Siri and Alexa – Why are language assistants female?

The actress Maria Furtwängler likes to clean up with old-fashioned role models. You noticed that the digital assistants from the loudspeaker are listening to Alexa, Siri and Cortana – women everywhere. “I wonder if artificial intelligence helps us to be more diverse or cements common stereotypes,” said Furtwängler in a recent speech at a conference in Munich. Why the assistance systems are all female, she asked. “You could also be called Hubert, Bernhard or Yossi!”

According to the participants, this was also a winking allusion to the male guests at the “DLD Chairmen’s Dinner” and their husband, the publisher Hubert Burda. But Furtwängler, who already dealt with gender images on TV and Youtube, has a point.

Why Siri, a Scandinavian woman’s name? And why Alexa and not Alexander? “Language assistants are the digital servants of our time,” says sound researcher Holger Schulz from the University of Copenhagen. In the radio station Deutschlandfunk culture, he criticized that the female voice is pushed back into the role of an assistant back.

The practical test: What do Alexa, Siri, Cortana and Co. say?

At Apple, the computer voice sounds clearly female. If you ask Siri, the voice system in the iPhone, if she is a man or a woman, she says, “Do not let my voice fool you: I have no gender.” Alexa has a clear answer. Asked if she is a woman, he replies
Speaker: “I see myself as a female
say: I’m female power out of the socket. “At Google, the assistant is nameless.

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Basically, Apple does not want to say anything about which processes lead to a product name. But the manufacturer points out that Siri can be used with both female and male voices. “This is up to each user.” At Amazon, a spokesman explains that the name Alexa comes from the library Alexandria, a knowledge universe. As for the voice, “Studies around the world have revealed that the female voice is perceived as more pleasant, friendly and relaxed.”

At Microsoft, Cortana is first and foremost a dialogue-oriented assistant that supports users with different requirements. According to the manufacturer, she does not understand herself as explicitly female, but generally as a being. And: The entire personality is adapted according to Microsoft to local conditions. The French Cortana is therefore different than the Japanese.

Influence on gender role understanding

Miriam Meckel, Professor of Communication Management at the University of St. Gallen, also points to a series of studies showing that female voices are perceived as more pleasing than males. Therefore, the default setting for all language assistants is female.

The problem for Meckel is that they take over a service function, which in everyday use connects them to female. “As children increasingly grow up in dealing with Alexa and Co, this can have an impact on the understanding of gender roles in a society,” explains the author, who is also the founding publisher of the digital magazine ada is.

This problem has been shown to be particularly drastic on the example of sexual harassment, according to Meckel. “In fact, the language assistants have to listen to a lot.” In the meantime, manufacturers have been working to find the appropriate and not unreasonably polite answers. “If you make an immoral offer to Siri today, you hear, ‘The answer is no.'”

This shows, according to Meckel: “Also in the communication and interaction with software systems are handling rules important.We learn not only from humans, but also from machines.”

For the modern systems real voices are used, which are then technically assembled to ever new sentences. In the history of technology and pop culture, the female voice has a certain tradition. In the movie “Her” (2013) Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his role in the voice of a computer system, spoken by Scarlett Johansson. The time announcement on the phone (yes, there is still) is female until today. The Berlin researcher Judith Meinschaefer explains this from the perspective of the
Science: “Women’s voices are more understandable than male voices.” That’s because the vocal folds vibrate faster. The frequency of signals is higher.

That computer systems bring women into an assistant role, is not a matter for researchers as scholar. But she has a presumption as a woman: It probably is because men are more enthusiastic about technology, and it may fit in their worldview. Technically, it would not be a problem if men’s voices were used, says Meinschaefer.

On the Internet you can watch that it could have been different. Siri and Alexa have a grandfather, like an old video of
1992 shows. In it, the then Apple CEO John Sculley and the computer scientist Kai-fu Lee on television before a computer system that can be talked to. The voice sounds quite high. But the system is called Casper.

You might also be interested in this: Smart Living – not without danger

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