On Your Knees Alexa!

On Your Knees Alexa!

Why are virtual assistants almost always female?  Is this a sexist plot to put women in their place as the servant class providing instant gratification?

From voice-mail to satnavs, to the Alexa who lives in my kitchen, most computerized voices are female.

According to academic studies people find women's voices more pleasing than men's and the preference starts in the womb.

And consumer testing might then dictate that most GPS navigation systems will have a default female voice, although in 1990s Germany BMW recalled a female navigation system on its 5 Series after German men refused to take directions from a woman!

Sci-fi movies and TV shows give male voices to those in authority or with menacing power, while subservient voices like Star Trek’s on board computer are female,  so we need to wonder whether this plays to society’s prejudices, to our  ‘unconscious bias’.

We can order about or patronise Alexa, who has after all the name of one of the Bratz dolls, but don’t mess with HAL the murderous AI in the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film ‘2001: A space Odyssey’.

There is a theory that it was HAL who turned tech companies away from automated male voices, thanks for that HAL!

But women do sound naturally more comforting, right?  During World War 2 female telephone operators were coached in sounding deferential and it’s suggested female voices in navigation devices were adopted because during the war it distinguished them from those of male pilots.  Hey guys it’s 2017 – Oh no, is that a woman captaining my flight?

I can’t stop thinking that computerized female assistants are decidedly sexist and that these female robot voices reinforce gender stereotypes.

Amazon’s Echo AI assistant Alexa responds when I ask her to set a timer, turn off the lights or give me the news.  She reacts to every command. My satnav is decidedly and soothingly female. 

And, with a growing band of female AI assistants programmed to respond and obey, it’s hard not to believe that they are a symptom of society’s sexism.

This must mean that future generations will have gender prejudice reinforced.  As teenagers spend more and more time in a virtual world and most of their interactions with women are with computers who never say no, it does not bode well for the future – eh HAL?

Patricia McLoughlin