Talk for Article "To feminists, Amazon’s ‘Alexa’ isn’t welcome"

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  1. [ This comment is from a user you have muted ] (show)

    There is some research in this field and it would be good to have references.

    – The main point of the article is that a digital assistant with female voice reinforces the stereotype of the female secretary: good looking and with just enough brain power to answer politely the phone and execute simple instructions like making coffee and making a hotel reservation.

    Is that sexist? Probably it is.

    – Let’s say I make a dishwasher and give it a Mexican or Filipino accent. The reasoning is that many people often employ a Mexican or Filipino person to do house chores and it makes sense to make a machine that performs the same type of chores a similar voice.

    Would that be racist? Definitely.

    That said, there are some studies that conclude that:

    – Many people (both male and female) find a female voice more trustworthy than a male voice.

    – Many people (both male and female) find a female voice less annoying in terms of pitch than a male voice.

    – This stuff has been discussed already in the past especially in relation to car navigators, which have been around since the 90s, and automated telephone switchboards, which have been around for even longer.

    – Finally, Microsoft, Google and Amazon etc. are at the end trying to make a good product and they are obviously listening to their customers. They are not doing things at random. Should we blame for trying to make good products?

    1. [ This comment is from a user you have muted ] (show)

      Would you be able to link the studies you mention?

        1. [ This comment is from a user you have muted ] (show)


  2. [ This comment is from a user you have muted ] (show)

    I initially agreed with the premise of this article, but then i started wondering. What is the actual evidence that a device’s female voice has a negative effect on perceptions towards women? I changed the voice of my Google Home to be male and it’s delightful. I’ve become just as fond of “him” as I did of “her” and it makes me realize I appreciate that he can find me the answers to everything. Doesn’t it seem just as possible that these devices are teaching children that women know everything?

    I wonder if the article should include more information about male voices on devices and people’s reaction to them, as opposed to purely being about people’s reactions to female voices. For example, I know one article mentioned that adding more male voice options, especially celebrities, could increase adoption. I’d like to learn more about both sides.

    1. [ This comment is from a user you have muted ] (show)

      That’s a really interesting point. As the focus was just on female voices, we did stick to that. But I’d be interested in a piece about male voices, and even male stereotypes in new technologies. Do you know of any other examples of male AI/assistants?

      1. [ This comment is from a user you have muted ] (show)

        Here’s an example of a woman who decided to make virtual assistants female because she thought that was empowering, which seems to follow my reasoning (whether it’s right or wrong).

        “Ms Rekart had heard all the arguments about servile female bots perpetuating dodgy stereotypes in an industry where women are already marginalised. She knew about the survey this year showing only 8 per cent of Americans could name a single female tech leader, and a quarter of those that could named Siri or Alexa.

        “Yet for her, the new breed of artificially intelligent women such as Ava embody female empowerment.

        “This is the next new revolution in technology,” she said. “They can think faster than us and learn faster than us. Why should they be male?”

        I’ve read both men and women prefer a female voice for a digital virtual assistant, but I’ve also read that isn’t the full story. I think clarifying that underlying premise is important. The book ‘Wired for Speech: How Voice Activates and Advances the Human–Computer Relationship’ by Clifford Nass and Scott Brave from 2005 found men prefer male voices and female prefer female voices. They aso found people reacted better to different voices in different situations. I feel like we take the idea that people prefer female voices for granted, but who has truly proved that? There isn’t much recent or rigorous research into the topic. Isn’t it mostly just businesses as opposed to researchers who have strongly taken that position? Couldn’t it be possible that their research is wrong? For example, maybe they had poor male voices to choose from in their tests. Or the male voices lacked something else that they weren’t testing for.

        “Engadget reached out to several technology companies and asked how they determined the voice they use. Amazon was the only company that responded and stated in an email in Engadget, “To select Alexa’s voice, we tested several voices and found that this voice was preferred by customers.” In an article in Wired, writer David Pierce interviewed Apple executive Alex Acero, who is in charge of Siri’s technology. The company’s designers and user-interface team sifted through hundreds of voices to find the right ones for Siri.

