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UN claims sexism is (also) present in our digital assistants

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© Kleber Cordeiro/Shutterstock

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This may not be the case in some regions, but Alexa from Amazon, Google Assistant and Siri from Apple have by default, in most countries and in the United States, a female voice. This poses a gender problem. It is sexism according to a UNESCO report.

The problem comes from the industry

What UNESCO's Director for Gender Equality, Saniye Guklser Corat, calls "obedient and obliging machines claiming to be women" are multiplying in homes, cars, offices, and are used by more and more citizens around the world.

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Alexa, Amazon's voice assistant is available on the Echo. / ©  AndroidPIT by Irina Efremova

She adds that: "the world must pay more attention to how, when and if artificial intelligence technologies are gendered, but more importantly, who is gendered". What she means here is that the problem would come directly from the industry, which lacks diversity, and which, in fact, reinforces gender stereotypes.

Indeed, in the artificial intelligence industry, there only 12% of researchers, and only 6% of developers, are female. A meagre figure that says a lot. According to the New York Times, experts say that these prejudices and disparities are well entrenched in the AI sector. The co-founder of Woman Leading in A.I explains that: "it is not always a malicious prejudice, it is an unconscious prejudice and because of its unconsciousness, it is perpetuated". These problems occur, she says, because of the lack of diversity of teams and ideas.

Who is hiding behind Siri, Alexa and Cortana?

Google Assistant has a neutral name (but still a female voice), Amazon was inspired by the Alexandria library to give Alexa her name, the wink is not bad, but it is undeniably a woman. You will laugh about the meaning of the other names of the vocal assistants we meet on a daily basis...

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Cortana is a female character from the video game series Halo. / © ANDROIDPIT

Siri, which has a male voice by default in France, is a Scandinavian word that would mean "beautiful woman leading to victory". What about Cortana from Microsoft? That's probably the funniest part.... The vocal assistant is named after a female character of the same name from the Halo video game series, without clothes and rather sexy...

Blush, if you can...

The UNESCO report, entitled "I'd blush if I could", inspired by one of Siri's responses, provides recommendations proposed by the United Nations and calls on technology companies and governments to stop proposing a female voice by default and to make these voice assistants gender-neutral tools.

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If you say "OK, Google", a woman will answer you. / © NextPit

The problem should, therefore, be addressed at source, as explained in the UNESCO report (done jointly with the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and the coalition Equals Skills), which promotes gender balance in the technology industry.

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  • 17
    Gavin Runeblade May 23, 2019 Link to comment

    I think this over-simplifies the situation by a very unhelpful amount. The major assistant developers did not choose female voices because they have men in the development team. They did testing with consumers and found that both men and women in the test groups preferred female voices for the assistant, with a few interesting exceptions. Articles on the research and testing have been posted going back to 2011 at least, and some of it draws on peer-reviewed research on psychology that has nothing to do with computers and is all about human interactions.

    The complexity and why I think UNESCO's assumptions are flawed are best revealed by why GPS in Germany uses a male voice while Garmin and Google and others going back more than a decade use female. BMW tried to release a GPS with a female voice and had to change it because male drivers "refused to take orders from a woman" (CNN article from 2011). So is using the female voice sexist or using the male voice sexist? It is a messy situation, finger pointing doesn't help anyone, and the companies followed the guidance of their consumers.

    • 3
      JonnyTheSniper May 28, 2019 Link to comment

      I don't really understand all of this. Such a bizzare problem. Sexism? I like hearing female voice in my assistants coz I am a man and I like women lol

  • 25
    Deactivated Account May 23, 2019 Link to comment

    I don't care about all that, I love animals and they love me. I love plants and plants love me. I love nature and nature loves me. Love everywhere, no differences, just harmony and equanimity.

  • Mike 22
    Mike May 23, 2019 Link to comment

    Artificial intelligence is not gendered. It's a machine!

    Renan Cunha

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