|Voice assistants like Alexa and Siri faced mounting criticism last year as it disproportionately misunderstood women and ethnic minorities / Credits: metamorworks via Shutterstock|
In 2019, issues about why voice assistants such as Alexa and Siri use female voices arose. Tech companies answered these issues with research showing that female voices are more helpful, compliant, and subservient compared to males. Meanwhile, male voices are only used within artificial intelligence technology to telegraph superiority, intelligence, and more commanding qualities. While these seem harmless, these can have negative implications.
According to The Guardian, Alexa and Siri faced mounting criticism last year as it disproportionately misunderstood women, ethnic minorities and those with accents not represented in datasets. Reports even showed that they only favor white and Chinese male voices. Dr. Charlotte Webb, the co-founder of Feminist Internet, stated that one of the current technology’s shortcomings is its failure to respond adequately to abuse.
“The example of Siri stating ‘I’d blush if I could’ when told it was a bitch is a well-known example, as is Alexa replying ‘Well, thanks for the feedback’ when told ‘You’re a slut’,” Dr. Webb said.
To address this issue, researchers launched Project Q, which aims to create a gender-neutral voice. The prototype voice was developed by non-binary linguists. After that, the team asked a sample of 4,500 people from across Europe whether it sounded male or female. This is one of the examples of how companies are trying to diversify voice tech.
“Q is a voice to break down that gender binary and really highlight that tech companies should take responsibility which is proportional to the kind of influence that they exercise over society,” Ryan Sherman, a creative developer at Project Q, said.
Companies like BBC are also working on voices that would represent regional accents. BBC is planning to launch a voice assistant called Beeb this 2020 to respond to users’ requests in their own language. “We’ve been trying to get people to provide voices from all corners of the country to help us ensure that it can be a conversation assistant that represents regional accents and the way language is used in this country,” Mukul Devichand, the corporation’s executive editor of voice and AI, said.