Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon all have one thing in common – aside from being massive tech companies worth billions of dollars – they all chose their artificial intelligence services to project a female voice. When you’re asking Siri, Google’s Assistant, Cortana or Alexa, “how old is George Clooney?” or any other important queries, the reply will usually come in a female voice. Your GPS system will also likely come with a female voice that speaks the desired directions as a default option. Without any fanfare, females are getting a major, albeit virtual, role for many of us.
This trend is not limited to technology alone. Popular culture in recent years follows the same trajectory. If science fiction fans of the previous century could picture artificial intelligence as HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the 21st century so far has had movies such as Her and Ex Machina, with female AIs taking the lead. Cortana itself is based on a character from the popular video game series, Halo.
Corporations such as Apple or Amazon don’t make such decisions lightly. The choice of voice actress, and the name of a virtual assistant, are most likely tested in focus groups to ensure the pleasing of as many clients as possible. It is safe to say that the popularity of female AI personas reflects the preferences of society in general.
One possible explanation for this phenomenon is a social one. AIs fulfil roles that are stereotypically associated with women, therefore the use of a female voice relates more to the norm. This explanation would suggest that the prominence of female AIs is not a step forward. However, it serves to further cement old-fashion views that see women as the ones who provide service to others, as assistants or maids, but never the ones in charge. AIs are always ready when called, and are always willing to serve. Giving AIs female personas carries an implicit message that should be uncomfortable for anyone who believes in equality.
Another explanation is a much more basic one. Men want to spend time with a friendly woman, and enjoy having a female presence to communicate with. Women, on the other hand, have no such preference. The choice could be read as a sexual preference, which doesn’t do much to fight the objectification of women, but it could also be understood as a personal liking to one tone over another, simply because most clients find it friendlier. The AIs simply reflect a business reality of what clients want.
Which brings us to the final possible explanation. Simply put, a female-voiced AI gives users more comfort than a male-voiced. This could be the result of the aforementioned 2001: A Space Odyssey and similar movies which depicted a malevolent AI with a male voice, or it has to do with the natural tones. The female voice has a pitch and range that most people find more easy to listen to for a prolonged period of time. This can change from culture to culture, which might explain why in the UK, Siri’s voice is male by default.
Despite their voices and name, AIs are neither male nor female. They are genderless, but the process of making them accessible to clients means that they receive humanoid traits, and gender is among the. It’s unlikely that a truly genderless voice would be enjoyable for customers, if such a thing even exsists. The inclination of tech companies to use female personas for their AIs as a default option, can be indicative to the role of gender in our current society. If so, companies might want to take more notice to their chosen representation of women through AI, and maybe do more to diversify their choices in the future.