Boot up the options for your digital voice assistant of choice and you're likely to find two options for the gender you prefer interacting with: male or female. The problem is, that binary choice isn't an accurate representation of the complexities of gender. Some folks don't identify as either male or female, and they may want their voice assistant to mirror that identity. But a group of linguists, technologists, and sound designers--led by Copenhagen Pride and Vice's creative agency Virtue--are on a quest to change that with a new, genderless digital voice, made from real voices, called Q. Q isn't going to show up in your smartphone tomorrow, but the idea is to pressure the tech industry into acknowledging that gender isn't necessarily binary, a matter of man or woman, masculine or feminine. The project is confronting a new digital universe fraught with problems.
Playing with my Lego, as a child, I would build human-like figures. I would create a whole cast of goodies and baddies, who would invariably end up fighting. The goodies always spoke with a North American drawl, while the baddies spoke English with heavy foreign accents. The very few female characters in my games were either shrieking, hyper-feminine princesses who needed saving, or near-voiceless helpers who looked after the base and cared for the wounded heroes. My bedroom carpet was a showground for the stereotypes of the day.
For most people who talk to our technology -- whether it's Amazon's Alexa, Apple Siri or the Google Assistant -- the voice that talks back sounds female. Some people do choose to hear a male voice. Now, researchers have unveiled a new gender-neutral option: Q. "One of our big goals with Q was to contribute to a global conversation about gender, and about gender and technology and ethics, and how to be inclusive for people that identify in all sorts of different ways," says Julie Carpenter, an expert in human behavior and emerging technologies who worked on developing Project Q. The voice of Q was developed by a team of researchers, sound designers and linguists in conjunction with the organizers of Copenhagen Pride week, technology leaders in an initiative called Equal AI and others. They first recorded dozens of voices of people -- those who identify as male, female, transgender or nonbinary.
Microsoft has Cortana, Amazon has Alexa, and Google has … well, Google Assistant. That last name doesn't give it away, but get it talking and the common link between all three AI assistants is revealed: they are all supposed to be women. Providing assistance has long been considered a woman's role, whether virtual or physical, fictional or real. The robots that men voice, meanwhile, tend to be in positions of power – often dangerously so. Think Hal 9000, or the Terminator: when a robot needs to be scary, it sounds like a man.
In a world of female chatbots, one program has dared to refer to itself as'binary'. Named Eno, the gender-neutral virtual assistant was created by Capital One to help the bank's customers'manage their money by texting in a conversational way'. The robot is powered with artificial intelligence, allowing it to understand natural language, and when asked if it is a male or female, it responds'binary'. In a world of female chatbots, one program dares to refer to itself as'binary'. Named Eno, the gender-neutral virtual assistant was created by Capital One Financial Corp to help the bank's customers'manage their money by texting in a conversational way' Capital One Financial Corp has unveiled a chatbot to'help the bank's customers'manage their money by texting in a conversational way'.