illusion built on a high-powered PC. She's an archaic example of what we once believed women should be.
How is it that something so technologically forward-thinking as in-home AI has fallen into the trap that Hollywood, the publishing industry, and social media at large have been trying to get us out of?
As Bloomberg journalist Emily Chang writes in her recent book Brotopia: Breaking up the boys' club of Silicon Valley, (http://www.brotopiabook.com) that little tech hub just outside of San Francisco remains an aggressive and misogynistic men's locker room. It is fed by "bro culture", a frat-boy-esque cliché that thrives on hot tub client meetings and beer pong.
From Apple to Pinterest, women in tech roles in Silicon Valley still only represent 20-30 per cent of the industry. The tech world is famous for its diversity problem . The result of this is a society of technology consumers being fed a diet of 1950s housewife stereotypes all over again.
Changing my Google Assistant voice to a man's is a tiny step in challenging this. Unfortunately this isn't even an option if your Google Assistant region is set outside of the US, or if you use Alexa or Cortana. It can, thankfully, be done with Siri (yet the out-of-the-box standard remains a dutiful and husky female).
A male voice isn't really enough though. The go-to for home AI should be a genderless voice – something being pioneered by Q, the world's first gender-neutral voice assistant. For how else are we going to challenge this obvious gender bias in technology that is pervading our houses?
The developers of Q argue tech companies should take a societal responsibility on gender equality; proportionate to the kind of influence they exercise. In obtaining their power, these companies
have taken on the obligation to change this narrative, so life for real women can continue to get better.
I'm sure there are many out there who struggle to see the connection between the gender of a digital assistant's voice, and real-world gender equality. After all, all market research – which is what tech companies use to inform their decisions on the matter – confirms that all people (male and female) prefer and expect a female voice when it comes to AI.
Think about it like this. Pretend you're a young boy growing up with a digital assistant in your family home. Maybe you're seven years old – born in 2012 – and you don't know life without being able to ask AI for answers. When that AI by default is a meek and inoffensive woman that teaches you – or at least regularly reinforces – that all females should speak to you that way.
As you grow up, and the lines between the digital and reality become uncomprehendingly blurred, what's stopping you from keeping consolidating the same sexist views that have dominated society for thousands of years? Why would you suddenly want to treat women as equals when you've known them as subordinates since you were a small boy?
The future is bleak if Alexa, Google Assistant, et al. continue to be female by default. A male option for all users of digital assistants is one thing: I urge you to change your digital assistant to a man's voice if possible. However, society-at-large – given its domination by technology – can't keep improving until gender is removed from our artificial intelligence completely.