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.