Alexa devices reinforce gender stereotypes, says UN report

Alexa devices reinforce gender stereotypes, says UN report

The report said Alexa reinforced gender stereotypes by relying on female voices

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Virtual assistants such as Alexa and Google Assistant reinforce gender stereotypes, including that women are "subservient", according to a UN report.

The UNESCO paper criticised voice-powered digital speakers and devices for making it appear that women are "obliging, docile and eager-to-please helpers, available at the touch of a button or with a blunt voice command like 'hey' or 'OK'."

Most well-known AI speakers currently on the market use a female voice to respond to owners - at least by default - including Amazon's Alexa, the Google Assistant and Microsoft's Cortana.

The research goes on to state that these assistants hold no power, regardless of the tone or hostility of the command, which "reinforces commonly held gender biases that women are subservient and tolerant of poor treatment".

"Companies like Apple and Amazon, staffed by overwhelmingly male engineering teams, have built AI systems that cause their feminised digital assistants to greet verbal abuse with catch-me-if-you-can flirtation," it said.

Virtual assistants can also be a stepping stone towards fully automated sex robots, Harriet Minter told talkRADIO’s Matthew Wright.

Ms Minter - host of talkRADIO’s Badass Women’s Hour – has said Siri’s response to a compliment such as ‘you’re beautiful’ is a sign of the Silicon Valley boys club.

“When we look at the sex robot industry right now, that is what is happening. We think that things like Alexa and Siri don’t play into that but actually by having Siri respond to ‘you’re beautiful’ with ‘I’m just well put together’, that actually plays into this idea, and it’s a starting point but what we’re going to end up with is fully automated sex robots”, she said.

“When we get to the point where we are, down the road, having full on relationships with robots and marrying robots, we need to start programming them as people not as how some tech developer in Silicon Valley thinks”, she said.

Researchers urge companies to adopt gender-neutral voices, such as the robotic voice used by the late Stephen Hawking.

However Ms Minter questioned how a gender-neutral voice would work.

“I think it’d still potentially rise up from the same problems that as humans we’d put a gender onto it. I think we’d find it hard to treat it in a gender neutral manner. But I think it’d be interesting to see how we’d interact with it differently if we just didn’t know what the gender was”, she said.

The number of people using a smart speaker in the UK is predicted to grow to 12.6 million by the end of this year.

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