A few weeks ago, I came across a New Yorker article titled: “The Robot Caravan.” (The digital title is “Are Robots Competing for Your Job?”) The read is intriguing, even for someone like me who is not adept with tech. In summary, the story tells of the “coming invasion” of robots and A.I. — specifically, how these robots and programs will eventually put a sizable fraction of the American public out of work. Anders Sandberg, of the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, says, “If your job can be easily explained, it can be automated.” An impressive study from the University predicted that 47 percent of jobs in America are at risk of being replaced by robots and A.I. over the next fifteen to twenty years. Some research suggests that a quarter of US jobs are at high risk of automation. Mckinsey Global Institute, a management consulting firm, has estimated that by 2030, one-third of jobs in the global workforce face the risk of automation — thus displacing millions of people from what used to be their work. Another Oxford study outlines the jobs at risk of automation: library technicians, tax preparers, math technicians, telemarketers, cargo and freight agents, and insurance underwriters. Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, the men who published this study, used (of course) an algorithm to estimate how easily 700+ jobs in America could be automated.
Automation and A.I. got me thinking about the coexistence of biological and artificial intelligence. Has A.I. already surpassed the brainpower of a combined 7.2 billion people on earth? One thing is certain: those in developed countries like the US already depend on A.I., tech, and algorithms — whether they know it or not. We depend on technology to get us to certain destinations via GPS; we depend on the internet to keep us connected to each other; we depend on algorithms on social media sites to “feed” us specific content that caters to our desires and our interests. What is a website when we strip it of its colors, font, layout, pictures, and words? It’s a sequence of numbers and letters, a seemingly impossible equation of sorts. They only make perfect sense to web-developers, computer programmers, and coders. These are the same bright minds behind the virtual assistants we all know of or have heard of — Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and Bixby. The common denominator with these virtual assistants is their female names and female voices, their assigned robotic gender. The default settings are set to female on the devices that these programs run on. (However, settings can be changed on the devices to assign male voices to the assistants. My Siri has a British accent because I fantasize about having an English butler.) Siri and Cortana are voiced by humans, Susan Bennett and Jenn Taylor. Alexa’s and Bixby’s voices are computer generated. Obviously, the feminine attribute is shared. And this deserves some questioning.
Why are the aforementioned and popular virtual assistants female? Biology may have a large part to do with it. Former Stanford University professor Clifford Nass has said, “It’s a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices.” The argument is that it’s easier to find a female voice that is more likable than a male voice. Nass cites research about this phenomenon which shows that the female voice preference may start as early as the womb. Twenty-five to twenty-six weeks into pregnancy, a fetus will respond to noise and voices. By the third trimester, they will recognize their mother’s voice. Therefore, our brains are developed and inclined to prefer the female voice. Debbie Grattan, a professional voice actress, lists on her website the reasons why people generally trust a female voice over a male’s. The reasons include pitch and inflection, the soothing and comforting nature, and the clarity and melody of a woman’s voice in comparison to a man’s. History and familiarity also have a role to play here, especially when it comes to the A.I. used in smartphones. For decades, telephone operators were traditionally female. This got consumers used to receiving help from (usually) a woman’s voice, thus getting everyone in the public seasoned for the wave of “female” virtual assistants.
Daniel Rausch, the Vice President of Amazon’s Smart Home division, explains the reason behind going female with the voice of Alexa: “We carried out research and found that a woman’s voice is more sympathetic and better received.” Another company spokesperson added, “In choosing the voice, Amazon was careful to bring the most pleasing sounding voice into living rooms — after many trials, Alexa’s was the one to come out on top.” Toni Reid, VP of Alexa experience at Amazon, claims that the ultimate goal with Alexa is to make it more human-like. “To achieve that, Amazon wants to make the device more personal. For example, she wants the Echo to be able to differentiate between voices in a home or office and tailor its responses to that individual’s preferences.” This may be alarming to some, considering Alexa’s flaws. The device has reportedly laughed without prompt and recorded sensitive audio without permission.
Siri’s origin stems from a five-year research project that was funded by the military agency, DARPA, and led by SRI, a Bay area research institute. The project developed into a company, that was also called Siri, that launched an iPhone app in 2010 that was shortly acquired by Apple. At first, the technology had no gender. Norman Winarsky, VP of SRI and co-founder of Siri, says that Siri was originally conceived to speak in a gender-neutral voice. Apple eventually decided to roll with the voice of Susan Bennett for Siri, initially coming as a surprise to the voice actress. “A colleague e-mailed me [about Siri] and said, ‘Hey, we’ve been playing around with this new Apple phone. Isn’t this you?’”
Bennett’s Siri journey started in the summer of 2005 when she began recording for ScanSoft, a software company. The bulk of the work entailed four hours of reading every day within a home recording booth. Per CNN: “There are some people that just can read hour upon hour upon hour, and it’s not a problem. For me, I get extremely bored … So I just take breaks. That’s one of the reasons why Siri might sometimes sound like she has a bit of an attitude,” Bennett said with a laugh. “Those sounds might have been recorded the last 15 minutes of those four hours.”
