The Amazon Echo, more commonly known as “Alexa,” was the star of the Super Bowl — at least if you’re the kind of person who was in it for the commercials. In the ads featuring the virtual personal assistant, after the automatic voice starts to cough, chaos erupts. While Alexa’s sick, Jeff Bezos and some Amazon employees rush to find a replacement. None of them fit the bill: Gordon Ramsay is too hostile, Cardi B plays Bodak Yellow when asked to play country music, and Leslie Jones and J.B. Smoove can’t agree on what romantic advice to give a lovesick user. The voice of Alexa returns, assuring everyone, “I’ll take it from here.”
With that, all is right in the world again. We all go back to asking her about the weather, instructing her to remind us about things in our calendars and commanding her to tell us jokes. She goes back to speaking when spoken to.
It’s clear from the commercials just how much these digital assistants now permeate our lives. The mainstream assistants are all programmed a little differently, with somewhat different personalities and varying witty responses to questions. But the one thing they have in common is the gender of the voice coming out of their speakers.
There’s Cortana, Microsoft’s version of the female assistant, and there’s Siri, which when asked about its gender says, “I don’t have a gender,” in a distinctly feminine voice. Even the voice that responds to “OK Google” is that of a female. Finally, there’s Alexa from the Amazon Echo. She’s our weather forecaster, DJ and, most importantly to Jeff Bezos, a personal Amazon shopper.
In a world that’s finally seeing that women are so much more than the subservient secretaries of the Mad Men era, the gender of almost all of our digital assistants’ voices is a step in the wrong direction. No, we’re not hurting Siri’s feelings or diminishing Alexa’s self-worth, but we are reinforcing gender stereotypes that women were created to serve people. How that will affect users — especially young ones — remains to be seen.
The problem, of course, isn’t that these digital assistants exist. There’s no way I’d remember half of my to-do list without Siri’s reminders. They serve other important purposes, too — at the command of “Hey Siri, 108,” iPhones will call emergency services; Alexa will read personalized bedtime stories to kids. These inventions make life easier and, at times, better.
What’s problematic is that the default voice for all of these products is a female’s. Market research showed Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft that we’d all prefer our menial tasks be done by a robot presenting as female — and that’s another issue.
It’s strange that these inanimate objects even need to have a gender either way. People don’t need to identify as male or female, so why do robots?
“Genderless voice is hard,” Robert Weideman, a spokesperson for Nuance Inc., which provides the voices for these devices, told the Wall Street Journal. Maybe the key to taking gender stereotypes out of our devices is finding a gender-neutral voice and a gender-neutral name, which doesn’t seem too difficult to me. Or maybe it’s as easy as giving the users a choice when they set up their phones and creating half of the advertisements with the digital assistants’ male voices.
As for me, my new personal assistant, still named Siri, has the voice of an Australian man. He reminds me to sign up for spin class and transcribes my text messages when I’m too lazy to type. You have to start somewhere.
Carly Breit is a UF journalism senior. Her columns focus on feminism.