Home » Technology » ‘We need Siri to be Sirius’: genderless voice assistant splits experts

‘We need Siri to be Sirius’: genderless voice assistant splits experts

Digital voice assistants Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google Assistant all have something in common: they have female voices by default.

Enter Q, a new “genderless” voice assistant with a voice frequency of 145HZ – considered to be a neutral pitch that is neither male nor female.



Q debuted at technology and culture conference SXSW in Austin, Texas last week as a pitch for the biggest creators of voice assistants – Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon – to add a gender-neutral option to their platforms.

The tool is a collaboration between five international organisations – advocacy groups Equal AI and Copenhagen Pride, creative agencies Virtue and Koalition and sound studio Thirty Sounds Good.

The Q website says technology companies often use female voices because research suggests humans find them more likable, but this “reinforces a binary perception of gender and perpetuates stereotypes that many have fought hard to progress”.

Voice assistants are becoming more prevalent, not only on smartphones but also through the rise of smart-home devices such as Google Home. In 2018, 42 per cent of Australians were aware they had voice assistants on their smartphones and of that group, 54 per cent were using them on a weekly basis, the Deloitte Mobile Consumer Survey 2018 showed.

Researchers from the Indiana University School of Informatics have found women strongly prefer female voices, while men have no preference.

Other research has found male voices are considered to be more authoritative, while female voices are perceived as more caring and preferred for assistance or service positions.

Sydney-based global futurist Anders Sörman-Nilsson welcomed the tool as reflecting the diversity of "a world that is less binary and more gender grey" and ending gender stereotypes that assistants should be female.

“We would never accept that AI assistants had stereotypical slave or ethnic names," Mr Sörman-Nilsson said. "So why are tech companies reinforcing gender stereotypes and cementing what jobs females or males do – while also ignoring the transgender / gender fluid community?”

The director of the Voice Research Laboratory at the University of Sydney, Cate Madill, said transgender people used speech therapy to aim for an androgynous voice frequency and it was "timely" and "interesting" to see that represented.

However, Dr Madill said there was a strong social instinct to assign people as male or female. If the characteristics of the voice itself didn’t identify someone's gender, it was likely people would use other attributes or draw inferences from the context, she said.

“When you have a genderless voice we are far more likely to assume the speaker is female in the context of service and assume the speaker is a male in the context of authority,” Dr Madill said. “If we really want to subvert the stereotype, we need Siri to be Sirius. We need our assistants to be male and our authority figures to be female.”

Some voice assistants, like Google Assistant, have an option for a male voice but the female voice is the default.

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