New Thinking

Few good men: Why is the growing population of AI voices predominantly female?

Why do all the robots of the future seem to be female?

Siri. Alexa. Cortanae. The automated call center voice. From feminine AI reception attendants to Sophia, the android wandering among the Davos elite, the voice of the future is … female.

One theory is that Siri, Alexa, help desk robo-voices and our GPS navigation systems all perform what are essentially service tasks, administrative roles typically associated with women. To make these unfamiliar technologies go down easier with new audiences, we rely on familiar gender stereotypes — even subconsciously. Jason Mars, whose financial software firm Clinc chose a “helpful, young Caucasian female” voice for its AI assistant, told the New York Times, “There’s a kind of pressure to conform to the prejudices of the world” when you are trying to make a consumer hit.

Another theory suggests our biology is hard-wired to favor female voices. Karl MacDorman, an associate dean at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing, who specializes in human-computer interaction, played clips of male and female voices to people of both genders then asked them to identify which they preferred. Per Wired, both women and men reported female voices came across as warmer.

Tech leaders have discovered the same. Amazon tested male and female voices for Alexa, the personal assistant that powers their smart speaker Amazon Echo, and customers overwhelmingly preferred the female one. Microsoft saw similar results when piloting its digital assistant Cortana.

“It’s a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices,” said the late Stanford University Professor Clifford Nass in a 2011 CNN interview.

An example from the other side of the coin: IBM found that when you want people to know that they are talking to a computer and not a human, it’s better to use a male voice. That’s one reason Big Blue initially gave its bleeding edge cognitive computing platform Watson a male voice. Later, when Ashok Goel, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, ran an experiment in which he gave Watson a female voice, his students couldn’t tell it was a computer.

In his book Wired for Speech, Professor Nass wrote that individuals generally perceive female voices as helping us solve our problems by ourselves, while they view male voices as authority figures who tell us the answers to our problems. That can chafe. Most people want our technology to help us, but not boss us around.

As AI technology improves, computer scientists and IT leaders say those biases are likely to diminish. According to companies like Nuance, architects of the digital voices found on everything from Siri to Amazon’s e-readers, the future is personalization, tailoring not only the gender of our virtual assistants but also their dialect, tone and formality. Nuance, for instance, allows customers to customize voice interfaces to line up with the attributes they want their product or brand to represent. Other companies, like Google, deliberately choose androgynous names like “OK Google” instead of human ones, and retain a certain computer-sounding edge to the chosen voices to underscore the technological sophistication of their offering.

It’s no secret that robotics has traditionally been a male-dominated field, but with the advance of basic machine intelligence into human-computer interaction, designing “socially aware” machines has become especially important. That field, which mixes computer science with psychology and social science, has tended to draw more women than men. In these areas, creating systems that can demonstrate understanding and sympathy and convey a range of emotions is as central as robust computing power to driving adoption.

So move over Alexa and Siri, virtual assistants are likely to go co-ed. Over the next several years, we expect to see a significant rise in the number of women involved in all aspects of AI and robotics. That will contribute to new advances and more diverse attitudes in the way we perceive and use digital agents.

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