The Thinking Behind a Female Voice for Siri

5 minute read
| Particle Debris

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.

Apple's Siri is a strong contender

Siri started out with a female voice only. The competition is still there.

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.

8
Leave a Reply

Please Login to comment
8 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
7 Comment authors
Lee Dronicksedwab95jackadoodle Recent comment authors

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Lee Dronick
Member
Lee Dronick

Regarding J.C. Penny’s and other brick and mortor stores. I very much prefer to shop in real store, particularly for clothes.

sed
Member
sed

Back in the early 90’s I worked with researchers doing both voice recognition and voice generation. They maintained that female voices were easier to generate and male voices were easier to recognize. It was something to do with dynamic range and modulation, i.e. how a voice varied in loudness and frequency. As these were people actually trying to generate and recognize voices, I assume they knew what they were talking about. That being said, that was quite a while ago, and new techniques come along fairly frequently. Still, simple ease of generation explains why the voices are female.

wab95
Member
wab95

John: I just commented on AI on Jeff Gamet’s Amazon/Echo article from 24 February, as I had on your PD article from last week, and more forcefully articulated the challenge that Apple faces on enhancing AI performance whilst protecting user privacy, and have no doubt that Apple are aggressively working on meeting this challenge not simply from an engineering perspective but by hiring some of the best minds in the academic community, which also means embracing academic standards of peer-review. I think you provide a great service to the community in continuing to draw attention to this discussion. That said,… Read more »

jackadoodle
Member
jackadoodle

Gender exists, and it’s real. Like it or not, women have specialized body parts and chemistry for child rearing, and part of nurturing very young children is maternal tenderness. This is not to say men can’t be tender. They absolutely can. And there are women who abuse their kids. But generally speaking, there is a maternal aspect to women that is real. Likewise, while there are a few exceptions that prove the rule (such as Amazon women), generally speaking the highest authority in a country has been kings, the head of the family has been the father. This does not… Read more »

Member
Bartholomew J. Woodcocke

I work as an airline pilot and all the voice annunciations, some of them for the most serious warnings (Collision with another aircraft, collision with terrain) are all male voices. FWIW.

palmac
Member
palmac

After talking devices become more popular I’m sure someone will start selling celebrity voice packs. With apps like Adobe’s Voco they can get the computer to talk like anyone from Gracie Allen to Jessica Rabbit. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfcqBElF0ZI

In this case it would be nice to be able to distinguish your smart appliances by their voices. Have Stephen Fry as Jeeves be the voice for your smart home things, Julia Child for your kitchen stuff, and Brian Blessed for your car. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JpKuYbJQK4

Voice actors would find gainful employment in this new field.

Lee Dronick
Member
Lee Dronick

Here you go Geoduck

“Can Zuckerberg save journalism — or democracy?”

http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/23/opinions/zuckerberg-journalism-and-democracy-ibargen-opinion/index.html

geoduck
Member
geoduck

I was quite offended when 9to5Mac used the headline “Sexism rules in voice assistant genders, show studies, but Siri stands out“Having a preference for one voice over another for an inanimate object is not sexism. It reminds me of the professor I read about when I was in college that proclaimed that any music school that taught Classical music was racist because they were all white male Europeans. In this case whether I use a female or a male voice is really a matter of personal taste. Anyone who would proclaim otherwise is just grinding an ever shrinking political axe… Read more »