Artificial Voices — Real Bias

Photo by Will Francis on Unsplash

I’ve been a podcast host for around 10 months now, and it just recently struck me how little (let alone popular) female hosts there were in the industry. I assumed it was because of our preference to listening to lower voices, but that didn’t seem like a clear enough argument to me, because I have one myself. I thought about this a lot because I couldn’t help but notice that while we prefer male voices in platforms like podcasts and voiceovers for films and documentaries, we prefer female voices in almost every other aspect. Or do we?

To find out, I looked into what we listen to day-to-day: Alexa, Siri, and Cortana which are examples of three widely used synthetic voices developed by influential companies like Amazon. Why is it that a female voice was the default setting for all three AI bots? Is it more approachable? Or is it more natural for us to order women around?

“Hey Siri, play me a song”

“Here is your playlist.”

It seems as if our digitalized consumer interactions with virtual assistants (or, housewives?) are putting history on rewind.

Rebecca Zorach, director of the Social Media Project at the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, stated that:

“Voices intended to convey authority (such as voice-over narration in films) tend to be male. So yes, probably these compliant female robot voices reinforce gender stereotypes, not just because they serve the user but because the technology itself is about communication and relationships (areas that women are presumed to be good at).”

Photo by Omid Armin on Unsplash

It’s interesting that we also tend to not turn to women-led podcasts or voiceovers because our brains do not wire their statements/commands to be as important. Instead, we turn to male influencers like Joe Rogan or David Attenborough.

Another question I had was the following: are we more accustomed to order AI voices because of their nature as bots? I could link this to cyberbullying; it’s easier to say hateful comments to a machine than it is to a human, re-feeding our sexist habits with a lack of consequence.

Overall, my primary concern is that, as the world is becoming more automated, our interactions with robots and computers are only going to increase exponentially. With these artificial voices embedded in not only our homes, but workplaces, and schools, the future of our life with virtual assistants doesn’t seem bright to me.

How can we disrupt the audio industry so that we listen to women for what they want to say, rather than what we want them to say? To be upfront, AI will never be unbiased; it’s trained by humans and learns from humans, and we all have unconscious biases circling somewhere in our brains. Yes, even you.

Nevertheless, here are my proposed actionable goals:

  1. Promote women in the audio industry. We need to amplify female opinions and perspectives. Advertise them.
  2. Hire more diverse teams in big tech companies to make their products as unbiased as possible, as they pave the way for our future digital consumption.
  3. Don’t make the female voice the default setting. Make it gender neutral, or let the user define this characteristic upon unboxing their product.

Being new to the audio world, this prejudice never dawned on me, and it came with reason: it’s not discussed. Well, I’m here to discuss it; I’m using my (female) voice to say that this the industry is doing something very wrong, and no, I’m not your assistant, so I can’t be told otherwise.

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Adriana Ceric

Adriana Ceric

Civil Engineering student at UWaterloo