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Autodesk digital assistant "Ava." (Twitter)
Autodesk digital assistant "Ava." (Twitter)


Do female digital assistants, like Alexa, reinforce sexist stereotypes?

By WITW Staff on February 22, 2019

Cultural historian Lynn Stuart Parramore is calling on tech companies such as Google and Apple to acknowledge the sexist undertones behind their female-voiced digital assistants — and to delete the so-called “she-bots” from existence.

In an Op-Ed for NBC News, Parramore suggested that the rapid proliferation of A.I. assistants — almost all of which are female — reinforce sexist cultural notions that women should be subservient, obedient, and ever available to respond to the desires of men. Companies, she notes, have justified the decision to use female voices for their A.I.’s by pointing to research that shows people prefer listening to female voices. But the male-dominated nature of the tech world, and longstanding cultural sexism that reduces women to the role of tools to be commanded, she claims, likely reinforces the beliefs of executives who see nothing problematic about their meek and dulcet-toned A.I.’s.

To her point, she observes that new ads published in The New York Times picture Amazon A.I. Alexa with “large, sensual women’s lips, poised to answer anything you ask.” Software firm Autodesk’s new chatbot — a term for A.I. designed to mimic human conversation — also comes with a 3D avatar that Parramore says is clearly intended to look like a “sexy young woman.”

“Maybe the she-bots are partly a reaction to a century of rapid changes in which women gained professional opportunities and more control over their bodies than they ever had in human history,” Parramore wrote. “The subconscious minds of a million Silicon Valley programmers — mostly male — seem to have devised a counteroffensive: If you can’t have a real woman who will cater to your every whim, buy a virtual one. It’s man-made culture on steroids.”

Read the full Op-Ed at NBC News.


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