You may never have thought about it, but why are all digital assistants female?
There’s Siri from Apple, Alexa from Amazon Echo, and Cortana from Microsoft — all artificial, but all decidedly female, with female names and female voices. Google has just updated its OK Google voice to be more human — and (you guessed it!) also more female. The there’s GPS voices, ‘leave a voice mail’ voices and even Rosie the Maid in The Jetsons.
Oh, and the Telstra woman who puts us on hold.
Most examples of artificial intelligence or digital assistants are female. It’s the one “power” place where women dominate (well, they do tell us what to do and know practically everything there is to know about the world, or at least where your Tinder app has disappeared to).
Is it down to Darwin’s Law?
Some researchers, like Clifford Nass of Stanford University (now deceased) have put it down to evolution.
“It’s much easier to find a female voice that everyone likes than a male voice that everyone likes,” Nass told CNN. “It’s a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices.”
After all, Nass continued, foetus’ have been shown to respond to their mother’s voice while in the womb, but not their fathers.
Female voices are also more complex than male voices, and — according to research by University of Sheffield — the melodic nature of female voices means they’re processed differently in the brain.
The Sheffield study found the auditory section of a man’s brain is activated when he hears a female voice. When he hears a male voice on the other hand, which is simpler in tone and pitch, the processing is done towards the back of the brain.
“This research could explain why female voices are considered to be clearer then male voices,” co-author of the study Dr Michael Hunter told the University of Sheffield News. “This could be linked to the fact that female voices are interpreted in the auditory part of the brain, and are therefore more easily decoded.”
Are we more willing to take orders from female voices?
It could also come down to the clarity of a voice, and our willingness to take orders and direction, as CEO and co-founder of x.ai (a meeting scheduling app), Dennis Mortensen told The Atlantic.
“Research has been done — certainly on a voice level — on how you and I best take orders from a voice-enabled system,” Mortensen told The Atlantic. “And it’s been conclusive that you and I just take orders from a female voice better.”
Theodore falls in love with an intelligent computer operating system called Samantha in the film ‘Her’. Post continues below.
Mortensen might be onto something. A 2015 study found a female voices in radio advertisements were more likely to modify or trigger an intended behaviour, as opposed to male voices.
History also tells a similar story — surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation in the 1980s found airplane pilots preferred automated warning systems to have a female voice. Even if they responded in the same way to both male and female voice cues, they showed a stronger preference for female voices.
Are we more willing to give orders to female voices?
Maybe it’s not so much about taking orders, as opposed to giving them.
Some researchers argue our undeniable preference for female voices in digital assistants is an extension of deep cultural stereotypes.
Perhaps society is more accustomed to women being in administrative roles, as opposed to men.
Is it easier to order about Siri than a more authoritative or aggressive male voice?
Rebecca Zorach, director of the Social Media Project at the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, said it’s not so clear-cut.
“Yes, probably these compliant female robot voices reinforce gender stereotypes, not just because they serve the user but because the technology itself is about communication and relationships (areas that women are presumed to be good at),” Zorach told CNN. “I wouldn’t automatically claim any sexism in individual companies’ choices, though. Most such decisions are probably the result of market research, so they may be reflecting gender stereotypes that already exist in the general public.”
Other researchers aren't so optimistic.
The fact that it’s so often men who are building these digital assistants is key point Kathleen Richardson, author of An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machine, made when she spoke to Live Science last year.
"I think that probably reflects what some men think about women — that they're not fully human beings," Richardson told Live Science. "What's necessary about them [women] can be replicated, but when it comes to more sophisticated robots, they have to be male."
Hopefully, as the prevalence of digital assistants continues to grow, we will see more diversity in the voices we hear and interact with on a day-to-day basis. It's important to note Apple launched Siri with a male voice in the UK, and certain digital assistants (like x.ai) allow you to choose between a male or female voice.
So, now it's been brought to your attention, you can ponder the following question every time you hear an artificial voice — on the train, in your digital assistant or on call-waiting. Why do you prefer (or not) asking questions, answering to, and copping cheek from a device that sounds like a female?