By October 2005, a few months after Bennett made the recordings, ScanSoft bought and became Nuance Communications. (I recommend checking out their simple homepage, via the attached hyperlink, that displays in a brave font: “Artificial Enlightenment.”) Nuance is the likely, purported source that gave Apple the technology for Siri. Steve Jobs was not a fan of the name Siri, which means “beautiful victory” in Norwegian. “What Apple did is absolutely brilliant,” says Norman Winarsky. “They took Siri and gave it more of a personality. It’s the first real artificial intelligence working in millions of people’s hands.”
Another reason as to why the A.I. voices are predominantly female may be as simple as casting. Companies that produce automated voices often invite focus groups to listen to voice actors. These groups grade these voices on a range of warmth, charm, and competence. Therefore, casting links with the biological reasoning behind the female voice preference. Women are generally perceived as more friendly, approachable, and comforting. The antithesis might be a male virtual assistant that some consider aloof, commanding, and rigid. Tim Bajarin, a Silicon Valley analyst, has theorized that computerized voices would be more male if not for the association with HAL 9000, the omniscient antagonist in Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey series and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey film.
“I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.” — HAL 9000
Gender is a topic that deserves mention when we look at the sexualization and personification of A.I. Deep questions like “What is gender?” and “Are robots living things?” can be discussed and argued for hours. In an America that is slowly becoming more socially tolerant and accepting, people are owning their genders — that some say range to sixty-three types/terms. As each person is free to identify however they please and feel, there is a problem among the sexes in the heart of where new tech spawns — Silicon Valley. The issue is an apparent and alarming injustice: the gender pay gap. Last week, Notre Dame’s ladies basketball coach, Muffet McGraw, made some news following a press conference ahead of the Final Four games. McGraw answered a question by saying, “Did you know that the equal rights amendment was introduced in 1967 and it still hasn’t passed? We need thirty-eight states to agree that discrimination on the basis of sex is unconstitutional.” She later continued, “We don’t have enough female role models. We don’t have enough visible women leaders. We don’t have enough women in power.” You can see the now viral video here. This response is clearly a call to arms — a call for more female leaders. And it only makes sense. Although there is now a record number of women in the US House of Representatives, at twenty-three percent, it wasn’t too long ago that the entire chamber was occupied by men; the electorate is represented by twenty-five women in the US Senate. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been known for saying, “There will be enough women on the Supreme Court when there are nine.” She looks to history for reasoning, pointing out that no one bat an eye when there were nine men on the high court. According to the most recent census numbers, women outnumber men in the US by a slight percentage. Yet, they earn less for every dollar a man makes. Earlier this month, Business Insider published a piece that displays and details the gap between men’s and women’s salaries. The facts are troubling. “Today, on average, a woman working full time earns 80.7 cents for every dollar a man working full time earns. Additionally, women’s median annual earnings are $9,909 less than men’s, according to data from the US Census Bureau.” This translates into an average pay gap of 19.3 percent. This disparity generally exists for workers throughout a lifetime. Although most states have implemented laws against gender discrimination, inequality persists. If progress on the front of closing the gap (if you can call it progress) continues at the rate between the years 1959–2015, the wage gap will not close until 2059. By then, humans might have colonized Mars. By then, the world might be too hot to harbor our entire race. But cheers to the equal paychecks, right?
Although California is home to the nation’s smallest pay gap of 10.9 percent, they are also home to Silicon Valley — the epicenter of the nation’s tech companies and an exception to California’s palatable pay gap. It’s a pay gap so wide that it negatively affects the national average. Hiring might be to blame here, or the lack of hiring. Men still occupy most of the CEO positions in large companies. Data from a study conducted by McKinsey & Co. and Lean In shows how men vastly outnumber their female counterparts in the upper echelons of the corporate world.
The study surveyed 132 companies employing more than 4.6 million people and found that only one in five C-level executives were women. To echo Muffet McGraw, “Men run the world.” And: “People hire people who look like them.” The simple translation is that men hire men, keeping women — who ask for promotions and raises more than men — from climbing the corporate ladder. Suddenly, it makes twisted sense that the CEOs for Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Tesla/SpaceX, Hewlett Packard, LinkedIn, Paypal, eBay, Amazon, Microsoft, Intuit, Airbnb, EA (Electronic Arts), and Intel, are all men. However, the default settings on your smartphone give the virtual assistant a female voice. Is this a way to give women a sense of representation in a Silicon Valley that is exclusively run by men? A thrown bone to halfheartedly say that women are valued? Or is it blatant sexism and just conveniently coincidental that a woman’s voice carries more charm and clarity? Regardless of the voice’s gender, the voice is not in charge. It’s never in charge. So what’s in place now is a virtual army of submissive and obedient subjects that give us directions, give us reminders, offer recipes, purchase items, contact friends, and play us songs — all without us having to say “please.”
It’s not inconceivable to envision a near future where robots and A.I. carry the bulk of the work in a once human-dominated world. The Siris and Alexas will have matured into grand programs that will assist humanity to a point where nobody has to lift a finger to get anything accomplished. I’d say we’d have to be wary about this simply because, for instance, a smart home that is powerful enough to give you everything is a smart house powerful enough to take everything away. We all might get paid through UBI. There might be no incentive to work in a field that is now occupied by robots that yield results at an exponentially better rate than humans. These grand robots, in their womanly voices, will say, “You’re welcome” following every thanks. And some men of yesterday will be laughing in their graves, for the future is female. Just not in the way we imagined.