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Why digital assistants have women’s names and voices

(KAREN BLEIER/AFP/GettyImages)

Apple’s Siri, Amazon Echo’s Alexa or Microsoft’s Cortana: you’ve probably noticed already that digital assistants almost always carry female names, and use female voices. It’s generally assumed that the reason for that is that we’ve become conditioned to expect women to be carrying out the tasks of an administrative assistant, but Adrienne LaFrance, writing for the Atlantic wondered whether there was possibly more to it than that. Clifford Nass, a now deceased communications professor at Stanford thought it was just easier to find a female voice that is universally pleasing, telling CNN in 2011 that it “is a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices.” The Atlantic points out, however, that women are often criticized for the way they talk and that a 2014 study found that men were judged less harshly for vocal tics.

Dennis Mortensen, the CEO and co-founder of x.ai, a meeting scheduling app (for whom you can choose between two names: Amy or Andrew) believes the tendency to pick women’s names for digital assistants does not reflect attitudes towards gender in real life, however: “Research has been done — certainly on a voice level — on how you and I best take orders from a voice-enabled system,” he said. “And it’s been conclusive that you and I just take orders from a female voice better. Some of them suggest that the pitch itself, just from an audio technology perspective is just easier to understand.”

Other possible explanations are that people think they understand a female voice better (even though that idea is not backed by research), or generally perceive it as more trustworthy.” Kathleen Richardson, author of An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machine, however, said she believed that as it is generally men who are building the digital assistants, which “probably reflects what some men think about women — that they’re not fully human beings.” So while LaFrance did not come to a definite explanation for why we come up with these gendered names for digital assistants, she concludes that “it’s reasonable to suggest traditional power structures have a lot to do with it.”

Read the full story at The Atlantic.

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