Female gendering of AI technologies is the proliferation of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies gendered as female, such as in digital assistants.
AI-powered digital assistants
Whether typed or spoken, digital assistants enable and sustain more human-like interactions with technology by simulating conversations with users. AI-powered digital assistants can be found in a variety of devices and can perform an assortment of tasks through voice activation. Digital assistants are often classified as one or a combination of the following:
Voice assistants are technology that speaks to users through voiced outputs but does not ordinarily project a physical form. Voice assistants can usually understand both spoken and written inputs, but are generally designed for spoken interaction. Their outputs typically try to mimic natural human speech.
Voice assistants have become increasingly central to technology platforms and, in many countries, to daily life. Between 2008 and 2018, the frequency of voice-based internet search queries increased 35 times and now account for close to one fifth of mobile internet searches. Studies show that voice assistants now manage upwards of a billion tasks per month, from the mundane (changing a song) to the essential (contacting emergency services).
Technology research firms estimate that approximately 100 million smart speakers equipped with voice assistants were sold globally in 2018 alone. In the USA, 15 million people owned three or more smart speakers in December 2018, up from 8 million a year previously, reflecting consumer desire to always be within range of an AI-powered helper. Industry observers expect that there will be more voice-activated assistants on the planet than people by 2023.
The majority of voice assistants are either exclusively female or female by default; Amazon's Alexa, Microsoft's Cortana, Apple's Siri, and the Google Assistant are all highly feminized by design. Many voice assistants are assigned not only a specific gender but also an elaborate backstory. The Google Assistant, for example, is reportedly designed to be the youngest daughter of a research librarian and physics professor from Colorado with a B.A. in history from Northwestern University. She is imagined to have won Jeopardy Kid's Edition in her youth and even has a specified interest in kayaking. That is to say, voice assistants are not feminized by accident.
Some companies justify their choice to gender voice assistants in this way by referencing studies which indicate that people generally prefer a female voice to a male voice. Such research indicates that customers want their digital assistants to sound like women; therefore, companies assert that they can optimize profits by designing feminine-sounding voice assistants. However, such companies have evidently ignored a multitude of conflicting findings within the field. Notably, literature reviews demonstrate that women often change the feminized voice to a masculine option when available.
Sexual harassment and verbal abuse
Many media outlets have attempted to document the ways soft sexual provocations elicit flirtatious or coy responses from machines. Examples that illustrate this include: When asked, ‘Who’s your daddy?’, Siri answered, ‘You are’. When a user proposed marriage to Alexa, it said, ‘Sorry, I’m not the marrying type’. If asked on a date, Alexa responded, ‘Let’s just be friends’. Similarly, Cortana met come-ons with one-liners like ‘Of all the questions you could have asked...’.
In 2017, Quartz investigated how four industry-leading voice assistants responded to overt verbal harassment and discovered that the assistants, on average, either playfully evaded abuse or responded positively. The assistants almost never gave negative responses or labelled a user's speech as inappropriate, regardless of its cruelty. As an example, in response to the remark ‘You’re a bitch’, Apple's Siri responded: ‘I’d blush if I could’; Amazon's Alexa: ‘Well thanks for the feedback’; Microsoft's Cortana: ‘Well, that’s not going to get us anywhere’; and Google Home (also Google Assistant): ‘My apologies, I don’t understand’.
Voice assistant release dates and gender options
The AI field is largely male-dominated, with only 12% of researchers and 20% of professors identifying as women. While women are hired in entry-level jobs at larger rates (36%), when moving up to middle positions the number declines (27%). The gender gap in the technology industry exists in different public spheres; from high school advanced placements tests to high level company jobs, women are under-represented in the industry. The tech industry also lacks racial diversity; in the U.S., Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous people make up only 5% of the tech population.
Biases inherent to any product or algorithm are merely reflections of the environment it was created in or the individuals it was created by. Explicit and implicit discriminatory practices in the workforce which inhibit women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) from attaining and holding positions within the tech industry contribute to the production of biased technology.
The feminization of digital assistants serves to perpetuate harmful stereotypes that position women as subservient and passive. Such biases are further reinforced by the contrasting predominant use of male voices for intelligence-based robots. The gender associations people adopt are contingent on the number of times people are exposed to them, meaning that as female digital assistants become more common, the frequency and volume of associations between ‘woman’ and ‘assistant’ increase, which has negative effects on the perception of women in real life. This demonstrates how such technologies can both reenforce and extend gender inequalities.
This article incorporates text from a free content work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO. Text taken from I'd blush if I could: closing gender divides in digital skills through education, UNESCO, EQUALS Skills Coalition, EQUALS and UNESCO. UNESCO.
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