The discussion about the female only voice assistants is not a new one; but it is normally connected to the gender biases in Artificial Intelligence and the lack of diversity in the designing teams. But apparently, it’s not so much bias as it is a deliberate commercial strategy to help people learn to like these devices, to accept them and to welcome them into our homes and into our lives.
It just so happens that feminine stereotypes, when they’re attached to objects that are designed to perform traditional feminine tasks, and that are in the form of an AI, in our homes, that we’re more likely to be comfortable with them if they have that female form. So, it’s not completely unintentional, which is what unconscious bias often assumes. But it’s more of a commercial strategy, which makes a lot of sense really, as to why this is happening.
But it’s also about how that kind of “wife work” is valued in the home, and the way in which we have previously valued or undervalued the people that are doing that work.
THE SMART WIFE –
The life and times of the Smart Wife—feminized digital assistants who are friendly and sometimes flirty, occasionally glitchy but perpetually available
A good weekend reading proposal around this topic, is an interesting book The Smart Wife — Why Siri, Alexa and other Smart Home Devices need a Feminist Reboot – , by Yolande Strengers, associate professor in the Department of Human Centred Computing at Monash University, and Dr. Jenny Kennedy of RMIT, Melbourne, is published by MIT Press (2020)
In the book, the writers mention voice assistants used in other contexts, but they are looking specifically at voice assistants in the home. And there’s still this very rigid and limited ideal of what the home is, and the roles people play. We still operate on the basis of 2.4 people and assume heteronormative relations between the adult couple. It’s that context that makes all these devices really problematic, because they are reenergizing that outdated ideal.
The feminist reboot is a set of proposals from the authors about how the situation can be improved; they also talk about the way people often blame the feminine device rather than the companies that make them, and how that reinforces negative stereotypes towards women.
And this is where the female persona and the voice comes in, because often what people are talking about is whether they trust the device in the home. But the bigger question is whether they trust the corporation behind the woman, the corporation that is harvesting all their data — that is, a larger commercial machine that the female voice helps to obscure.
If you are intrigued enough to hear more, but do not have the time to read the book, you can watch a full length presentation of it: