SALT LAKE CITY — Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, Microsoft's Cortana and Google assistant are all set to female voices by default. Apple users can switch Siri to a male voice and can even pick among American, Australian, British, Irish or South African accents.
But a group of linguists and sound designers in Denmark think there should be another choice: a voice without gender.
Q is an artificial voice that doesn't sound distinctly male or female. It was developed and revealed earlier this month by the creative studio Virtue Nordic and gay rights festival Copenhagen Pride. The project's goal is to combat gender bias and provide greater inclusivity and representation for people who don't conform to gender norms, according to advertisements.
It's a sign that today's tech companies will be scrutinized for how their products include or exclude customers with non-traditional gender identities. As the rights and concerns of gender-nonconforming individuals are playing a bigger role in public debates about bathrooms and driver's licenses, they are also having a greater influence on the world of technology and could affect the products people use every day.
A recent survey by AppDynamics found that 84 percent of millennials regularly use voice-activated assistants, and Digital Journal reported the market for voice assistants is projected to grow by 35 percent a year until at least 2023.
Commentators, including Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of the Atlantic, and Charlotte Webb, founder of Feminist Internet, have questioned whether the widespread use of female-sounding artificial intelligence designed to politely obey orders might be reinforcing damaging gender stereotypes.
"The fact that the technology industry has chosen a woman to, by default, be our always-on-demand, personal assistant of choice, speaks volumes about our assumptions as a society," Mark Wilson wrote for Fast Company. "Women are expected to carry the psychic burden of schedules, birthdays, and phone numbers; they are the more caregiving sex, they should nurture and serve."
Today, eight states, including Utah and Washington, D.C., offer a gender-neutral option 'X' on driver's licenses and identification cards for non-binary people who don't identify with either gender. Tech companies, such as Capital One, are building apps that are sensitive to the issue of gender as well. Last year, the U.S. bank released Eno, an SMS chatbot that is neither male nor female.
Companies turn to different types of research that tells them people expect a female voice. Sometimes we go back to these stereotypes and what happens is we’re reinforcing them. We’re not changing them. – Julie Carpenter, a research fellow with the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group
Audra Koklys Plummer, head of AI design, told Forbes, “Making Eno gender-neutral freed us in a sense because we didn’t have to worry about evoking any biases. We could just focus on solving customer problems.”
The creators of Q presented the androgynous voice at the South by Southwest creative festival in Texas earlier this month, according to Economic Times. Their hope is to embed the virtual assistant in everything from personal tech to public transit, CNBC reported. But at the moment, the project has no client.
"For me to become a third option for voice assistance, I need your help. Share my voice with Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft and together we can ensure that technology recognizes us all," Q says in a YouTube advertisement.
Julie Carpenter, a research fellow with the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group who helped develop Q, said in another YouTube video, "Companies turn to different types of research that tells them people expect a female voice. Sometimes we go back to these stereotypes and what happens is we're reinforcing them. We're not changing them."
We worked on the pitch, we worked on the format filter, and we worked on the tone of the voice. – Nis Nørgaard, sound designer for Q
Research, including a study conducted by Karl MacDorman, a professor at Indiana University, has shown that men and women both think female voices are more "welcoming" and "understanding" than male voices.
Another study by researchers at Stanford University found people prefer male voices when the voice is used to teach them about computers.
Sound designers created Q by first recording the voices of multiple people who identify as male, female, transgender and non-binary, according to Wired.
"Audio researchers defined a frequency range which is neutral. ... We worked on the pitch, we worked on the format filter, and we worked on the tone of the voice," Nis Nørgaard, sound designer for Q, said in a YouTube video.
Male voices are usually pitched between 85 to 180 hertz and women's are typically between 140 to 255 hertz, Economic Times reported. In addition, men tend to have a "flatter" speech style that varies less in pitch and they pronounce the letters "s" and "t" more abruptly, Nørgaard told Economic Times.
Researchers used the overlap of different voices to identify a neutral sound. Then Nørgaard's team created a set of sample voices, which they tested on 4,500 people across Europe to identify the best one.