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Google Assistant is gender-neutral(ish), but it's not feminist

It’s time to completely desexualize our AI.
Cherlynn Low, @cherlynnlow
October 7, 2016
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In a world occupied by Siri, Cortana and Alexa, Google Assistant is a bit of an anomaly. It's the first widely used voice assistant to eschew a female name, which the company reportedly did to avoid giving it a personality. The company would rather you imagined yourself talking directly to "Google the search engine" than a go-between. Avoiding a gendered name just happened to be a happy coincidence, it seems.

Despite Google (perhaps unintentionally) shunning obvious sexism in its AI, it still fell into the gender bias trap by giving Assistant a female voice. And that's a problem, a problem that will require the collective effort of the industry's powerhouses to fix.

A Google spokesperson told Engadget that the company started with a female voice for Assistant "as it's something we already had available via the Google voice search technology." This is the same voice that's been used in many Android devices for years now, responding to our "OK Google" commands and requests. It's been extensively fine tuned and worked on over time. A male voice was not available in Android, except via the text-to-speech output settings, which required users to install and switch to new language packs (such as British English). Google's spokesperson said that the company is "thinking about how to expand beyond a female voice but (has) nothing to share at this time."

Using a woman's voice for a bot named "Assistant" is a problem because it ties that subservient role directly to gender. But the thing is, it's not Google's fault. It's not even really the tech industry's fault. Studies have shown that people prefer female voices for biological and historical reasons. The modern generation has also grown used to them -- in-car GPS units and plenty of other audio devices have long used calm-sounding feminine voices to talk to us. It's so ingrained in our collective subconscious that, even though you can already change Siri's voice to a male one, the female version is the one that's become iconic. Can you imagine Siri as a guy? Probably not. But it's time for a change.

AI makers can start by offering options. It's not going to be easy to just implement a new voice altogether, but at least Google says it's thinking about the issue. Amazon and Microsoft still don't have male options for their assistants and don't appear to have plans to change that. Apple is the only one right now that lets you pick from a variety of languages, accents and genders for Siri, though it still uses a female name. That should also be changed. It's not enough to just offer male vocal alternatives without changing the character's basic identity. Companies should also work towards providing different characters of all genders that users can choose and avoid defaulting to a woman all the time.

Creating options is a good first step, but it's important for these tech titans to work toward crafting a gender-neutral assistant. Startup Kasisto has proven it's possible with its androgynous MyKai chatbot, although, like Facebook's M, it doesn't have a voice. If these bots are meant to be nothing more than helpers that yield to our every will, it's better to dehumanize them altogether by not assigning genders than to pretend we have a person (or a feminine non-human) at our beck and call.

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