JUL 12, 2018 11:53 AM PDT

What Gender AI Do You Like? Should Alexa Be Gender Neutral?

WRITTEN BY: Julia Travers

Virtual assistants are becoming more common in homes, cars and businesses. Many of the main AI helpers, including Apple's Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft's Cortana and the Google Assistant started their digital lives with female voices. Some AI experts and scholars say having a bot in a supportive and serving role that only comes with a female voice reveals cultural biases about which gender is seen as working for, or meant to respond to, the other. Some of these companies told NPR that people seemed to prefer a female helper when they trialed voices for feedback. But, does that make it equitable and OK?

Image of Alexa and gender-neutral bathroom sign: Stock Catalog on Flickr and Naja Lightfoot on Instagram

The bias of human programmers arising in AI is an issue that many in the field are already aware of -- in 2017 a Forum on the Socially Responsible Development of Artificial Intelligence was held in Montreal, as previously reported by Labroots. Robert LoCascio is the CEO of LivePerson, a company that makes AI characters and website chatbots for businesses. He is also a founding member of an initiative called the Equal AI initiative, which is “focused on correcting and preventing gender bias in the development of artificial intelligence.” Ariana Huffington and Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales are other founders of the group.

LoCascio has a 2-year-old daughter and is concerned about her hearing a woman spoken down to in a “derogatory” tone. He also told NPR he thinks virtual assistants may serve as mother-replacements for their predominantly-male creators. He thinks it’s an example of unconscious bias.

"That's why I believe it's like some guy is somewhere going, 'Yeah, well my mom she's great at doing tasks. That's great. So I'll make it a woman's voice,’” he says.

LivePerson chief technology officer Alex Spinelli previously played a major role in creating Alexa’s software. He said CEO Jeff Bezos’ preference was that the AI be female, like the Star Trek computer.

Familial and cultural gender roles, stereotypes and biases are undoubtedly hard to uproot, especially in a still largely male-dominated tech field. Microsoft and Amazon report that consumers like the female helpers. Does that remove the responsibility from the companies to consider prejudices and prioritize diversity in AI projects? LoCascio doesn’t think so. LivePerson is currently creating gender-neutral chatbots for GoDaddy and Lowe's. By playing with the voice’s pitch, it’s possible to make a more ambiguous voice. Google and Apple now let customers choose male or female voices.

Of course in some cases, gender bias may vary geographically or by many other factors, such as socioeconomics or religion. Apple launched a male Siri in Britain, and Justine Cassell, a member of the Equal AI initiative and dean at the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, thinks it’s because male valets, servants and butlers are an established part of Britain's’ cultural narrative. German BMW drivers reportedly complained that they didn’t like a woman giving them directions through the GPS system.




Equal AI initiative

About the Author
  • Julia Travers is a writer, artist and teacher. She frequently covers science, tech, conservation and the arts. She enjoys solutions journalism. Find more of her work at jtravers.journoportfolio.com.
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