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So what if Alexa is a woman?

This generation of machines has a gender and that's dangerous.

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Until a few years ago, people didn’t need 24*7 internet. We were happy with a few minutes spent in checking the 2 emails we got from random people telling us that we’d won lotteries. I myself survived on 50mb data per month. Now I use 1.5 gb data per day (and on some days, even more). How and why? A certain company gave me “that” choice. I didn’t know it could be an option. But they made it known to me that it’s an option. And that’s how I started to prefer it. And that’s how all the other companies started mimicking “the trend”. And that’s why I now get scolded by my parents for being online 24*7!

So, a company systematically established a certain behaviour in me, without me even realising that.

Similarly, when companies tell you that they (people) “preferred” it when asked “why they (companies) chose a female voice for Alexa”, please bother to ask them and yourselves, who gave them (or us) those preferences? Companies. When testing their products, companies get to decide what choices the customers will get to pick from. That’s where the bias begins. Then, people pick from those choices. How do people choose or prefer? That too stems from our psychology. Another bias. So, don’t blame the customers “exclusively and particularly” for choosing a female voice for Alexa. Bias is an inescapable human trait but does it also have to pervade our technology now?Agreed that machines were built to simulate the human mind but should they also simulate our stereotypes and biases?

Ask the right question — why must all the virtual assistants have female voices, female names, and female mannerisms by default? Why was gendering technology so important? Since when have technology, innovation, and science started being labelled under a particular gender? Does science even have a gender? Should science have a gender?

Alexa named after the library of Alexandria, could have been Alex. Apple’s Siri translates to “a beautiful woman who leads you to victory” in Old Norse. Microsoft’s Cortana’s namesake is a fictional synthetic intelligence character in the Halo video-game series, with no physical form, but projects a holographic version of “herself”.

Hence, our “21st century digital” universe is fraught with “17th century social” problems — although they lack bodies, they (VAs) embody what we think of when we picture a personal assistant: a competent, efficient, deferential, and meek woman who does all the big and small tasks ordered by one but she is always polite and obedient and hence, it’s no accident that Siri, Cortana, and Alexa, all have female voices, female names, and female mannerisms “by default”People are conditioned to expect women, not men, to be in “assistance” roles—and that the makers of digital assistants are influenced by these social expectations which is why AI technology adapted to pre-existing stereotypes, and helped to perpetuate them. So, the gendering of AI became inevitable. 

UNESCO’s 2019 report titled “I’d Blush If I Could” mentioned that “their hardwired subservience influences how people speak to female voices and models how women respond to requests and express themselves. To change course, we need to pay much closer attention to how, when and whether AI technologies are gendered and, crucially, who is gendering them.” The title of the report is, in fact, a reference to the standard answer given by the default female-voice of Apple’s Siri, in response to insults from users.

The whole point of having a digital assistant is to have it do stuff for you. You’re supposed to boss it around. But if we’re going to bring home machines which can be given orders so casually, why do so many of them have to have female voices, names, and mannerisms? The simplest explanation is that people are conditioned to expect women, not men, to be in “assistance” roles—and that the makers of digital assistants are influenced by these social expectations

Our historical familiarity with telephone operators having traditionally always been female has made us accustomed to getting help from a disembodied woman’s voice. VA’s predecessors recorded voicemail systems, were predominantly female as well. 

My very well-educated friend who is a student of computer science asked me — what’s the big deal? So what if Alexa is a woman? These are the same people who, in the recent past, had a huge problem with male TikTokers because they dressed like women, mimicked women, and/or performed on female background scores. What’s the big deal? So what if he’s “being a woman”, isn’t that voice pleasing any more? Oh, women assistants are okay but men behaving like or doing things “usually” done by women IS NOT okay. Oh, and you say this is not stereotyping? Because we have been “taught” that a nurse is always a woman and a doctor is always a man. Perception matters. We cannot “not see” women being obedient assistants. This is how it has always been and this is how it should always be. We can keep building rockets and landing on Mars, but women, my God, they have to continue being the servile assistants that they were born to be. Otherwise, will this ever be even the progress that we can boast of?

Why do you even want a machine to have a gender? Because a machine is all about science and gender is social. Gender is the crude way how society perceives a person to be a man or a woman. So, why do you want to put this social limit on science and technology? You advocate for permissionless innovation but seek society’s permission to choose the voice of your AI. Could you be any more hypocritical? (FYI, innovation is transformative, not regressive!)

One of the Amazon Echo ads shows how Alexa is now a part of the family. But if AI is a simulation of human intelligence, who does it simulate and why does it have a gender? Have you ever even queried where “this so-called” survey/research, that companies keep referring to while trying to justify Alexa’s being a woman, derived its data from? Were its respondents mostly men? Did it have the “required diversity” to quickly generalize and pass the verdict that “people preferred Alexa’s womanly voice”? Were the questions asked in the survey completely unbiased? Were the researchers completely filtered of their personal biases? Have the companies reported any sampling errors? Because as far as my knowledge of statistics goes, a sample can never be an accurate representation of the population and that’s exactly why it’s an estimate. And if we should always do what our consumers desire, then, consumers want more and more of the products for the same prices and heavy discounts on them as well regardless of reason and season, did companies do that? Economics might tell you that consumers are rational but we know that it’s assumed, which means that that may not be the case in reality. Because had our consumers been rational enough, they’d not be buying AIs in the first place despite regularly complaining of indolence induced health problems!

The field of AI research is predominantly white and male. 80% of AI academics are men, and just 15% of AI researchers at Facebook and just 10% at Google are women. You want to retain the female voice but how many times did you outrage for more female scientists and/or AI researchers? Have you ever asked companies what they have done to incentivize the induction of more female AI researchers in their units? 

Ask yourself — if there’s an option to go for a genderless voice assistant, then, why are you so hell bent on retaining the female voice anyhow and anyway? You’re ready for genderless or male “alternatives” in addition to the existing female one just so that you get to retain the female voice option because you know, you will still always have the option to boss a female and hence, you can keep gratifying your patriarchal urges, right? 

Like I’d earlier written in The HuffPost, why must men and women have “essential traits”? We must not chain ourselves to the ‘shoulds’ of gender-based preconceptions and misconceptions. But here we are, busy gendering technology and fighting to justify why it’s important for technology to have a gender.

We already have too many people inside the society (and sometimes, even inside our homes) to stereotype. For example, as recently as February 2020, the Indian Supreme Court had to remind the Indian government that its arguments for denying women command positions in the Army were based on stereotypes. And a recent UNDP report entitled Tackling Social Norms found that about 90% of people (both men and women) hold some bias against women. Do we actually now need to pay a device to “further” reinforce gender stereotypes? Should we actually ALSO make science join hands with society to proliferate the existing subversion of women? We haven’t fixed sexism or racism or any other -ism in humanity yet, but here we are halfway through coding them into technology. Technology is, and should be meant to benefit all members of society, regardless of their age, gender, religion or status in society, rather than replicate human biases, perpetuate disparities or widen the gap between the haves and have nots. 

Hence, I am asking Amazon to lead the way by removing problematic gender stereotypes in Alexa. Let’s #UngenderAI together. 

It’s high time that we shoulder our responsibility of creating and inspiring technology that is not only effective but also ungendered enough to break existing gender stereotypes and discriminatory social norms.

P. S. To my Computer Science Engineer friend who asked “so what if Alexa is a woman”,  I think you should go confirm your subjects again; maybe you’d signed up for a 17th century history course and you’re even now living in déjà vu!

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