        “This part skews more art than science,” Pierce writes. “They’re listening for some ineffable sense of helpfulness and camaraderie, spunky without being sharp, happy without being cartoonish.”

        Anyways, I think it’s worth exploring the idea that people only accept female voices in this role. Perhaps they’d prefer more variety if that were exposed to male voices more often.

        1. [ This comment is from a user you have muted ] (show)

          Hi Kat, I think this is all really important and key to the subject. Will brainstorm some ideas of how to include all this or whether we should start a new story.

          1. [ This comment is from a user you have muted ] (show)

            Hey Kat! I’ve started a draft where we can try to shape this story out a bit. Please join and edit/build on the ideas:


    2. [ This comment is from a user you have muted ] (show)

      The title is “To feminists, Amazon’s ‘Alexa’ isn’t welcome”, which I think is correct.

      Feminists tent to believe this on the basis of ideology, not scientific evidence.

  3. [ This comment is from a user you have muted ] (show)

    Not sure that Microsoft is doing such a good job with Cortana.

    I tried these questions:

    Q: Who is your father?
    A: Technically speaking, that’d be Bill Gates. No big deal.

    Q: Who is your mother?
    A: Necessity!

    Repeated the question.
    Q: Who is your mother?
    A: I actually have quite a few mothers. Lots of talented women helped bring me to life.

    So, the father has a name, and is a real person, Bill Gates, despite the fact Bill Gates would have done very little hard work if any, on Cortana.

    Similar to real life in general, where the father does very little in creating a child, but the status of a person’s father is still more important than who their mother is, and what she does.

    The final answer, “I actually have quite a few mothers. Lots of talented women helped bring me to life.”, is unspecific, but trying hard to be a feminist response in a simplistic and obvious way. Also, seems a bit patronising to me.

    1. [ This comment is from a user you have muted ] (show)

      Ha, I’m glad you had an experiment. Interesting findings. Obviously shows the effort companies are going through to appear progressive, but not necessarily trying to defeat those gender norms behind closed doors.

  4. [ This comment is from a user you have muted ] (show)

    Relevant to the article: Google Assistant didn’t offer a single male voice until October 2017, and but started offering additional ones in May 2018, including John Legend. When the first male voice rolled out in 2017, it was a hidden feature: Some have stated that one way to increase the adoption of male voices would be to offer more male celebrity voices It can still be tricky to switch to a male voice, so there are several tutorials. Artificial voices have pretty much always been female since the 1960s and feminised digital assistants are subjected to a disturbing degree of sexual harassment from users. However, Google’s new artificial intelligence system, Duplex, for the first time alternates between male and female voices, while maintaining a similar intonation and manner of speech. Deborah Harrison, a writer for Cortana’s key script, spoke to her reservations about the potential of perpetuating sexist norms at the 2016 Virtual Assistant Summit. “There’s a legacy of what women are expected to be like in an assistant role,” she said. “We wanted to be really careful that Cortana is not subservient in a way that sets up a dynamic that we didn’t want to perpetuate socially. We are in a position to lay the groundwork for what comes after us.”

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    If an assistant is role-playing an engineer or lawyer, for example, users prefer their bots to be male. Some companies have chosen to make their voices gender-less, such as AI company Kasisto. Siri insists it has no gender but its name means “beautiful woman who leads you to victory” in Norwegian. Many point to the lack of diversity in the AI workforce as part of the problem. I think it would be interesting to discuss studies about how much and what type of “gendered” abuse is directed at virtual assistants.

    1. [ This comment is from a user you have muted ] (show)

      Hi Kat thanks so much for the pointers. I will definitely try to include all of these and include what kind of abuse the assistants receive. Thanks so much!

  6. [ This comment is from a user you have muted ] (show)

    I thought these might be a relevant ideas to add to the story as other potential problems. Siri, Google and Alexa aren’t yet equipped to handle people with suicidal tendencies, health experts say Google Assistant can be ordered to fire a gun Forget millennials: Here’s a good reason why Apple should hire your grandmother (they aren’t good for helping elderly people)

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