Technology | The Guardian

The Guardian view on female voice assistants: not OK, Google | Editorial

June 24, 2019 at 06:55PM

When computer assistants reply in female voices, are they saying that women lack power in their world?

Within two years there will be more voice assistants on the internet than there are people on the planet. Another, possibly more helpful, way of looking at these statistics is to say that there will still be only half a dozen assistants that matter: Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, and Amazon’s Alexa in the west, along with their Chinese equivalents, but these will have billions of microphones at their disposal, listening patiently for sounds they can use. Voice is going to become the chief way that we make our wants known to computers – and when they respond, they will do so with female voices.

This detail may seem trivial, but it goes to the heart of the way in which the spread of digital technologies can amplify and extend social prejudice. The companies that program these assistants want them to be used, of course, and this requires making them appear helpful. That’s especially necessary when their helpfulness is limited in the real world: although they are getting better at answering queries outside narrow and canned parameters, they could not easily ever be mistaken for a human being on the basis of their words alone.

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