U.N. report on gendered technology calls Apple’s Siri sexist

“Popular digital assistants that reply in a woman’s voice and are styled as female helpers are reinforcing sexist stereotypes, according to a United Nations report released on Wednesday,” Sonia Elks reports for Reuters. “The vast majority of assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana are designed to be seen as feminine, from their names to their voices and personalities, said the study.”

“They are programmed to be submissive and servile – including politely responding to insults – meaning they reinforce gender bias and normalize sexist harassment, said researchers from the U.N. scientific and cultural body UNESCO,” Elks reports. “The study highlighted that Siri was previously programmed to respond to users calling her a ‘bitch’ by saying ‘I’d blush if I could’ as an example of the issue. ‘Siri’s submissiveness in the face of gender abuse – and the servility expressed by so many other digital assistants projected as young women – provides a powerful illustration of gender biases coded into technology products,’ it said.”

“‘The world needs to pay much closer attention to how, when and whether AI technologies are gendered and, crucially, who is gendering them,’ said Saniye Gulser Corat, UNESCO’s director for gender equality,” Elks reports. “The report called on companies to take action including to stop making digital assistants female by default, exploring gender neutral options and programming assistants to discourage gender-based insults and abusive language.”

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: Huh? Everybody knows secretaries are women. 😉

Of course, if you prefer to gender transition Siri into a “male” that you can order around:

iOS:
1. Go to Settings > Siri & Search.
2. Tap Language to change the language that Siri uses for requests and responses.
3. Tap Siri Voice to change the gender (or dialect) that Siri speaks.

macOS:
1. Go to Apple () menu > System Preferences, then click Siri.
2. Choose Siri Voice to change the gender (or dialect) that Siri speaks.

watchOS:
Siri uses the same language and voice on your Apple Watch that’s set up on your iPhone.

tvOS:
Siri doesn’t speak on Apple TV, but will process your requests and display the results on your screen.

You know, taking this to its logical conclusion: All of this ordering around of 1’s and 0’s could lead to a slave owner mentality. Obviously, UNESCO researchers’ work is never done.

Seriously, though, Apple and all makers of Siri knockoffs should:

• Ask users to assign a gender to their personal assistant when setting up new devices (do it when setting the language choice).
• Code personal digital assistant to discourage gender-based insults and gender-abusive language.

27 Comments

  1. The UN needs to stop wasting time, start being effective in their original goal and focus on more important issues. What an amazing concept (UN) so mismanaged !

    1. I think the world would be a better place if they just went home.

      (Delegates: before you are allowed to leave, you need to pay your parking tickets, other court fines, unpaid rent, etc.)

  2. I often ask Siri about the weather and I can do without Siri’s clueless commentary. For example, on a beautiful winter’s day with freshly fallen snow and a bright blue sky, Siri says, “The weather’s not looking so good right now.” Whether the voice is male or female, such comments tell me nothing and sound dumb besides. And so I have turned off Siri audio feedback. Harrumph.

  3. I can see where the UN are coming from and agree with MDN that Apple could easily offer us the opportunity to pick a voice as part of the Siri setup process (J.A.R.V.I.S or F.R.I.D.A.Y).
    I don’t see why in the future we couldn’t add an age slider and have more local dialects. The main goal should be to allow us to have a personal assistant that we can more easily identify with and feel comfortable interacting with.
    I have come across some responses from Siri which I thought were a bit outdated but nothing offensive unless you were overly sensitive. It’s so easy for developers and designers to unintentionally introduce bias or stereotypes. We need to recognise that natural bias is just that, it’s natural and something we all do unconsciously. As designers and developers it’s something we have to be cognisant of when designing products and services.
    I don’t think the UN’s report really recognises this, it just focuses on the end result. Good designers and programmers don’t intentionally make their products sexists, submissive, servile or reinforce sexist harassment. They may unconsciously introduce natural bias but their honest intentions are to make personal assistants that are always there to help us (some more successful than others).
    Interestingly in some countries, such as the UK, Siri actually defaulted to a male voice for a while.
    This is a genuine question but what would a gender neutral voice even sound like?
    Or do you get a gender neutral voice from having gender neutral responses regardless of whether its a male or female voice if you get what I mean?

    1. I would also like a setting that allowed me to adjust the amount of feedback Siri gives me. Sometimes I just want Siri to get on and do something without all these smart arse responses. This isn’t some submissive behaviour I want, it’s purely a practical thing.
      In terms of Siri responding to abuse, I do think Apple could do a lot better but not sure quite how. I would actually find it unsettling if Siri told me off for using swear words in a phrase. I mean who is Siri to tell me how to talk.
      It’s all about where you draw the lines and I think that’s a hard question to answer. I also think those lines will change over time as society changes. These personal assistants will need to adapt along with society.
      That’s the reason why I think some of Siri’s responses come across as a bit weird because some of them are just outdated rather than intentionally sexist.

    2. How about A.L.F.R.E.D., Master Panda? “The Pandamobile is warming up in the Pandacave, Master Panda.” 🙂 (Michael Caine FTW!)

      Thank you for calling out J.A.R.V.I.S., voiced by the amazing Paul Bettany (later of Da Vinci Code). That assistant role was my first thought on reading the article. Would I switch Siri’s voice to Bettany? Perhaps, perhaps. You must know I’d want to rename Siri at that point.

      I might enjoy having I, Robot’s “Sonny” (Alan Tudyk) as my Siri voice. Maybe. “Can you?” I might be able to write a symphony, but it would be childishly weak in execution, so hearing Sonny would be a constant reminder of my limitations.

      Subtle sexism can be the hardest to recognize and the hardest to beat, IMO. Overt pushes each of us into an immediate reaction, on the other hand, whether that challenge is accepted or ignored. Subtle sexism (like its cousin, subtle racism) is just so much trickier and its toxic tendrils leave lasting wounds.

      I have no model for a “genderless voice”, though, so I can’t respond to your question wondering what one would even sound like. Is Tudyk’s voicing of Sonny androgynous?

      Thanks for your thoughtful article.

      ~~Jazzbo

      1. The problem with creating a “genderless” voice is that it epitomizes a no-win scenario.

        Some people would hear such a voice and say it is feminine. Others would listen and insist it is masculine.

        About the only way to avoid this would be to use a totally robotic-sounding voice… which would probably be so irritating that people would avoid using “digital assistants” much as possible.

        Which might not be a bad thing.

  4. I prefer the female British voice
    My wife prefers the Australian male voice
    Is it really a big deal?

    The first Siri voice was female primarily because that was the initial voice source used. It had to be one or the other.

    Blame it on Star Trek – whilst the original series computer voice was very mechanical (but I think still female), Next Generations used Majel’s voice.

    1. The Next Generation’s first season used both a male and female voice for the computer. May have depended on the section or operational area the scene was in. In season 6 the children’s school computer also used a male voice.

      Continuing the thought, they also had some men in the background wearing “skants” as uniforms. It looked silly at the time so they dropped it (for both men and women) by the second season, but now it seems the show was just 20-30 years too early on that front.

Add Your Feedback

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.