Siri started out with a female voice exclusively, but now it can be changed to male. Alexa uses only a female voice. Cortana’s voice, for now, is strictly female. Why is that? Is it sexism? Is it for better intelligibility? Is there a compelling psychology behind the female voice for all users? I looked into it.
I got very curious about this choice of AI gender when I read Joanna Stern’s article at the Wall Street Journal: “Alexa, Siri, Cortana: The Problem With All-Female Digital Assistants.”
My first blush reaction was that it’s an intelligibility issue. I recalled previous studies, when I was younger, abut cockpit warning systems in military and commercial aircraft. The earliest, apocryphal reports were that pilots were able to better hear, against background noise, warnings in a female voice due to the frequency range. This also applies, I have heard, to radio dispatchers for the police. You can read more about the evolution of thinking and the current usage in the “Bitching Betty” article at Wikipedia. Notable, however, is this:
Arrabito in 2009, however, at Defence Research and Development Canada in Toronto, found that with simulated cockpit background radio traffic, a male voice rather than a female voice, in a monotone or urgent annunciaton style, resulted in the largest proportion of correct and fastest identification response times to verbal warnings, regardless of the gender of the listener.
I kept researching. Over the years, more complete studies have shown that the female voice isn’t necessarily easier to understand. A good summary of the technical sitation is provided by Sarah Zhang at Gizmodo. “No, Women’s Voices Are Not Easier to Understand Than Men’s Voices.” Of note:
More recently, though, a 1998 study at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio found the opposite: It’s actually female voices that are less intelligible against the noise inside cockpits, though the difference was tiny and only statistically significant at the highest levels of noise.
So What’s the Reason?
So, if it isn’t an intelligibility issue, why have Amazon, Apple and Microsoft made the choice for a female voice? Back to author Stern’s article.
First, the question is asked, Why Do Robots Need a Gender?” It turns out that genderless voice is very hard to achieve. So then, author Stern asks, “Why Female Then?” It turns out that market research, by Amazon and Microsoft, showed that both men and women had a stronger preference for a AI using a female voice.
The above notwithstanding, the author argues that we, as users, should have more control over the sex of the AI voice, as Apple has provided. Not doing so, despite market analysis, just perpetuates stereotypes.
My own thinking here is that AIs, as they become more and more powerful and persuasive, will take on an air of authority that will be hard to resist and could lead consumers into unintended actions. Or actions that favor the vendor over the customer. Wrapped in the aura of the male voice, there could be equally damaging social consequences, such as mass, hysterical rejection of technology.
For now, I think the instincts of the above companies are generally good. If nothing else, social pressure on the developers of these AI agnets will force them to maintain the supportive and warmer voice of the female in preference to the commanding voice of a male for potentially self-serving purposes.
This is a difficult subject. But at least we know that neither intelligibility concerns nor blatant geek, corporate sexism is driving the decision making. In the end, however, author Stern is right. Forget market research that leads to stereotyping. Like Apple, give us a choice.
Choice is good.
Next page: The news debris for the week of February 20th. One Amazon to crush them all.