Education and Skills

This is what a genderless AI voice sounds like - and why it matters

A September 2, 2005 combination of two file photos shows silhouettes of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder as he speaks to shipyard workers in Wismar August 22, 2005, and Angela Merkel, Christian Democratic Union's (CDU) top candidate for the upcoming general elections (L) during her speech at an election campaign rally in Karlsruhe August 31, 2005. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder gets a last chance to turn around his troubled election campaign on Sunday when he confronts his conservative rival Angela Merkel in a U.S.-style TV debate that will lure viewers across Germany. TO ACCOMPANY STORY GERMANY-ELECTION-DEBATE REUTERS/Alex Grimm and Christian Charisius/file photos  CHA/AA - RP6DRMZZXUAB

Why do our virtual assistants need a gender? Image: REUTERS/Alex Grimm and Christian Charisius

Lila MacLellan
Reporter, Quartz New York
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A coalition of activists, linguists, ad makers, and sound engineers has created what it claims is the first genderless AI voice for virtual assistants, and is asking for the public to help get the word out.

Or rather, its pleasant voice, named Q, is issuing the call.

“Think of me like Siri or Alexa, but neither male, nor female. I’m created for a future where we are no longer defined by gender, but rather how we define ourselves,” Q says in the promotional video seen below. “But for me to become a third option for voice assistance, I need your help,” it continues. “Share my voice with Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. And together we can ensure that technology recognizes us all.”


For now, Q is merely a creative project, made to raise awareness, and produced by Virtue Nordic, an outpost of Vice Media’s global ad agency, in collaboration with Copenhagen Pride, academic researchers, the public interest group Equal EI, and an assortment of production and sound studios. It made its debut at SXSW, the music and tech festival in Austin, Texas, earlier this month, and now lives online.

But Q is also a significant step forward. Wired magazine rightly called it “the genderless digital voice the world needs right now.” And, according to Emil Asmussen, associate creative director at Virtue Nordic, and Ryan Sherman, senior creative, the world may even get Q on devices soon. The team is “currently in dialogue with several companies—including some of the big four,” Sherman and Asmussen told Quartz at Work.

Adding a voice like Q’s to a menu of audio options would address more than one ethical dilemma. As Q articulates in its introductory recording, it would make tech more inclusive by recognizing people who identify as non-binary, a population that’s becoming increasingly visible as social norms change. “It’s because Q is likely to play with our minds that it is important,” Kristina Hultgren, a linguist who was not part of the project, told Wired. “It plays with our urge to put people into boxes and therefore has the potential to push people’s boundaries and broaden their horizons.”

Image: Virtue Nordic

Wide adoption of a genderless voice would also pave the way for some much needed women’s liberation among AI assistants, which are infiltrating our lives at a rate that has even surprised industry analysts. Currently, all of the major digital voices who answer our questions about the weather, or provide the exchange rate between the peso and a dollar, or remind us to make a phone call, are undeniably feminine, even though their makers claim the bots are genderless.

Yes, if you’re motivated enough to play with your app settings, Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant can be made to sound male, and Siri defaults to a male voice in some languages, but that’s not the out-of-the-box experience for English speakers. Microsoft, meanwhile, is reportedly considering adding a male voice option for its assistant Cortana, but there’s still no way to make Amazon’s Alexa, the most commonly adopted assistant, an Alex, or a gender-neutral “A.”

As former Quartz reporter Leah Fessler has pointed out, the tech companies’ choices are driven by purely commercial motivations. “Women’s voices make more money,” she wrote in a story exploring how bots are trained to respond to sexual harassment. Indeed, research has shown that people find voices that are perceived as female “warm,” and that men and women both have a preference for women’s voices. This bias also turned up in Amazon and Microsoft’s market research, the Wall Street Journal reports.

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On city streets and in subways, however, you may be more likely to hear a male automated voice give commands, because lower-pitched voices are typically deemed more authoritative and influential. In other words, it’s not that companies choose to be sexist; they’re just taking gender cues from us—and from pop culture, which still almost invariably depicts all-knowing assistants as female—when they could be leading us to a more enlightened place.

To create Q, sound engineers working with the Copenhagen team first recorded 24 people who identified as male, female, transgender, and gender fluid, and attempted to layer their voices, and then find an average. That method proved “too difficult,” Asmussen and Sherman explain, so they found one voice whose frequency was already within the 145 Hz to 175 Hz gender-neutral range defined by their research, and began modifying it as necessary to create four test voices. (You can play with an interactive on the project’s site to hear Q at various frequencies, including the edges of “masculine” and “feminine.”)

Their test variants differed though “other metrics by which we perceive a voice to be gendered,” Asmussen and Sherman say. For instance, a sharp “s” sound is associated with a female voice, and staccato vowels are heard as male. Next, they had 4,500 survey participants place the voices on a spectrum that ran from one (male) to five (female). “We ended up with a result where 50% perceived the voice as neutral, 26% as masculine, and 24% as feminine.”

Thus, Q was born.

Tech watchers say smart voice-enabled assistants are on the cusp of flooding our offices. The early iterations, like Alexa for Business, have already begun reporting for duty.

Perhaps, if the tech companies are seriously eyeing enterprise applications, they will give Q and its supporters a serious listen. It’d be a cultural disaster for future subservient talking bots in the office to sound like women, creating a ghostly echo of last century’s all-female typing pools and phone operator boards. Not to mention, all signs say tomorrow’s young employees are not going to accept technologies and policies that exclude any gender.

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